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5-month-old’s skull fractured, family searches for answers

COCONUT CREEK — Denise Manning feared for her 5-month-old grandson’s safety, and said so in a letter to child welfare officials. Lethargic and anemic, the baby had been hospitalized with an unexplained bruise under his chin.

Despite her warning that the infant was in danger, Jace was discharged, and went home with his mother and her boyfriend. Two months later, the grandmother got the call she had been dreading.

Someone had cracked Jace’s small skull, leaving the baby with severe brain injuries that will affect him for life.

Doctors also discovered it wasn’t Jace’s first head injury.

In a lawsuit filed on the child’s behalf, an array of state welfare agencies and medical providers now stand accused of placing him in harm’s way by failing to remove him from a dangerous home. Defendants named in the lawsuit include the state Department of Children & Families and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

“It was a complete system failure from beginning to end,” said Gary Cohen, an attorney representing Jace. “The system failed this child.”

A DCF spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit filed in Broward Circuit Court, while a Broward Sheriff’s Office spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The only comment from any of the defendants came from an attorney representing Broward County’s Child Protection Team.

“It appears the facts do not support the (lawsuit’s allegations),” said Assistant Broward County Attorney Reginald Hicks.

Though the civil lawsuit still must wend its way through court, no one has been, or will be, charged with a crime for crippling the child. The reason: The Broward State Attorney’s Office has concluded that it can’t prove who hurt him.

Both Jace’s mother, Nicole Manning, and her boyfriend had been with the boy in the hours leading up to the Feb. 2, 2006 head injury that left the baby brain-damaged, according a Broward State Attorney’s Office memo.

In February, Nicole Manning, 22, pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor offenses of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and making a false statement to police, acknowledging she ignored child welfare officials’ recommendation she not leave her son alone with her then-boyfriend, who is not Jace’s father. She was sentenced to two years’ probation plus 100 hours of community service.

These days, Jace lives with his grandmother in Coconut Creek. He loves to sing, and to play with his Thomas the Tank Engine playset.

He has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He must wear prescription glasses and may have some blindness in his right eye. He is developmentally disabled, lagging behind his peers intellectually and needing intensive speech therapy.

All of this, the lawsuit claims, could have been avoided. Denise Manning said the critical point was Dec. 1, 2005, when Jace was hospitalized with the unexplained mark under his chin. That’s when the 42-year-old grandmother and Holy Cross Hospital separately called the Florida Abuse Hotline, voicing concerns that he was being abused, court records show.

Denise Manning said she also handed a letter to a Broward Sheriff’s child protection investigator, telling authorities that Nicole Manning’s live-in boyfriend was jealous of Jace. When child welfare officials confronted Nicole Manning, she denied her boyfriend was a threat to her son, saying her mother wanted to separate the couple, according to DCF records.

In spite of the grandmother’s appeals to authorities, Jace was sent home with his mom.

“I felt powerless. I felt distraught,” said Denise Manning. “I knew it was life and death.”

Instead of separating Jace from his mother, the Child Protection Team advised Nicole Manning to bar her boyfriend from any contact with the baby, DCF records show. Nicole Manning returned with Jace to her boyfriend’s Coral Springs apartment anyway.

In the meantime, DCF records show that the medical director of Broward County’s Child Protection Team had reviewed Jace’s medical records and concluded he was being abused. But the agency did nothing to rescue him.

Two months after Jace’s discharge from Holy Cross, the boyfriend called 911, reporting that the child was having a seizure. He was home alone with the boy at the time, DCF records show. The boy’s skull had been fractured.

Subsequent medical tests revealed Jace had suffered similar head injuries in the past, the DCF records show.

Nicole Manning declined to comment to the Sun Sentinel through her father, Michael Gold.

“Nicole is not at fault here and I don’t know anyone intimately involved in the circumstances who thinks Nicole harmed her son,” Gold said. “The entire situation is a shame for everyone involved.”

Denise Manning said she hopes the lawsuit--which lists Jace as the plaintiff but is being pursued by her-- results in a cash award that will pay for the therapy and care her grandson needs. Her chief concern is that he has financial independence because there’s a chance he will never be able to earn a living himself.

“It’s a miracle he’s alive and doing as well as he is,” she said.

Jon Burstein, can be reached at jbursteinsun-sentinel.com or (954) 356-4491.

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