Summer Stiles had no idea her toddler son had been missing for much of an hour.
When Indian River Sheriff’s deputies returned 3-year-old Dakota Stiles to his mother July 12 — he had wandered into a neighbor’s backyard — she acknowledged she had lost track of her children that day. “I guess I’m missing one,” the 34-year-old said.
More shocking, though, to state child welfare investigators was the condition of the Stiles home: One toilet was clogged with feces, and the only working bathroom was in a garage that was filled with garbage, mold and stacks of wet clothing. Dakota’s room was “a pigsty,” piled with garbage, old food and other “filth.”
But it was the pool that concerned the investigator the most: It was described as “exceptionally unsafe green from disrepair, filthy, filled with unsanitary water and bugs and unknown contaminants.” The report noted Dakota could get to the pool “by merely turning a knob.”
“These conditions, and the parents’ flat reaction to the child victim getting out of the home,” an investigator wrote, “pose a significant risk of harm” to Dakota.
Nevertheless, the Department of Children & Families did nothing to protect Dakota as it continued to investigate his parents. “At this time,” a report said, “there does not appear to be an immediate negative impact on the victim’s safety.”
On Thursday — two weeks after he’d been found in his neighbor’s yard — Dakota drowned in the slimy green pool the department had found so dangerous.
He became the seventh child to die in Florida of abuse or neglect after DCF had concluded they were safe. He’s also the second to die on the watch of DCF’s interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, who inherited a department in chaos after then-DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned two weeks ago.
“Late last week, I learned of the tragic death of Dakota Stiles,” Jacobo told The Miami Herald on Monday. “I am deeply saddened and outraged. We have only begun to review DCF’s prior involvement with this family, but we will now turn our full attention to determining what could have been done to prevent this tragedy. No one will bring a more critical approach to this review than me, because we must fully understand what happened and move quickly to take any corrective action that is needed to keep children safe.”
Among the seven deaths is Cherish Perrywinkle, an 8-year-old Jacksonville girl who police say was raped and strangled by a registered sex offender her mother had befriended. Cherish’s abduction and murder traumatized her native Jacksonville, and the sex offender, Donald James Smith, was indicted on June 21 on three counts of first degree murder, sexual battery and kidnapping. He is facing the death penalty.
Internal DCF records for both Dakota and Cherish were provided Monday to The Herald in response to a public records request.
Dakota first came to DCF’s attention at birth, in October 2009, records say. His mother said she was taking the narcotic Roxycodone for chronic back pain, and the newborn Dakota was born with opiates in his system. Summer Stiles produced a prescription for the pills, and one of her older children, then around 11, told an investigator that although her mother took pills, she “denied it affected her ability to care for” the children.
Two years later, Dakota’s father, Todd Stiles, was accused of chasing his 13-year-old daughter “down the street,” tackling her, and pulling her by the hair back home for refusing to clean her room. In May 2012, Dakota’s brother arrived at school complaining of pain in his head, and said his father had thrown a blanket over him, causing him to fall on his head. DCF determined the children were safe following all three investigations, and took no action.
But by the time a DCF investigator returned to the family in mid-July, it had become clear that Summer and Todd Stiles had profound difficulty raising their children.
The children, a report said, “do not listen” to Summer and Todd Stiles, and could not be coaxed to comply with the “simplest of things,” such as cleaning their rooms.
“The parents appear to be paralyzed in parenting the children,” the report said. A significant challenge was “both parents’ ability to comprehend the severity of the situation, with [the] youngest child escaping from the family home and the parents’ total failure to take several security measures at their disposal.”
Still, the investigator persuaded the couple to sign a “safety plan” pledging to clean the house and better supervise their children. While the investigation remained open, Dakota left the home — again — and drowned July 25.
Hit by dinnerware
Cherish was found dead shortly after 9 a.m. on June 22. Her body had been dumped near a church.
Finding a suitable parent for Cherish and her siblings had remained a serious problem for years.
By 2009, when Cherish’s name appeared in abuse hotline reports twice, the girl’s mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, had been diagnosed with severe psychiatric problems, and had tried to commit suicide. She once told the department she had stopped taking medication for her bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and depression “due to not wanting to be addicted.” She threw a plate at her young stepson.
Cherish’s birth father, a sailor with a long history of domestic violence, had been court-martialed for sexually abusing a child.
Perrywinkle and the two boyfriends with whom she shared three children had amassed a lengthy record of investigations that went largely nowhere with DCF, including allegations of physical abuse, domestic violence and claims that Perrywinkle’s history of mental illness made her an unfit mother.
There were two investigations in 2006, when Cherish was 4 and was living with her mom at a homeless shelter, one involving allegations Perrywinkle had “forcefully” shaken and jerked the little girl because she was crying. There was a 2009 investigation involving allegations that Rayne Perrywinkle tried to kill herself by drinking Benadryl and had been involuntarily committed, and another report that year that Cherish’s father had left a “hand print” on the child’s back from beating her.
A May 2009 investigation included the claim that Perrywinkle had thrown a plate at a small child — which she admitted was true, but defended as acceptable discipline. The dinnerware “only hit him in the shoulder,” Perrywinkle told an investigator, and, besides, “it was [his] fault because he was being disrespectful to her.”
A 2012 report to the state’s hotline claimed Cherish was unsafe because her mother’s boyfriend had bruised Rayne Perrywinkle’s arm during an argument. Perrywinkle later dismissed the incident as horseplay, and DCF closed the investigation as unfounded. In DCF’s long history with Cherish’s family, the agency had made referrals for counseling, parenting classes and domestic violence intervention — but the reports kept coming.
The same day Perrywinkle excused the plate-throwing incident, May 2, 2009, she also told an investigator she watches her daughters carefully, because she was “very sensitive to the possibility of her daughters being molested.”
An older daughter, the report said, had been molested while in Perrywinkle’s care, and had moved all the way to Australia to get away from her mother.
“That daughter,” the report said, “no longer speaks to Rayne.”