Florida's child protection system still needs work

Janiya Thomas
Janiya Thomas

Children keep falling through the cracks in Florida's child welfare system. The horrific story of the life and death of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas and the years-long involvement of caseworkers indicates systemic failures in child protection once again.

The Manatee County case illustrates the system has not been completely fixed -- despite the Miami Herald's lengthy investigative series of reports that exposed state Department of Children & Families oversight neglect in all too many cases and the needless deaths of children.

The Miami newspaper's bombshell disclosures, published in the Bradenton Herald, prompted some DCF reforms, but the agency claims some of the blame in Janiya's case and the September beating death of an infant in Sarasota County belongs elsewhere -- in the local communities.

Yet Janiya vanished more than a year ago after DCF quit supervising her chronically troubled mother, 31-year-old Keishanna Thomas, who had been the subject of 10 child abuse hotline calls and a dozen Child Protection Services investigations since 2003.

In June 2014, DCF lawyers insisted the agency quit supervising Thomas simply because she became "uncooperative" after declaring caseworkers would no longer be allowed to scrutinize her and her five children. The Manatee County Sheriff's Office's child protection investigators and Sarasota Family YMCA case managers concurred with DCF.

Janiya vanished soon after officials abandoned supervision of her mother, who beat her and kept the girl locked up in a bathroom for days at a time because of a medical condition in her digestive system and bowels that did not signal her body it was time to go to the bathroom.

At the same time of her disappearance, lawmakers were approving the most extensive reforms in the state's child welfare system -- compelled by the Miami Herald's series.

Keishanna Thomas yanked Janiya from public school and told the school district she was homeschooling her in August 2013.

She ignored district entreaties to complete a state-required annual evaluation until she finally informed officials Janiya no longer lived in Florida. Her letter ended district involvement, and Janiya was not declared truant.

Keishanna Thomas, who has a criminal history for prostitution, sits in jail after her arrest on several charges, including child abuse in a case involving her 12-year-old son.

After the arrest, investigators from the Manatee County Sheriff's Office's child protection division went to her apartment to remove her five children but discovered Janiya missing and informed the Bradenton Police Department. Her mother refuses to discuss her disappearance.

Janiya's body was found stuffed in a cardboard box locked in a freezer that her mother and a boyfriend delivered to a relative's house in mid-October.

Suspicious after Keishanna's arrest, family broke into the appliance, discovered a grisly scene and called law enforcement. On Monday, local authorities confirmed the body was indeed Janiya, as presumed.

While there is plenty of blame to spread around in Janiya's disturbing fate, DCF cannot escape major responsibility.

During last week's meeting of the state Senate's Children, Families & Elder Affairs Committee, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, only on the job for 19 months, tried to deflect some of the blame away from his agency in the Janiya case as well as the September beating death of "Baby Change" Walsh in Sarasota County, allegedly by his father.

In the Walsh case, a DCF hotline counselor "screened out" a report that the baby's mother was abusing drugs, which Carroll admitted raised red flags that should have resulted in additional probing.

He also acknowledged DCF's "system failures." Florida must improve child protection services, though not in an onerous manner where there is only a "whisper of bad parenting the state takes the baby," Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, remarked at the committee meeting. "I don't think we want that kind of police state."

Indeed. But the current system remains in need of stronger policies and responses to ensure better outcomes for children.

• The shock in this community over Janiya's fate turned inspirational during Sunday night's candlelight vigil and tribute to the young girl. Some 400 people attended with many commenting that a spirit of love, not anger, animated the event -- a unifying message of compassion the community needs at this tragic time.

• In another positive development, Gov. Rick Scott announced Tuesday he will seek an additional $22.9 million in funding for the state’s child welfare agency. That would allow DCF and community-based care agencies to hire an additional 272 case managers to reduce caseloads and increase services for families whose children are at risk of being taken from their homes.

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