FORT LAUDERDALE -- A Broward County judge, sitting only a few months in child welfare court, blasted state foster care administrators Friday for returning a 4-year-old boy to his mentally ill mother against her orders -- a decision that may have resulted in his death.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who was a prosecutor in Fort Lauderdale before Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to the bench last December, had been presiding over the case of Antwan Hope only briefly. His case began around 2011, when, police say, his mother tried to smother him to death with a pillow. In recent months, Broward's privately run foster care agency, called ChildNet, had requested that Antwan be returned to his mother. In preparation for the reunification, ChildNet case workers wanted to allow Antwan's mother, Destene Simmons, to take custody of the both for unsupervised overnight and weekend visits.
"This court gave very clear instructions -- both orally on the record and by written order -- that the child was not to spend the night unsupervised until a positive home study was filed with the court and approved by the Guardian-ad-Litem Program," Scherer said at the hearing Friday morning. "Contrary to this court's order the department placed the child with his mother on June 7, 2013 for an unsupervised overnight weekend visitation, and the child was found dead in his home on June 10, 2013."
Neither the judge nor the guardian program received the home study until June 11, 2013," Scherer added, "after the child was already deceased."
"The department is in violation of this court's order," the judge said. ChildNet manages foster care and adoption services in Broward County under a contract with the state Department of Children & Families.
Responding to "hang-up" 911 calls, Coral Springs police found Antwan dead Monday morning, three days after his weekend visit began, the first unsupervised visit Simmons was given. Though the Broward Medical Examiner's Office has yet to disclose the cause of death, police have described it as "suspicious."
Beginning around the spring of 2011, Simmons appears to have experienced the onset of severe mental illness. That spring, Simmon's mother, Shonta Rivers, told police that Simmons had "been acting irrational for the last three months. ... Simmons has been waking up in the middle of the night and picking up her child and walking around the neighborhood for no apparent reason," a report said.
Simmons also had stopped taking showers, stopped eating properly and stopped bathing her son, Rivers told police. One month later, Simmons was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital under the Baker Act after her mother found her smothering her then-2-year-old son with a pillow, records say. After two calls to the Department of Children & Families' abuse hotline, Antwan went to live with his father, also named Antwan Hope, and then with a maternal aunt.
By around February of this year, case workers with ChildNet asked Scherer to approve a series of unsupervised overnight visits between Antwan and his mother. Simmons, they told the judge, had successfully completed a parenting class, almost eight months of individual counseling at Henderson Mental Health, and a court-ordered psychological examination. She had gone voluntarily to a family counseling center, found a stable job and a good home. Case workers were convinced she was ready to be a good mom again.
But before Scherer would agree to unsupervised overnight visits, she said at Friday's hearing, she ordered ChildNet to provide her a copy of a home study concluding Simmons was ready to care for her son without oversight. The home study, she said, took three months, and she never got a copy.
ChildNet's general counsel, Derrick Roberts, said the home study came back positive, and the agency sent a copy of it to a Broward hearing officer, instead of the judge. He called the misstep "just an oversight."
Beatrice Forbes, who had been Simmons' case worker at ChildNet defended the agency's decision to return Antwan to his mother, saying "according to my observation, (Simmons) was doing what she needed to do. Mom had substantially complied with her case plan tasks."
Scherer also wanted to know why the agency declared Simmons' an appropriate parent when police had been looking for her. Caseworkers also had documented episodes where Simmons retrieved her son from school without permission and had kept him during visits longer than she had been allowed, Scherer said.
"How was this home study approved by the department, number one, when his mother had an outstanding criminal warrant for her arrest?" Scherer asked.
Simmons' court-appointed attorney, Richard Kaplan, reminded the judge that Simmons had yet to be charged with a crime, and that the Medical Examiner's Office still had not determined how the youngster died.
"This is a sad day for all of us," Kaplan said. "We took extraordinary measures in this case. She was doing very well. It is an unfortunate tragedy. We still don't know that my client did anything wrong."
He added: "Everybody wants to blame somebody for the death."
Scherer said there was blame to go around even if Simmons is not held accountable for her son's death: "I think the system has failed this child, even if it shows she was not responsible for the death," the judge said.
"The answers I'm getting," the judge added, "are not acceptable."
Antwan Hope, the boy's father, did not find ChildNet's explanations very comforting, either.
Asking to speak directly to the judge, Hope said he mostly blames Simmons for failing to care for her son, but holds state child welfare administrators responsible, as well.
"I can never get my boy back," he said. "I did not place him in this predicament. If anything, I protected my child."
Added Hope's mother, Sharon Walker: "DCF is going to move on, but we can't have A.J. anymore. Why? Because the system failed my grandbaby."
Hope did have one request for the judge: Since Antwan's death, he had been fighting with maternal relatives over how and when to bury the boy. "I just want to bury my son," he said. "Nothing is going to bring my son back. I just want to finish being a father."
Scherer, in perhaps her last order in the case, told the Medical Examiner's Office to release Antwan's body to a funeral home. She then suggested Hope and Antwan's maternal aunt iron out the details of Antwan's burial.
Child welfare administrators have agreed to help defray the costs of the funeral.