Ethan Thompson, a 22-month-old boy allegedly killed by his stepfather in November while the family was under the supervision of the Florida Department of Children and Families, and his five brothers were back in their mother’s care two months before the court ordered they could return — a recommendation made by Centerstone without the involvement of attorneys with the DCF or the court-appointed guardian ad litem, according to reports in the case.
After Ethan’s death, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Child Protective Investigation Division, which handles all child welfare cases in Manatee County, learned from DCF attorneys that Dependency Court had approved returning the children to their home on Nov. 14 — two months after they actually went back home and just hours before Ethan was injured while in care of his stepfather, Montez McNeal, records show.
Ethan was rushed to Manatee Memorial Hospital and died shortly after midnight, records show.
In December, McNeal was charged with second-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in connection to Ethan’s death. McNeal, who is being held without bond at the Manatee County jail, is next scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 2
The boys’ mother could also face a charge of aggravated child abuse. When the formal charges were filed against McNeal, the sheriff’s office submitted a capias request to the State Attorney’s Office, recommending a charge of aggravated child abuse, according to sheriff’s Captain Dennis Romano.
The six boys, who had been in protective custody of their grandmother, had been living with their mother since September. Ethan’s siblings and their mother admitted this, according to the child protective investigator’s petition to have the siblings removed from the home again after the death.
The children originally were removed from their home in July 2015 after CPID determined they were in “present danger,” after a second abuse claim and a doctor confirmed a mark on Ethan’s neck had been caused by abuse, records obtained by the Bradenton Herald reveal.
Late Nov. 14, 2016, paramedics and deputies were called to Ethan Thompson’s aide, when the toddler became unresponsive while in his step-father’s care.
Ethan’s mother first told the Bradenton Police Department she left the boy in his oldest brother’s care while she went to the pharmacy to get him some medicine. But she later admitted she had left Ethan and her other five sons, ages 6 months, 3, 4, 11 and 12, in her husband’s care.
McNeal had been ordered to stay away from the home. The boys’ mother initially lied to investigators about the events leading up to his death, because she had let him back in the home, knowing she was not supposed to, according to reports.
Little has been made public regarding the decisions made to return the children.
A Critical Incident Response Team report compiled after the death states that officials did not meet about the case before officials with Centerstone, who were managing the case under a contract with the Safe Children’s Coalition, decided the children could return home. Neither the court-appointed guardian ad litem nor the DCF attorney assigned to case had been made aware of the decision.
But Brena Slater, vice president of Safe Children’s Coalition, told the Bradenton Herald in an email that a meeting was held before recommending the children return home, citing a July 15 meeting. At that meeting the case manager, case manager supervisor, guardian ad litem, an attorney and mother were present when the “recommendation for reunification upon housing was granted.”
Circuit Court Judge Scott Brownell did not approve the return until Nov. 14 — the same day Ethan was taken to the hospital, according to sheriff’s office reports after his death. The judge had no idea the children were already home when he approved the return, CPID records state.
Slater said that “case manager complied with the verbal order of the court on Sept. 27,” regarding the decision to return the children home.
The family was progressing with their case plan and the transition to reunification, according to Slater. A partial document with notes from the Sept. 27 hearing show that “reunification with mother to take place upon positive home study study” and “next review set.” The decision to reunify the children was made based upon “substantial case plan compliance by the mother with order of court,” Slater added.
Sheriff refutes CIRRT
After Ethan’s death, because there had been verified abuse within the previous 12 months, a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team was deployed by DCF to review the death case and determine if anything could have been done to prevent his death. The decision to return Ethan and his five brothers — ages 6 months, 3, 4, 11 and 12 at the time of his death — was among the mistakes found, according to the CIRRT report.
The report also claims the sheriff’s child protection investigators did not follow DCF policies or the child welfare practice model when assessing present danger, safety planning and conditions for return. Later in a section of the report largely redacted, it states the investigator in 2015 correctly assessed Ethan’s mother and stepfather’s diminished caregiver protective capacities.
Sheriff Rick Wells and other sheriff’s officials objected to some of CIRRT’s findings.
In a letter from Wells and CPID Director Melissa Lancsarics to the CIRRT coordinator, the sheriff’s office states they had fully implemented the practice model since May 2015.
Investigators are required to determine the conditions of return at the time children are removed, Lancsarics told the Bradenton Herald. But the case is then handed over to another agency for case management — in Ethan’s case, to Centerstone, the local mental health hospital that was contracted by Safe Children’s Coalition.
The conditions for return can expand if additional dangers are identified during the case manager’s assessment, since the practice model requires a full family assessment be completed, Lancsarics explained.
Wells and Romano both agree that CIRRT unfairly implied that CPID had any involvement with the decision to return the children home.
“That is not part of our role,” Wells said.
More importantly, both say they did remove Ethan and his brothers in 2015.
“The reason for removal was clearly documented and upheld in Dependency Court,” the sheriff’s office letter said. “The CPS identified the concerns with the mother and stepfather’s behaviors and correctly assessed their diminished protective caregiver capacities which resulted in the children being unsafe.”
Romano acknowledged that perhaps the communication between agencies when children are returned was not good, and that it may be beneficial to change.
But, he added, “We felt like DCF was pointing fingers.”
Mother’s alleged abuse
Ethan and his brothers were also physically abused by their mother, according to records from the sheriff’s office, Centerstone and the Bradenton Police Department.
On July 27, 2015, a Bradenton police officer and a child protective investigator were called to the family’s home for the second time in less than a week to investigate allegations of child abuse, this time regarding the long mark along Ethan’s neck towards his chest that ended in ring-shaped injury.
Ethan and his brothers were home with McNeal, but neither he nor his mother could explain where the mark on Ethan’s neck came from. She said it could have come from the crib since the crib was broken. When they saw the crib, both agreed that “it was not in a condition for a child to be using,” the officer wrote in his report.
“The support for the crib in one corner was broken and dipped down, making it to where Ethan could roll into that corner,” the officer added.
A pillow had been placed in the corner.
“All four corners have broken plastic supports with jagged edges,” the officer went on to write. “The jagged edges could explain the scratch, however ring-shaped injury still does not have a potential explanation.”
During the followup investigation to the initial allegation of abuse by a Bradenton police detective, the older two boys said they had been beaten by their mother with a belt. Police seized the belt and a doctor later confirmed their injuries consistent with abuse.
When the boys were removed from their home then, their mother was 2 1/2-months pregnant with the youngest boy. Six months later, a “staffing/baby born in care” meeting was held to review the case plan’s status and address issues regarding the baby soon to be born.
In an email from the Centerstone case manager supervisor to CPID, supervisor Sean Satffieri said the mother had been partially compliant with the case plan, there were concerns that she was still with McNeal, and that she refused to give the case manager her prenatal information.
An attached case staffing form prepared prior to the meeting revealed that the mother acknowledged abusing her children, did not protect them from abuse inflicted by Montez McNeal and had mental illness that prevented her from even grasping the seriousness of the situation.
The investigator also found “indicators of excessive discipline.” Two of Ethan’s brothers told the child protective investigator in 2015 “that they had just been beaten the day before CPS arrived; and again earlier in the week.”