For the fourth time in six weeks, the state Department of Children & Families is investigating the death of a Florida child who, only weeks or months earlier, had drawn the attention of agency administrators.
The latest to die is Ezra Raphael, age 2. Police say they were “summoned” to Ezra’s home in North Miami Beach, at 11:08 p.m. last Thursday to check on a “sick and unresponsive child.” When paramedics arrived, police said in a statement, they found Ezra unconscious on the dining room floor. The toddler was pronounced dead shortly after he arrived at Jackson North Medical Center.
An autopsy showed that Ezra had sustained trauma to his back and body, and the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the boy’s death was a homicide, police said. At the time when Ezra was mortally injured, North Miami Beach police said, the boy had been left alone with 32-year-old Claude Alexis, his mother’s boyfriend. He has a lengthy arrest record. Alexis remains without bond at the Miami-Dade County Jail on first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse charges.
Ezra’s mother, 22-year-old Cierrah Raphael, was charged with neglect because “over a course of time, evidence showed that Cierrah repeatedly left [the boy] home completely uncared for and unattended,” a press release said.
The last time Florida child welfare investigators were aware of Ezra Raphael, the infant had been abandoned by his mother with a virtual stranger in Gainesville. A DCF investigator was told last February that then-1-year-old Ezra had been left with a woman his mother “does not know” because his mom was working as a prostitute and could not raise him.
“Risk is high,” a report said, because Raphael, who was a former foster child herself, already had permanently lost custody of an older child because she was deemed unfit as a mother.
Despite the risk, DCF closed its investigation about 20 days after initiating it — without taking any actions to protect the infant.
When Ezra next appeared on DCF’s child abuse hotline, it was in a report of his death.
A DCF spokeswoman in Tallahassee, Alexis Lambert, declined to discuss the case in detail Tuesday, though the agency did release a report to the Herald in response to a public records request. In a short statement, Lambert said: “The death of a child so young is a tragedy that is beyond comprehension. We will now focus our efforts on helping determine the circumstances that led to this child’s death and working with law enforcement to hold those responsible accountable.”
Ezra’s death comes at one of the most troubling times in the agency’s history: Since May 16, at least four small children have died — three of them in either Miami-Dade or Broward.
In the first case, DCF chose not to act last November after the mother of 5-month-old Bryan Osceola was found passed out drunk — with her car’s transmission in drive — while her infant was left unrestrained in the front seat. On May 16, Bryan baked to death in his mother’s car, police say, after Catalina Marista Bruno left him there, along with her purse and a can of beer, for hours.
On June 10, 4-year-old Antwan Hope was found dead — a death Coral Springs police have called “suspicious” — while on an unsupervised weekend visit with his mother, Destene Simmons. Simmons had previously lost custody of Antwan after police said she tried to smother him to death with a pillow. DCF’s privately-run foster care agency in Broward, ChildNet, was in the process of reuniting Antwan with his mother, who was diagnosed with a chronic mental illness. His death remains under investigation.
And last week, 1-year-old Fernando Barahona was found dead in Cape Coral, two weeks after DCF received a report that the infant had sustained fractures to the back and side of his skull. Fernando’s mother and her boyfriend said Fernando was injured after being knocked over by a dog, an account that doctors considered unlikely. He died after DCF allowed him to remain with his mother. His death, as well, is under investigation.
Cierrah Raphael entered the state’s troubled child welfare system herself in 2006 after her mother died. A previous child of Raphael’s was taken into custody by DCF some time later, and has lived with his father in Western Miami-Dade County ever since.
Then Ezra was born.
Records obtained Tuesday by the Miami Herald show that, at age 1, Ezra came to DCF’s attention on Feb. 1, 2013, when the hotline was told he was living with a “friend” of Raphael’s former foster mother. The “caregiver” was trying to get medical care for the little boy, but was having difficulties because she lacked the necessary paperwork from Raphael. Ezra, DCF was told, “seems to have an anger problem that needs intervention and attention as soon as possible. The mother is aware of this and still has not done what she needs to do.”
Ezra had been living with the caregiver, who is not identified, since June 2012, the report said. Raphael left her son because “she was prostituting to care for herself and could not care for the child.”
Though the brief investigation concluded Ezra was at “high” risk of being harmed, the agency noted he was safe with his caregiver, and there was no need for DCF to act. If Raphael had ever sought to claim Ezra again, the report said, the caregiver was instructed to call the DCF hotline to alert an investigator. The report concluded there were “no indicators” that Raphael had inadequately supervised her son or was in any way a threat to him.
Ezra was living with his mother when he died Thursday night.
Debra Elder, who had been Raphael’s foster mother in Miami Gardens, said Raphael visited her Monday to tell her Ezra was dead. Elder described the toddler as tall, well-mannered and “lovable.” Ezra was walking and talking at only 11 months.
“She loved her kids,” Elder said.
“It’s hard to believe she would have left him [with Alexis] if she thought he was in danger,” Elder added.
Miami Herald reporters Benjamin S. Brasch, David Ovalle, Carli Teproff, and Chabeli Herrera contributed to this story.