Some of the fault lines in Florida's child welfare system cracked open last week with the release of a highly critical report from the state Department of Children and Families about the many failures in a Manatee County case. The agency laid the blame on the mishandling of the Janiya Thomas abuse case on terrible mistakes by child protection officials, citing failures to follow common practices, policies and statutes.
The disappearance and death of 11-year-old Janiya has gripped this community since her body was found in October locked in a freezer placed by her mother, Keishanna Thomas, at a relative's home on the pretext she was being evicted. Janiya vanished more than a year ago after DCF quit supervising her chronically troubled mother, who had been the subject of 10 child abuse hotline calls and a dozen Child Protection Services investigations since 2003.
As we opined days after Janiya's body was discovered, the years-long involvement of caseworkers and investigators indicated systemic failures in the child protection system. Now the DCF report confirms that point by detailing the mistakes.
That June, 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. That same month was the last time case workers saw Janiya, and the girl soon vanished. This all became public knowledge in October.
The new report blames DCF child abuse hotline operators for the initial mistakes. Despite knowing Janiya was a member of the Thomas family, operators failed to enter her name on two of the seven reports logged about allegations of abuse by her mother since 2012 -- breaking protocol. With her name not recorded on the documents, the girl was never an official part of the investigation into her mother.
The DCF's Critical Incident Response Team report also blamed an MCSO's child protective investigator with failing to add Janiya to the September investigation into allegations the mother had beaten her 12-year-old son.
The DCF operator's intake report only listed Janiya's brother, but not Janiya or her other siblings. The report states, "... further research should have been conducted to identify the other four children."
Although investigators realized Janiya was missing in September this year, she was not officially reported missing until four days after that investigation was closed on Oct. 12. Thomas was questioned about her daughter's whereabouts on Sept. 23, Sept. 25 and Oct. 5 but refused to cooperate. The CIRTT report states Janiya should have been reported missing in September, and the delay was caused by "significant issues regarding investigative and case management practices."
On Oct. 18, Janiya's relatives broke open the locked freezer and discovered her body.
Other grievous errors include:
Investigators and case managers failed to critically assess all the information available, especially the pattern and history of violence in evaluating the safety of the children.
The compromised assessment caused case managers with contracted agencies to not completely address the dangers and vulnerabilities in the Thomas household, and thus the family did not get the appropriate intervention to ensure the children's safety.
When intervention failed, the case was simply closed -- the system gave up on the family.
Plus, there was role confusion about who was responsible for deciding whether to remove a child from the home. Investigators are supposed to assess the threat and call the DCF's Children's Legal Services for a decision on removal. In the March 2014 case involving the 12-year-old boy, the investigator failed to file paperwork requesting legal action and never followed up with a DCF attorney after abuse was confirmed.
There are numerous other failures regarding oversight of the Thomas family, well documented in a series of articles written by Herald law enforcement reporter Jessica De Leon.
Child welfare caseworkers from the Safe Children's Coalition, the Sarasota Family YMCA and DCF as well as investigators from the MCSO Child Protective Services were stymied time and again by an uncooperative and prevaricating mother.
She pulled Janiya out of Manatee Elementary School in May 2013 and officially enrolled her in homeschool in August 2014 but failed to file reports to the district as required by state law.
She had a history of refusing to cooperate with child welfare and school officials, and was finally jailed for contempt of court on Oct. 16 for refusing court orders to reveal Janiya's whereabouts. Keishanna Thomas remains behind bars on charges of child abuse, aggravated abuse and abuse of a dead body. An autopsy has yet to released, and the case remains under investigation.
Appropriately, the sheriff's office acted quickly by changing policies and procedures in the aftermath of Janiya's death. An internal affairs investigation is reviewing the actions of department employees in the case, too.
In a statement, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll pledged to institute improvements in the child welfare system in the wake of CIRTT findings in the Janiya case.
Even after Florida adopted a broad child-welfare reform law in early 2014 -- including the requirement that child-protective investigators focus on risks to children instead of relying on promises from parents -- the system needs more work, as Janiya's case clearly points out.