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DCF: Child welfare officials should have reported Janiya Thomas of Bradenton missing nearly a month earlier

MANATEE -- Child protection officials should have reported Janiya Thomas missing about a month earlier than they did, according to a state review of the girl's disappearance and death.

After the Manatee County Sheriff's Office's review of all cases involving Janiya's family, internal affairs investigations are now being conducted on each of those cases, according a news release by the sheriff's office. Already, major changes in how sheriff's investigators handle child welfare cases have been put into effect.

The delay cited in reporting Janiya missing was the result of "significant issues regarding investigative and case management practices," the Florida Department of Children and Families said in its critical incident rapid response team, or CIRTT, report.

Eleven-year-old Janiya was found dead Oct. 18, two days after officials with Child Protection Investigations Division at the Manatee County Sheriff's Office reported her missing.

In the CIRTT report released Tuesday, DCF said Janiya should have been reported missing in September during an investigation of an allegation Janiya's mother, Keishanna Thomas, had abused her 12-year-old son.

Several times after that investigation started and up to when she was arrested Oct. 16, Thomas refused to tell investigators and a judge anything about Janiya's welfare or whereabouts.

On Oct. 18, relatives found Janiya's body in a padlocked freezer Thomas and her boyfriend delivered days earlier to the home.

Thomas is being held at the Manatee County jail on bonds totaling $200,000 on charges of child abuse, aggravated abuse and abuse of a dead body.

The investigation of Janiya's

death remains ongoing.

"The findings in the CIRRT report outline specific areas for improvement in the child welfare system. We are committed to working with our partners at the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and the Sarasota Family YMCA to rapidly address the findings in the report, and their coordination with Children's Legal Services, to better protect vulnerable children," DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in a statement.

"We have already begun an analysis of the roles and responsibilities of Children's Legal Services statewide. The complex nature of the child welfare system demands constant review to better protect Florida's most vulnerable children. No child should ever endure the horrific abuse Janiya faced."

The Sarasota Y is contracted to provide case management services for child welfare cases, and Children's Legal Services is the DCF's legal arm.

The CIRRT report also made these findings:

Investigators and case managers lacked in critically assessing all the information gathered, were deficient in using the pattern and history of violence to access safety and failed to coordinate the differences with information gathered and observations made.

The compromised assessment led to case managers with contracted agencies in Manatee County never fully addressing the dangers and vulnerabilities in the Thomas home. As a result, the family did not receive the appropriate level of intervention to meet the family's needs and keep the children safe.

When nonjudicial intervention proved insufficient, appropriate action was not taken to ensure the children's safety, and the case management case was closed instead.

There is role confusion as to whose job it is determine a child should be removed from a home when a CPI investigator who assessed the safety of the child does not make this decision but instead calls Children's Legal Services to make the decision.

Fifty-one percent of the chronological notes in the September investigation were entered into the case file after it was closed and the CIRRT team was deployed, which is not common practice in child protective investigations. The incomplete documentation of information gathered makes it questionable whether there was adequate oversight by the supervisor. The September investigation was prematurely closed based on how many case notes were entered after the fact and the failure to reconcile information gathered.

As the result of what has been learned about how the Thomas cases were handled -- for instance, previously released reports show child welfare officials last saw Janiya alive in June 2014 -- the sheriff's office has implemented immediate changes in how it manages child protective investigations.

Those changes were detailed in a Nov. 17 memo from Maj. Connie Shingledecker, head of the Investigative Bureau, which includes CPID, to top supervisors at the Child Protective Investigations Division.

According to the memo:

All children belonging to a parent or caregiver shall be listed as household members and included in the investigation. The child can be removed from the report if documentation in the chronological notes of the case state why and where the child is.

When a parent or caregiver alleges a child does not live in the home, the location of all children must be verified. If the parent or caregiver does not provide adequate or appropriate information about the child's whereabouts, they will be given 24 hours to do so. If the information is not provided and confirmed, the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction will immediately be informed and a missing child alert will be issued. Child protective investigators will also request Children's Legal Services submit an order to produce to a judge and the investigator's supervisor shall be notified, to go up the chain of command. If after all this the missing child is still not found, the case will be transferred to the Safe Children's Coalition in order to serve the children that have been removed. The child protective investigator will retain secondary assignment in reference the missing child.

When a child protective investigator is on vacation for a week or more, their supervisor shall be made aware of any cases requiring follow-up to make sure these tasks are delegated. The investigator's voicemail and email shall have an out-of-the-office alert advising of an alternate contact person.

When there is disagreement between the child protective investigator and the child protective team's verified findings of abuse or neglect, the supervisor shall review the report and determine the point of contention and make sure the investigator has properly documented the reason for disagreeing in the report. Minimally, an internal staff meeting shall be called, including the director or deputy director of the department, to decide how to close the case.

When information is provided during an investigation that a child has a medical condition, this shall be verified from valid sources, including but not limited to medical records, hospital records and examination records.

Documentation of verbal conversations, meetings and emails shall be entered into Florida Safe Families Network reports in a timely manner.

Cases with multiple prior allegations of abuse or neglect shall be reviewed for patterns. Cases with five prior cases in the previous five years shall be the subject of a meeting to include the investigator, supervisor, deputy director or director, and the captain or major. Cases with 10 prior cases and where children are still in the home shall be subject of a staff meeting to include the investigator, supervisor, deputy director or director, captain and major and when appropriate, representatives from the Safe Children Coalition and the Child Protective Team.

Because of the open internal affairs investigations, the sheriff's office said it would not have further comment.

Also on Tuesday, Keishanna Thomas was in court for a hearing related to the custody of her four other children. The hearing was closed and results were not public.

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.