Crime

Review of Janiya case shows Manatee child protection officials failed to properly follow policies, statutes

MANATEE -- Janiya Thomas was unseen for more than a year before her body was found in a freezer because the workers responsible for protecting her failed to follow common practices, policies and statutes as they investigated her mother for allegations of child abuse and violence, according to a Florida Department of Children and Families report on Janiya's case.

Many of the mistakes took place between March and June 9, 2014, the last day Janiya was seen alive by child protection officials.

This past September, investigators realized Janiya was missing from the Thomas home at the onset of an investigation of allegations that Janiya's mother, Keishanna Thomas, had abused her 12-year-old son, but they did not report her as missing until after the investigation was closed on Oct. 12.

Janiya was reported missing to Bradenton police Oct. 16, two days before relatives found her in a padlocked freezer her mother had delivered to their home four days earlier under the guise that she was being evicted from her apartment.

Thomas is in the Manatee County jail on $200,000 bond, charged with aggravated child abuse, child abuse and abuse of a dead body.

The investigation of Janiya's death is continuing.

The Manatee County Sheriff's Office, which runs child protection investigations in the county, says it has implemented changes in policies and procedures in the wake of Janiya's death. Also, internal affairs investigators are reviewing how sheriff's employees handled the case.

DCF releases review of case

DCF on Tuesday released a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team report revealing there had been significant failures in the investigative and other procedures in cases involving Thomas and her children. Despite concerns about Thomas' history of violence and abuse dating back to 2000, the CIRRT report focuses on the most recent investigations leading up to the discovery of Janiya's disappearance and death.

"When Ms. Thomas could not provide the exact location of Janiya coupled with the extensive pattern of violence in the home and health vulnerabilities of the children, child protective investigators should have been concerned," the report states.

In March 2014, child protective investigators with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office were called out to the Thomas home to investigate allegations that Thomas had beaten her son with an extension cord. Instead of removing the child from the home based on an assessment of the child's safety, the investigator assigned to the case consulted with DCF attorneys at Children's Legal Services.

The condition of Thomas' other four children, including Janiya, was not addressed during the call.

"Not only was it inappropriate for CLS to advise the child protective investigator to find a safe placement until the CPT (Child Protective Team) could be involved, the placement was not appropriately assessed for child safety by the child protective investigator," according to the CIRRT report.

The investigator never filed any paperwork requesting legal action and never followed up with the attorney once the CPT interview and examination verified abuse.

In May 2014, child protective investigators with the sheriff's office were again assigned to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect after receiving a report that Thomas' now 15-year-old daughter had body odor that was worsening and issues with a prior urinary tract infection, as well as Thomas' lack of concern when the girl fell and hit her head. This investigation was closed within 26 hours -- before the investigator could determine whether there was neglect.

That decision was approved by a sheriff's office child protective supervisor and director without a home visit being completed -- as required by state law -- and without interviewing the other children.

The investigator also failed to address concerns that had been raised by a case manager.

Among the concerns, as documented in the Florida Safe Families Network: "The children never come out of their room, feels the children are isolated even from each other, they eat on the kitchen floor because the mother doesn't want stains on the carpet, mother appears controlling, mother hasn't participated in services yet but always has a reason, the mother won't let her photograph the children, mother won't let her go into the school to see the children or speak to them there."

The interview with the alleged victim was never completed, because the girl became too hysterical during the interview, according to the report. A school official confirmed the girl has emotional outbursts for unknown reasons, yet the case was closed and transferred to case management.

By the time Thomas told a case manager on June 9, 2014 -- the last time Janiya was seen alive -- that she would no longer participate in voluntary protective services, the case had been open for two months. During those two months, six of the eight home visits were documented as announced home visits.

"Announced home visits do not allow for an accurate assessment of the family and provide an opportunity to set what a case manager observes," the report states.

During an announced home visit at 5:15 p.m. April 24, 2014, Janiya and one of her siblings were asleep in bed and another sibling was in the shower. During an announced home visit at 5:45 p.m. May 8, 2014, Janiya and the one sibling were again asleep in bed. Only one was child was reportedly interviewed consistently.

Thomas never used any of the services offered during this case.

"The mother's refusal to acknowledge her parenting limitations, issues with anger, restrictions she constructed to limit the children's contact with the case manager along with her history of violence should have triggered a higher level of intervention," the report states.

A child protective director relayed her concerns to Children's Legal Services when the case was considered for closure. However, this director was not included in the meeting when that decision was made, and no one at the meeting raised any of these concerns.

Discovery of Janiya's disappearance

This past Sept. 23, a child protective investigator with the sheriff's office was again called out to the home after reports that Thomas had punched, slapped and banged her 12-year-old son's head into a mirror. The hotline counselor who took the abuse call was told there were four other children in the home but failed to follow practices and conduct a search in the Safe Families Network to properly identify the other children.

The investigator asked Thomas to place the boy in a "safety plan home," but only after she required the boy to return the next day did the investigator contact DCF attorneys for permission to remove him.

The two other children in the home were never mentioned during that call and the two missing children, including Janiya, also went without mention.

Thomas produced the other missing child two days later, on Sept. 25.

Even though Janiya remained missing, she was never listed as part of the investigation.

Thomas was questioned on Sept. 23, Sept. 25 and Oct. 5 about Janiya's whereabouts. An investigator also left a message with Thomas on Oct. 9.

"Despite all of this, the investigator closed the investigation on Oct. 12, 2015, without recognizing the child could have been in danger or was missing," the report states.

On Oct. 16 after Keishanna Thomas again refused to answer questions about Janiya's welfare and whereabouts, she was arrested.

Two days later, Janiya was found dead.

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

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