Records reveal a child's grisly death

The Miami HeraldAugust 18, 2013 

When 18-month-old Fernando Luis Barahona was airlifted to a St. Petersburg children's hospital, he had sustained two skull fractures, his head was "swollen and misshapen" and he had both new and old bruises on his forehead, spine and eyebrow -- as well as scratches and a "hand print."

His mother, Elvia Enid Fernandez, blamed the trauma on the family dog.

Fernandez's boyfriend was the only adult at home when Fernando was injured, and he had an unsettling history of child abuse allegations. Child welfare workers insisted the boyfriend leave Fernandez's home. And they wanted him to take the deadly dog with him.

Fernandez got rid of the canine, but kept her boyfriend. Less than three weeks later, Fernando was dead. And there was no dog left to blame.

Fernando, who lived in Lee County in Southwest Florida, is among several children who perished during a grim summer of violence and neglect. On Friday, DCF released scores of pages of new records, including an agency internal review of the events leading to his June 3 death.

DCF's interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, said Friday the agency will look deeper into Fernando's case as part of a comprehensive review of child deaths this year -- and the role played by state child welfare workers.

No charges have been filed yet in Fernando's death.

State child abuse investigators first became aware of Fernando Barahona on May 17, when he arrived at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg by helicopter.

He had suffered fractures to both the back and side of his skull. He also had older "purplish" bruises on his lower back, DCF's abuse hotline was told.

Fernandez told doctors and nurses that her toddler was injured after the dog knocked him over onto a tile floor. But the medical authorities weren't buying it.

A nurse practitioner in the hospital's neurosurgery department said the gravity of Fernando's injuries seemed inconsistent with a "fall from only standing on the ground."

The state's Child Protection Team arrived at the same conclusion, writing: "Injury does not seem consistent with" the family's story.

But Fernandez, an investigator wrote, "stated she is willing to be protective of all of her children and ensure nothing happens to them in the future." She signed a "safety plan" promising to keep boyfriend Ron Midkiff out. The pledge proved worthless.

First, DCF investigators began to soften their demand that Midkiff be banished from the home. On May 23, an investigator told the toddler's mom that Midkiff could attend a Memorial Day cookout, as long as Fernandez "supervised" his contact with her children.

An agency report saysFernandez claimed she thought she'd gotten permission to return her boyfriend to the home permanently.

Four days after the cookout, DCF's hotline received yet another report -- which strongly suggested Fernandez had already reneged on her promise to keep Midkiff away.

Midkiff, the report said, "smacked the mother in the back of the head," and pulled Fernando by the hair, in front of horrified daycare workers.

On May 31, a DCF investigator accused Fernandez of violating the days-old safety plan.

But, comforted by yetanother promise by Fer-nandez to protect her children, the investigator reported she "does not have any concerns ... regarding the family."

Administrators had planned to protect Fernando and his siblings by suggesting the couple accept "intensive diversionary services," including anger management classes and mental health treatment. The new plan was set to begin on June 3.

That's the day Fernando died. The Lee County medical examiner concluded the then-22-month-old was strangled. The death is classified a homicide.

After Fernando was killed, a daycare worker told DCF she had "observed bruises" on the little boy before, but they were dismissed by his mother as "being a kid."

For her part, Fernandez defended her boyfriend to the bitter end. When DCF suggested -- again -- that Midkiff leave her house, Fernandez objected.

"Mother stated that she doesn't understand why he has to leave," a report says. "She doesn't feel that the paramour could have done" the killing.

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