Death of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas went unnoticed in Bradenton for several months in 2015

MANATEE -- Four children died as a direct result of child abuse in Manatee County in 2015, and detectives say it was at the hands of people who were supposed to protect them.

It was the highest number of children to die as a direct result of child abuse in the past five years.

The highest profile death from child abuse in 2015 was Janiya Thomas, 11. The disappearance and death of Janiya went unreported for several months in Bradenton until her body was found inside a padlocked freezer chest.

The news of where Janiya was found -- two days after she was finally reported missing -- rocked the community and sent reverberations throughout the state and country.

On Dec. 15, Janiya's mother, Keishanna Thomas, was indicted and charged with first-degree murder, abuse of a dead body and aggravated child abuse.

Details have since emerged of how Janiya is suspected to have died. The girl's eldest sister told investigators she saw their mother tie Janiya up and dunk her head in water inside the bathroom she was regularly locked in. Afterward, the bathroom was cleaned, the door was open and Janiya was never seen again.

Sometime between Sept. 25 when the other children were taken into protective custody and Oct. 16 when Thomas was first arrested, Thomas visited her eldest daughter in foster care and told her not to tell investigators anything about Janiya.

Janiya's brother also recalled for investigators coming home from school in January or February this year to discover Janiya gone and the bathroom cleaned out.

Although an autopsy was inconclusive in determining the manner of death, it did reveal Janiya weighed only 44 pounds at the time of her death, her right leg had been broken two to fours weeks before her death, and marks on her hands and feet were indicative of being tied.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Thomas could face the death penalty or life in prison. The State Attorney's Office has not decided whether it will seek the death penalty.

Thomas is next scheduled to appear in court at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 18 for a case management hearing.

Janiya's death prompted the Florida Department of Children and Families to send a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to review how DCF and the sheriff's office handled abuse allegations against Thomas. Child protective investigators with the sheriff's office failed to report Janiya missing for a month, one of several failures that took place according to common practices, policies and statutes.

"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 CIRRT report stated.

Internal affairs investigations into each of the cases involving Janiya are still underway at the sheriff's office, according to spokesman Dave Bristow. The investigations were prompted by the department's internal review of how the cases were handled.

The three other children who have died as a result of abuse in 2015 in Manatee County:

17-month-old William "Quincey" Pollard, who died of blunt force trauma to the head;

4-year-old Alexander Marr, 4, who died from traumatic injuries to his head and torso; and

15-month-old Knowellan Kelly, who died as a result of injuries "consistent with child abuse."

Charges have been filed in all but one case. The investigation of Knowellan's death is ongoing.

Two other children's deaths in 2015 are still under investigation.

Most children who die in their parents' custody do so by accident or neglect, rather than directly from abuse.

From 2011 to 2014, not a single child death in Manatee County was determined to be a direct result of child abuse.

In the past five years 16 children have died from neglect, in many cases because drug-addicted parents suffocated their children while sleeping with them.

Other neglect cases involved unsupervised children drowning in bathtubs, pools and ponds. In those five years, parents or significant others were charged with homicide in only two cases.

Last school days

Janiya was last seen at Manatee Elementary School in May 2013. The next school year, her mother told Manatee County School District officials in August she was in homeschool.

Authorities last saw Janiya when a child protection case manager visited her home June 9, 2014. During the visit, Thomas became uncooperative, prompting the child abuse case to be closed rather than further intervention being sought.

Janiya was not discovered missing from her mother's home until Sept. 23 when investigators were called because of an allegation Thomas had severely beaten her 12-year-old son. Thomas is set to stand trial in May on that child abuse charge.

A Manatee County Sheriff's Office child protective services investigator noticed there only three children were in the home, even though Thomas had five. The next day a judge ordered Thomas to produce her other two children.

By Sept. 25, Thomas took her 2-year-old son to the sheriff's office, and her four children beside Janiya were placed in protective custody.

Thomas refused to provide details about Janiya's whereabouts or well-being. She told investigators Janiya had gone to live with her father's relatives out of state -- but couldn't say where or provide any legal documentation of a change in custody.

Weeks passed and few attempts were made by investigators to question Thomas about Janiya's whereabouts.

On Oct. 16, Thomas was ordered to appear before Circuit Judge Scott Brownell, who asked a slew of questions. Thomas invoked her Fifth Amendment right, refusing to answer.

"Where is Janiya?" Brownell asked and ordered her to answer.

Again, Thomas invoked the Fifth Amendment and Brownell held her in contempt of court.

Since then Thomas has maintained her silence.

Several hours after she was arrested, child protective services investigators reported Janiya missing to the Bradenton Police Department.

The next day, Oct. 17, one of Janiya's siblings told investigators: "I don't know where she is. One day we went to school and came back, she was just gone."

On Oct. 18, Janiya's body was found inside a cardboard box inside a padlocked chest freezer Thomas had delivered Oct. 15 to a relative's home. The relative became suspicious after seeing media reports Janiya had been reported missing, broke the lock, found her body inside and called the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

When news broke Janiya had been found, Bradenton police detective Lt. James Racky told the media he had gotten emotionally involved in the case.

"We try to put on a calm face about it but it disgusts me," Racky said. "I've got children myself. Whoever the child is in that freezer, however they died, it's just not right and we need to find out who is responsible and hold them accountable. That child in there is somebody's child."

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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