State oversight of missing girl's Bradenton family stopped when mother became 'uncooperative'


Miami Herald

Keishanna Thomas's name -- and those of her five children -- appeared again and again in reports to the state's child abuse hotline. The calls began more than a decade ago. There were an even dozen.

In June 2014, just as state lawmakers were passing the most far-reaching reform of Florida's child protection system, Thomas decided she had had enough of caseworkers coming to her home and scrutinizing her children. "Ms. Thomas became uncooperative" a report said.

The Department of Children & Families could have asked a judge to force Thomas, now 31, to let workers into her home, to accept their oversight. But agency lawyers instead insisted the state walk away.

It was a tragic mistake.

When the next report -- No. 13 -- was phoned to the hotline earlier this month, an investigator made a startling discovery: Thomas now had only four children. Eleven-year-old Janiya was nowhere to be found, and her mother had nothing to say about her whereabouts. What is believed to be Janiya's body was found Sunday night inside a locked freezer in a relative's garage. "The freezer was brought to the relative's home by the mother . . . under the guise that she was being evicted," a DCF report said.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll declined to discuss the case Wednesday with the Miami Herald. In a short statement, the agency's press secretary, Michelle Glady, said Carroll has dispatched a "Critical Incident Rapid Response Team" to Bradenton to look into the agency's long history with the Thomas family, and to investigate the actions leading to Janiya's death.

"The circumstances surrounding the death of Janiya Thomas are deeply disturbing," Glady said in a statement.

The child welfare agency has said repeatedly that the Sheriff's Office in Manatee County, not DCF, conducts child abuse investigations in the county. But a short record released by DCF Wednesday suggests the breakdowns that led to Janiya's death likely occurred within a familiar setting: the agency's legal department.

Three months before Thomas stopped cooperating with child welfare workers, the Miami Herald published a special report called "Innocents Lost" that detailed the deaths of 477 Florida children whose families had a prior history of abuse or neglect. In almost 50 of the cases, a child died after agency lawyers shot down investigators' requests to take a family to court. If parents refuse help from the state -- such as drug treatment or anger management -- a judge may order them to participate.

In Florida, the state must file a court petition before a judge can either place a child in state care or order the parents to accept services and oversight. Otherwise, everything is voluntary. DCF lawyers -- or lawyers for the Attorney General's Office, who oversee legal services in a handful of counties -- are the gatekeepers, deciding whether and when to file.

"Uncooperation is not a reason to close a case; it's a reason to delve further into a case," said Tallahassee lawyer Neil Skene, who worked for more than two years as a special counsel to DCF, ending in September 2010. "Uncooperation is not a sign of guilt. But with all the prior [abuse investigations] it is a sign of trouble."

"It sounds like they just gave up," added Skene, whose job included analyzing lawsuits against DCF to help the agency improve its performance and avoid future lawsuits.

Detailed records of Keishanna Thomas and her five children have not yet been released by DCF. On Wednesday, however, the agency released a four-page "critical incident report" that had been filed with DCF by child welfare authorities in Manatee County. Thomas' family had been under the supervision of a state-designated, privately run child welfare group in 2014, the report said, though it did not specify why.

In June of that year, the state's oversight of the Thomas family ceased. When Thomas refused to cooperate with caseworkers, the agency held a meeting that included investigators, caseworkers and the agency's local legal department. The lawyers "recommended the service case be closed as 'non-compliant,' with the understanding that should another report be received, court-ordered intervention may be more appropriate," the incident report said.

Janiya then vanished.

Last week, DCF received the hotline report that was to prompt another look at Thomas. The mother, DCF was told, "physically abused her 12-year-old child after he stole items from a store." In the ensuing investigation -- performed by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, which conducts child abuse probes for DCF in Bradenton -- state child abuse doctors "confirmed the child's injuries had been inflicted, and the children disclosed ongoing domestic violence" between Thomas and an undisclosed other person.

The sheriff's office removed the four children in Thomas' home. But as the case progressed through the legal system, authorities realized there should have been a fifth child. Thomas, the report said, claimed Janiya was living with relatives in another state. When Thomas refused to specify where the 11-year-old was, she was arrested.

The sheriff's office asked Bradenton police to investigate "a missing juvenile" on Friday, police said. "Janiya Thomas was not with her mother, or at her residence," police said in a statement, adding that "Thomas refused to answer questions directed at her" by a juvenile court judge, Scott Brownell.

Two days later, a body was found inside a freezer in the garage of Thomas' relative.

Wednesday, the Manatee County Medical Examiner's Office performed an autopsy on the body, police said. "Due to the circumstances, further medical examination and testing is required," Bradenton police said. Results of the autopsy were unavailable.

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