BRADENTON -- Seven employees in the Manatee County Sheriff's Office's Child Protective Investigative Division, including the division's deputy director, have been disciplined for mishandling allegations that Janiya Thomas' mother was abusing her five children, according to internal affairs reports.
The most severe discipline the employees received for mistakes uncovered after Janiya was found dead in a freezer on Oct. 18: two days without pay.
Despite the punishments against his employees, Sheriff Brad Steube said they were not responsible for Janiya's death, nor was there anything they could have done to prevent it.
"For people to jump to the conclusion that because Janiya was killed, that was a result of us not doing specifically what needed to be done, I take offense to that," Steube said. "We did what we were supposed to do, and I believe that if you take it case by case, as we have done, that you would come to the same conclusion."
Andrea Moore, a children's advocate in Broward County and retired executive director of Florida's Children First, said she hopes there would be at least extensive training offered to the disciplined investigators.
"What's effectively a two-day suspension doesn't sound like a lot in the face of a child dying," Moore said. "Discipline is supposed to make sure someone does a better job in the future. I can't help but wonder if that discipline will actually help them do better."
Eleven-year-old Janiya had been dead since January or February 2015. But it was not until Sept. 23 when investigators came to the home of her mother, Keishanna Thomas, to investigate the 12th allegation of abuse against the mother of five, that they realized Janiya was missing.
Janiya was not reported to the Bradenton Police Department as officially missing until Oct. 16.
The investigation into her death has revealed how Janiya was locked in a bathroom and starved for months before she was killed. Before then, investigators never sustained a finding of abuse in the home since 2004, the year Janiya was born.
Keishanna Thomas is charged with first-degree murder, abuse of a dead body, aggravated child abuse and child abuse. If convicted of first-degree murder, she will face a mandatory life prison sentence after the state said it would not seek the death penalty.
The sheriff's office launched internal affairs investigations in November, after initial reviews by the sheriff's office and the Florida Department of Children and Families found significant failures with how investigations related to Janiya and her family were handled.
Child protection officials disciplined by the sheriff's office are:
Deputy Director Robert Wilson -- 8-hour suspension without pay and a letter of reprimand.
Supervisor Kristine Kall -- 16-hour suspension without pay.
Supervisor Linda Young -- 16-hour suspension without pay.
Supervisor Stephanie Metcalf-Clark -- 8-hour suspension without pay.
Supervisor Michelle Davis -- letter of reprimand.
Investigator Troy Simon -- 8-hour suspension without pay and a letter of reprimand.
Investigator Danielle McCoy - letter of reprimand.
An allegation against an eighth employee, CPID Director Melissa Lancsarics, was not sustained.
Janiya was found in a freezer that her mother had delivered to a relative's home under the guise that she was being evicted. After hearing media reports that Janiya was missing, the relative broke into the locked freezer and found the little girl's body and called law enforcement.
The internal affairs investigations dealt with the four most recent investigations into allegations of abuse against Thomas: one in 2013, two in 2014 and the most recent in 2015, during which Janiya was ultimately found dead, her siblings removed from her mother's custody and Thomas arrested.
"Basically, what we looked at was what the child protective investigators either failed to do or did improperly in the case that was assigned to them," said Major Connie Shingledecker, head of the sheriff's Investigative Bureau, which includes CPID. "We took into consideration the information that was provided, what they were required to do during that time and what they would have known during that time, the actions that should have been taken and that's what we disciplined them on."
Had there not been a new allegation made against Thomas in September, sheriff's officials wonder how long it would have taken for someone to notice Janiya was missing. They never received any concerns from family, neighbors or school officials, even after months passed since anyone had seen her.
For the community to move forward from this, Shingledecker said it's important to increase public awareness and stress the importance of reporting suspected child abuse and neglect.
Changes were already implemented within the division in October prior to the internal affairs investigations, Shingledecker said.
Moore, the former executive director of Florida's Children First, said the history of abuse before Janiya's death leads her to believe investigators and case managers were considering immediate reports and not the full history of the family, which is a common problem in child abuse investigations.
"Sometimes there aren't enough of them," Moore said of child abuse investigators and case managers. "It is difficult, but that's what we pay them for."
The sheriff's office released reports Wednesday detailing the findings of the internal affairs investigations.
On Sept. 23, CPID investigator McCoy was assigned a complaint that came in through the child abuse hotline alleging that Thomas had punched and slammed her then-12-year-old son's head into a mirror. It was during this investigation that Janiya was discovered missing.
"McCoy documents her attempts to gather information from the mother as to Janiya's whereabouts, however closed the case on Oct. 9 without locating her," investigator Sgt. Joseph Skala wrote in the internal affairs report. "Furthermore, McCoy did not report her as missing to Bradenton Police Department, nor did she enter her as missing into the Florida Safe Families Network system."
On Oct. 12, supervisor Kall, who was responsible for reviewing the investigation, approved the case being closed.
Kall also failed to make sure Janiya was entered into the report as a household member, was reported missing to police or entered into the FSFN system as missing, the report states.
"Kall failed to notify supervision that a child in this report was missing," Skala wrote. "It was not until an email was sent to Director Lancsarics and Deputy Director Wilson on Oct. 14 at 11:15 a.m. by Supervisor Shavonne Simon with the Sarasota YMCA/Safe Children Coalition, that supervision above Kall was CPSS notified."
Skala recommended that McCoy receive an eight-hour suspension without pay and Kall a 16-hour suspension without pay after sustaining the allegations of neglect of duty against each. Both employees requested a hearing to show cause, which resulted in McCoy's discipline being reduced to a letter of reprimand. Kall's discipline was upheld.
May 2014 investigation
On May 23, 2014, then-CPID investigator Davis was assigned to investigate an allegation that came through the abuse hotline concerning the health of Janiya's then 15-year-old sister.
During her internal affairs interview, Davis testified she did the "normal research" she would in any assigned case, including talking to the assigned Voluntary Protective Services case manager from the Safe Children's Coalition and Simon, who had previously investigated the family. Despite hearing concerns about Thomas' over-controlling behavior and the children's "seclusion mindset," Davis focused on observations regarding the report, according to internal affairs.
Davis interviewed the girl at school, but the interview came to abrupt end when the girl began to cry hysterically. School officials told Davis that was normal for the girl and she never conducted a second interview.
When questioned about the other concerns listed in the allegation, Davis said she could not recall whether she had even addressed them since she didn't think it was part of the actual maltreatment alleged.
"Davis admitted she did not believe that the hotline operator should have accepted the allegation, as it did not rise to the level of a CPS investigation, which appeared to be the consensus of the supervisors," Inspector Sgt. Monique DeCesare wrote in the IA report. "Near the end of the interview, CPCC Davis acknowledged the claim against her 'would be justified' as she did not investigate all concerns listed within the CPS allegation."
Davis had also testified that she had consulted with her then-supervisor Wilson, who in turn consulted with Lancsarics. Wilson admitted that the case was closed incorrectly and that he didn't think he reviewed the case as closely as he should have, according to the report. Both Wilson and Lancsarics agreed that at the time the allegation would not have warranted a second supervisor to review the report, and that she never had.
DeCesare sustained an allegation of neglect of duty against Davis and Wilson but not Lanscarics. Both Davis and Wilson were recommended for eight-hour suspensions without pay, which Davis accepted. Wilson got his punishment reduced to a letter of reprimand during a hearing to show cause.
March 2014 investigation
On March 18, 2014, Simon was assigned to investigate allegations that Thomas had beaten her son with an extension cord. Simon contacted Metcalf-Clark, the on-call supervisor, and DCF attorneys to remove the boy for the night, but was told he didn't have probable cause and was told to find a temporary placement for the boy for the night.
When the temporary placement with a friend of the family fell through after learning that a sex offender lived in the home, Simon ultimately left the boy in Thomas' home.
Metcalf-Clark told internal affairs that it had not occurred to her to tell Simon to make a second call to DCF when the placement fell through because she was relying on his updates from the scene.
Simon later would close the case with a non-sustained finding despite a doctor verifying physical abuse.
The lack of documentation in the case was overwhelming, leaving more questions than answers, internal affairs investigator Sgt. Mark Morie wrote in the report.
"It is clear that CPI Simon's decision to leave (Janiya's brother) at the home of his alleged abuser the night of the incident was erroneous," Morie wrote. "Simon was remiss in his duties by relying on the words of an alleged victim and his alleged abuser to ensure no further violence would occur before the requisite medical exam could be conducted."
Simon's closing the case with a non-sustained finding was also an error, Morie reported, and contradicted the doctor's findings. Metcalf-Clark also failed to make sure proper steps were taken to make sure Janiya's brother was safe.
Young, who was Simon's direct supervisor at the time, failed to ensure that the case report was properly documented even after discussing with Simon why he disagreed with the doctor's findings.
Morie recommended an eight-hour suspension for Simon, Metcalf-Clark and Young after sustaining a finding of neglect of duty. Simon requested a hearing to show cause that upheld the discipline, while Metcalf-Clark and Young did not fight it.
In November 2013, Simon was assigned to investigate a report that Thomas had poured bleach on Janiya, discoloring her skin. The allegation had come into the abuse hotline after Thomas was charged with domestic battery of her then-girlfriend.
Simon documented addressing the domestic violence but never the bleach allegation. During his internal affairs interview, he admitted to missing the allegation regarding bleach and Janiya. Simon's report was sent to Young, who approved the case being closed without all allegations being addressed. A second review was required, and Wilson also reviewed the report without assuring all allegations were addressed.
"All parties involved in this case: Simon, Young and Wilson all lean on the fact that the case was coded as 'family violence' as well as they indicated theirs was a work environment which had high case loads and at times, difficult deadlines," Morie wrote in the report. "All parties in this case were neglectful in their duties by not ensuring that the case was investigated thoroughly and all allegations addressed."
Each were recommended to receive an eight-hour suspension. Simon and Wilson each requested a hearing to show cause in which Simon's discipline was reduced to a letter of reprimand and Wilson's was upheld. Young did not fight the discipline.
-- Herald staff writer Kate Irby contributed to this story.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter@JDeLeon1012.