• Nov 20 2014

    Help give foster kids back their dignity with the suitcases you no longer need

    by Sarina Fazan

    Patty Wyman, the owner of Day Spa 580 in Dunedin, was on her Facebook page when she came saw a plea for suitcases posted by friend Tammy Levent, CEO of Elite Travel.
    “Our nothing could be a child’s everything,” Wyman said.
    Wyman sprang to action.
    "I just started asking, ‘Do you have bags or luggage you are not using anymore?’ and they just started dropping them off by the day spa," Wyman said.
    Levent wanted to get luggage for foster kids who typically arrive at homes like Friends of Joshua House, a home for abused, abandoned and neglected children, with all their belongings in a garbage bag.
    Levent, a longtime supporter of the home, asked its executive director, DeDe Grundel, if the children could help name the charity.
    They came up with “It's My Bag.”
    Talking about the effort moved Levent to tears so much so it was hard for her to speak about her mission.
    "We have so much. It's time to share. It's time to give," Levent said.
    She started using her contacts through her own agency and soon people from as far as Australia wanted to help.
    She's already collected dozens of suitcases. Business owners like Wyman are taking it one step further, sponsoring the program and then personally delivering the suitcases and filling them with everything from socks to blankets.
    Grundel said it's changing kids’ lives.
    "It's the point you carry yourself with dignity, and that someone thought of you as a human being, that they did not think your stuff is garbage," Grundel said. "Tammy Levent hit this on the nose. It's what these kids need.
    Grundel  hopes Tammy's idea will spread  and all foster children no matter where they go, either this facility or another, will get back a piece of pride.
    The residents of Friends of Joshua House are provided luggage, but so many come in at the last minute, like at so many other foster care facilities, with their belongings in garbage bags.
    Levent also said if you drop off a bag, there's an added incentive: Each drop off location will give you a reward, such as a gift certificate.
    To find out more information you can  just head to .
  • Oct 24 2014

    Friends of Joshua House Foundation, Inc Has Reached the GuideStar Exchange Gold Participation Level as a Demonstration of Its Commitment to Transparency

    by Bridget Roberston

    – Friends of Joshua House Foundation today received the GuideStar Exchange Gold participation level, a leading symbol of transparency and accountability provided by GuideStar USA, Inc., the premier source of nonprofit information. This level demonstrates Friends of Joshua House’s deep commitment to nonprofit transparency and accountability.

    "We have worked hard to showcase our progress toward our mission, and our long-held belief in being transparent about our work, to our constituents," said Executive Director, DeDe Grundel. "As a GuideStar Exchange participant, we use their platform to share a wealth of up-to-date information about our work to our supporters and GuideStar's immense online audience of nonprofits, grantmakers, individual donors, and the media."

    In order to be awarded the GuideStar Exchange logo, Friends of Joshua House had to fill out every required field of our nonprofit report page on for the Gold level of participation.

    "I encourage you to check out our profile on GuideStar to see what we're all about," added DeDe Grundel. "We are engaged in exciting initiatives, and we are thrilled to have another platform for communicating our advancement and progress."

    About the GuideStar Exchange

    The GuideStar Exchange is an initiative designed to connect nonprofits with current and potential supporters. With millions of people coming to GuideStar to learn more about nonprofit organizations, the GuideStar Exchange allows nonprofits to share a wealth of up-to-date information with GuideStar's many audiences. Becoming a GuideStar Exchange participant is free of charge. To join, organizations need to update their report pages, completing all required fields for participation. The GuideStar Exchange level logos, acknowledged as symbols of transparency in the nonprofit sector, are displayed on all Exchange participants' nonprofit reports.

  • Sep 22 2014

    2014 Joshua House Schools Supply Drive a Huge Success!

    by Bridget Roberston

    The school year has begun!  Papers are being written, science project topics are being chosen and “new” math homework is being solved.  The children of Joshua House have settled into their school schedules just like any other family – and that is because of you, our wonderful and caring donors. 

    New school clothes and backpacks filled with school supplies were generously donated by so many people and organizations.  We are, once again, humbled and grateful for such an amazing and giving community that keeps our children in your hearts.  There were 28 companies that held collections for School Supplies and/or Uniforms and hundreds of people donated to help our children start the school year with the tools that they need to be successful.  Some gave more than others, but every donation makes a difference! 

    With the help of our community, the children at Joshua House have what they need for school and we are also prepared for the children who will come to us throughout the school year.   Thank you so much for giving our children a brighter future.

  • Sep 18 2014

    Friends of Joshua House Foundation welcomes Scott Daigle, Senior Vice President, Senior Market Manager / Commercial Banking at Synovus Bank of Florida to the Board of Directors

    by Bridget Roberston

    Friends of Joshua House Foundation is pleased to announce the addition of  Scott Daigle, Senior Vice President, Senior Market Manager / Commercial Banking at Synovus Bank of Florida to the Board of Directors.

    Scott Daigle is a seasoned banker bringing more than 18 years of experience to his role at Synovus. His experience includes expertise in commercial banking, business development, business banking, commercial real estate lending and customer relationship management.

    As the commercial banking senior market manager for Hillsborough County, Mr. Daigle is responsible for developing and leading the Hillsborough team in generating new commercial banking business.  He and his team work with public and private companies with revenues between $10 million and $35 million to provide financing for working capital, expansion, mergers/acquisitions, real estate and equipment.

    Mr. Daigle earned a B.S. in economics from Radford University, Radford, Virginia.

    Mr. Daigle also serves as a Board Member of the University of Tampa Board of Fellows, a Board Member of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County and is a graduate of the Mayor’s Neighborhood University.

  • Sep 18 2014

    Friends of Joshua House Foundation welcomes Todd Sakow, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer of Carter Validus Advisors, LLC., to the Board of Directors

    by Bridget Roberston

    Friends of Joshua House Foundation is pleased to announce the addition of Todd Sakow, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer of Carter Validus Advisors, LLC., to the Board of Directors.

     As Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer of Carter Validus Advisors, LLC and Carter Validus Advisors II, LLC, and Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer of Carter Validus Mission Critical REIT, Inc. and Carter Validus Mission Critical REIT II, Inc., Todd Sakow has a laser focus on producing superior results for clients. He has more than 11 years of real estate and tax experience in the REIT industry and is a Certified Public Accountant.

    From 2002 until 2010, Mr. Sakow worked at American Land Lease, Inc. and held various positions including Vice President of Finance from 2006 to 2010, Tax Director from 2003 to 2010 and Assistant Corporate Controller from 2002 to 2006. Throughout his tenure at American Land Lease, he was responsible for SEC reporting, REIT tax compliance and treasury management functions. Prior to joining American Land Lease, he was a Senior Auditor at Ernst & Young, LLP for four years.

    Mr. Sakow received a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting and a Masters in Accounting from the University of Florida.

    Mr. Sakow is married to Danyele and has two boys, Timothy age 18 attending UCF and Tyler age 14 attending Tarpon High School.  He enjoys golfing, snowboarding and is currently training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  He has coached his sons’ sports teams and was the president of the Palm Harbor Wrestling Club Boosters.  He is currently a member of the prop team for son Tyler's band which builds the props for the band.

  • Jun 03 2014

    Girl Power! Presents, Pampering Party and End of the Year Celebration

    by Allie LaLonde

    On May 4, 2014, the Junior League of Tampa’s Girl Power Project joined with the J. Joseph Salon in Land O’ Lakes, FL for a fabulous pampering event.  Young women residing at Joshua House were able to spend an evening at the spa where they relaxed while getting their hair and nails done.  The young women were also able to enjoy food from Tijuana Flats, sparkling cider, and desserts including a chocolate fountain.  The young ladies were also able to take a fantastic goody bag home with several beauty items to continue enjoying after the event.

    This spectacular event was also the year-end party celebrating Girl Power’s successful first year.  The project has helped the young women at Joshua House realize that they can follow their dreams.  The Junior League of Tampa is excited to continue its commitment to the young ladies at Joshua House for years to come.

    About the Girl Power Project

    This year the Junior League of Tampa introduced a new project, Girl Power.  The mission of the project is to promote literacy, scholarship, nutrition, and positive self-image to young women in foster care currently residing at Joshua House.  One Saturday each month Junior League volunteers will present a different themed event to present to the young women of Joshua House.  The goal of the project is to improve the life of the young women by showing their lives can improve for the better and that their past does not dictate their destiny, to increase opportunity for academic success for at-risk students, and to decrease the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system by reducing the economic and social cost of juvenile delinquency and helping prepare youth to become productive tax-paying adults

  • May 02 2014

    Girl Power! Presents, The Power of Expression

    by Krista L. Dietrich

    On April 12, 2014 the Junior League of Tampa’s Girl Power Project presented a workshop focusing on the important topic of The Power of Expression to the young women currently residing at Joshua House. The event focused on the power of expression through poetry and theatre, to help the girls address their emotional intelligence, develop effective communication skills, and explore different outlets to cope with their stress and anger.   Jessica Muroff, from Frameworks ( started the program off with a vibrant discussion of Emotional Intelligence. She then took the girls through a poetry writing session which allowed the girls to create some wonderful poems. Angela Ardolino and David Estevez, of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine, took over the last half of the program which focused on Theatre and The Power of Expression.  Angela and David took the girls through several types of acting lessons which showed the girls different ways of expressing themselves. These skills will prove very valuable to these young women as they mature into expressive adults.

    Next month’s theme will be Our Power Together. This event will focus on inner beauty and inner power.  The girls will receive primping and pampering from the J.Joseph Salon.

    About the Girl Power Project

    This year the Junior League of Tampa introduced a new project, Girl Power.  The mission of the project is to promote literacy, scholarship, nutrition, and positive self-image to young women in foster care currently residing at Joshua House.  One Saturday each month Junior League volunteers will present a different themed event to present to the young women of Joshua House.  The goal of the project is to improve the life of the young women by showing their lives can improve for the better and that their past does not dictate their destiny, to increase opportunity for academic success for at-risk students, and to decrease the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system by reducing the economic and social cost of juvenile delinquency and helping prepare youth to become productive tax-paying adults.

  • Mar 26 2014

    Girl Power! Presents, Healthy Living

    by Krista Dietrich

    On March 8, 2014, the Junior League of  Tampa’s Girl Power Project presented an  event focusing on teaching the young  women residing at Joshua House the  importance of taking care of themselves  through good nutrition and regular  exercise. After enjoying a balanced breakfast of baked quiche and fresh fruit the residents and staff of Joshua House participated alongside Junior League members in some fun aerobic activities which were then followed by a relaxing yoga session.

    After working up a sweat, the girls listened to a nutritionist explain the importance of eating well.  The girls learned how to deal with their relationship with food, what to look for on nutritional labels, and what types of food they should eat in order to feel great and have the fuel and energy to get through the day.

    After the nutrition session committee members showed the residents how easy it is to make healthy snacks and smoothies.  Everyone enjoyed freshly made treats and The Girl Power Project left two blenders, a teen cookbook and smoothie recipe cookbook, and yoga mats for the residents to be able to take what they learned into practice. 

    Next month’s theme will be The Power of Expression. This event will focus on showing the girls how to express themselves through their own creativity.

    About the Girl Power Project

    This year the Junior League of Tampa introduced a new project, Girl Power.  The mission of the project is to promote literacy, scholarship, nutrition, and positive self-image to young women in foster care currently residing at Joshua House.  One Saturday each month Junior League volunteers will present a different themed event to present to the young women of Joshua House.  The goal of the project is to improve the life of the young women by showing their lives can improve for the better and that their past does not dictate their destiny, to increase opportunity for academic success for at-risk students, and to decrease the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system by reducing the economic and social cost of juvenile delinquency and helping prepare youth to become productive tax-paying adults.

  • Mar 18 2014

    Innocents Lost: Protecting kids with hollow promises

    by By Audra D.S. Burch and Carol Marbin Miller, Miami Herald

    Third of three parts

    The parents of Jason Warren signed a Department of Children & Families safety plan promising to stop doing drugs. Jason died when he was squashed in bed while both parents were stoned, reports say.

    Emanuel Murray's mom signed a DCF safety plan to keep her very violent boyfriend away from the baby. She didn't. Emanuel, flung from a moving car by the boyfriend, was soon laid to rest.

    Aliyah Branum's mother promised in a safety plan to avoid using "excessive corporal punishment" on the youngster. She slammed the child's head into a wall for crying.

    All empty promises. All dead children.

    Rather than ask a judge to order parents' cooperation with services and supervision, DCF often has troubled parents sign "safety plans" — words scrawled on a form, sometimes illegibly — pledging to become better parents. Many times, the promises are broken, and with fatal consequences.

    In at least 83 cases over the past six years, children whose parents signed at least one such written promise died. But DCF continues to rely on the documents.

    Safety plans are supposed to work like contracts: The parents, step-parents or grandparents agree to stop whatever it is they are doing to endanger a child — overindulging in pain pills, getting drunk, engaging in fistfights around the children, cohabitating with a dangerous beau. In return, DCF agrees not to take your kids.

    In theory, they are a way to make parents face up to their demons, be they drug abuse, mental illness or family violence. Such plans are supposed to provide detailed road maps to recovery, and hold parents accountable when they fall short.

    Except the plans often don't hold them accountable, because the agency has a track record of not noticing — or not acting — when the contract is broken. Except to impose another safety plan.

    "Safety plans that rely on willpower as a strategy are not secure," said Paul Vincent, who as director of Family and Children's Services in Alabama turned that state into a national model.

    Jess McDonald, who ran the Illinois child welfare system from 1994 until 2003, and is credited with dramatically improving it, said such promissory note safety plans are "compensation for not having sufficient resources," and generally don't work.

    Last year, amid a series of critical news articles in the Miami Herald, DCF asked Casey Family Programs to review 40 child deaths in which the agency had prior family involvement. The consultant called the department's safety plans "inadequately resourced" and ineffective.

    Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo acknowledged safety plans have been executed and managed poorly.

    "We have kind of known they have failed, and we have kind of been at a loss as to how to fix it," Jacobo said. She said the agency is now training investigators on how to appropriately use the plans, and supervisors are being required to review each one.

    In its analysis of 477 deaths of children with a DCF family history, the Herald found:

    • Although administrators had received troubling warning signs as early as 2008 that parental pledges did little to protect vulnerable kids, the agency continued to rely on such pacts — without altering the plans to give them teeth, or requiring meaningful follow-up, such as unannounced home visits or random drug testing to ensure compliance.

    When Chase Anglemyer was born, his three siblings already had been removed from his parents owing to a well-documented history of drug and alcohol abuse. Amanda Brown and Daniel Anglemyer continued to abuse drugs after Chase's birth, DCF said. Instead of sheltering Chase along with his siblings or asking a court to order services, DCF put in place two safety plans, one of which tacked on additional tasks in a services plan they were already failing to fulfill.

    A month later, Brown was found "passed out in front of the toilet with her pants down," while Anglemyer was "passed out in the hallway" from allegedly using pills, a report to the agency said. DCF still did not intercede. Ten days later, Chase was found dead in his parents' bed.

    The cause of Chase's death remains unexplained, and no one has been charged, although both parents tested positive for drugs. A detective reported seeing "empty beer cans, an empty bottle of Arbor Mist wine, and an empty 1.5-liter rum bottle" in the home where Chase's body was found, according to a review of the boy's death.

    • When DCF investigators found they could not rely on the promises of drug-addicted or violent parents, they enlisted relatives or "communities," extracting pledges from grandparents or neighbors to intervene when children were in danger — conscripting conflicted relatives and near-strangers as a surrogate for agency monitoring. Those plans also proved ineffective.

    Camden Paul, for example, was living in a Jacksonville-area mobile home with her mother and maternal grandparents — all of whom, DCF was told, were heroin users. DCF never drug tested the family. Instead, it asked the 3-year-old's great-grandmother to sign a "community support agreement" pledging to maintain daily contact with the family.

    On April 3, 2009, mother Brittany Paul left Camden home alone in the trailer to check into a hotel with a male friend, a DCF death review said. Her explanation: She thought her grandmother was watching the baby. The grandmother denied it. While Camden was alone, the trailer erupted in flames, killing her.

    In the course of the death review, the girl's grandfather told DCF that Paul "had a history of leaving the child unsupervised," and had set a pair of bedsheets on fire earlier by "passing out" with a lit cigarette.

    The DCF report lamented that Brittany's family members never told anyone that Paul was leaving her toddler at home alone. No one was charged.

    • Multiple children died as a result of the precise failures the safety plans were designed to fix.

    When 22-year-old Gregory Tillman was arrested in Orlando, accused of beating his girlfriend, a DCF investigator was concerned not only for Sonia Lugo, but for the couple's 3-month-old baby, Jean-Pierre Tillman.

    "Child will not be exposed to any domestic violence," read a safety plan Lugo signed in October 2007. "Mother will protect the child."

    Tillman, who had a tattoo of the Grim Reaper on his right arm and went by the street name "Bad News," agreed to what DCF called a "verbal safety plan" to curb his aggression. Four months later, he became enraged with Jean-Pierre's crying and shook and beat the boy, hurling him against a wall. An autopsy said he likely also was drowned.

    Tillman is serving a life sentence at Columbia Correctional.

    • Parents violated their safety plans with impunity. Some parents violated safety plans only to be offered another one, which sometimes contained the same provisions.

    One-year-old Fernando Barahona suffered a series of skull fractures as well as a half-dozen bruises to his forehead and his spine; one bruise looked like a hand print. Altough family members blamed the injuries on the family dog, health care providers told DCF they believed someone had abused Fernando. The sole caregiver present when he was injured was Ronald Midkiff, his mother's boyfriend.

    On May 18, 2013, Fernando's mother, Elvia Fernandez, signed a safety plan: "Ronald Midkiff cannot have any contact with the children. Any violations of this safety plan may result in legal action."

    The safety plan was ignored. Shortly after it was signed, DCF received a report that Midkiff had been at the children's daycare and had hit Fernandez on the head and yanked one of her children by his hair.

    On June 3, someone strangled Fernando. Midkiff was in the house that night with Fernando's mother, contrary to the safety plan. Fernando's death was ruled a homicide, although no one has been charged.

    A little relapse

    Frequently, parents were allowed to write their own plans, replete with spelling and grammar errors. Some of the plans were barely legible. One handwritten plan by a couple stated: "We do not expose are children to drugs or alchol … and where following through or case plan." Five weeks later, their son, Ben Powell, died of pneumonia while his father was drunk, according to DCF records. The parents were staying in the home of friends and forgot to bring along his nebulizer, a device to aid breathing, the file says. There were no charges.

    Virginia Pouncey, a Lortab addict, told DCF at the birth of her infant that she had suffered "a little relapse" when her grandfather died, and smoked one "joint" to feel better. A drug test at the time showed Pouncey had used not just marijuana, but methadone, the anxiety drug benzodiazepine, and opiates.

    Newborn Marvin suffered the consequences: He endured withdrawal from his mother's drugs and was having trouble feeding.

    DCF allowed Virginia Pouncey to craft her own safety plan. In it, she promised to keep doing what she had been doing.

    "I will continue to take care of my children the way that I have been," she wrote, adding: "I also will continue to go to (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings and stay clean as I have been." Pouncey also promised not to expose her children to drugs.

    During the next month, Pouncey refused to take a drug test and dropped out of a methadone clinic. In two prior DCF cases, Pouncey did not cooperate, and had been jailed for violating probation in a drug-related matter.

    Although agency lawyers determined DCF had sufficient cause to ask a child welfare judge to oversee the family, the petition was never filed — part of an "ongoing problem" with the area's legal office.

    Marvin died before he was 3 months old, in a twin-size bed with his mother and older siblings, a dangerous co-sleeping arrangement that was made more hazardous by Virginia Pouncey's use of narcotics, a Child Protection Team doctor wrote. She tested positive for marijuana, opiates and benzodiazepines.

    After Marvin's death, department lawyers filed the court petition on behalf of his surviving siblings. There were no criminal charges.

    For years, DCF investigators, supervisors and high-level administrators had been warned that executing promissory safety plans was a poor alternative to real social work. In the Panhandle, one administrator who analyzed child death cases for a living, Linda Swan, warned her colleagues several times to discontinue the practice.

    In an early case, Angeline Russ signed two safety plans, one promising not to drink "to the point of intoxication while caring for her children," and another vowing to avoid domestic violence. On March 20, 2009, she accidentally smothered her 2-month-old daughter, Kimora Unity Russ, in bed after drinking, by her count, four to five beers.

    "The safety plans established and documented departmental expectations, but realistically, would not have done much to ensure the safety of the children," Swan observed.

    More than a handful

    At 24, Fabia Clark cared for nine children: a 17-year-old niece and nephew, both diagnosed with developmental disabilities, who became her responsibility upon their own mother's death; and seven who were Clark's, including a 4-year-old with Down syndrome; and another child with developmental disabilities.

    Three times since 2005, DCF had been warned that Clark's drug use and inattention to her children left them in danger. In April 2009, three of Clark's small children — all below the age of 4 — were found by a neighbor "running in the street," and nearly struck by a car, a DCF report said. When the neighbor returned the toddlers, she was met at the door by a leather strap-wielding Clark.

    The agency closed the new case when an investigator "addressed a safety plan with the mother" — the details are not specified in a report — and installed an alarm on her front door to alert her when the kids were making a break. Neither measure proved effective.

    Two weeks after the investigation was closed, 16-month-old Kevin Walker was found at the bottom of a dark green pool brimming with dirty diapers, toys and shoes. Although they had taken care to secure the front door, neither Clark nor DCF had considered the four sliding glass doors plus a bathroom door leading to the fetid pool.

    Hope for the best

    Logan Hancock died of a cracked skull. It was the second time someone had bashed in the newborn's head.

    In July 2013, Logan was hospitalized with a depressed skull fracture. It was the kind of injury, his doctor said, that resulted from abusive trauma. Logan's mother, father and grandmother were present around the time the injury was inflicted and were questioned, the DCF file said. All of them denied responsibility, which worried authorities even more because it suggested the family was "hiding abuse."

    At first, the agency planned to involve a judge in Logan's protection. Instead, parents Stephanie Schoonover and Steve Hancock signed a safety plan promising to provide "appropriate adult supervision" and a home free of hazards. Caseworkers and counselors also would visit the home from time to time. One service provider — DCF removed that detail from a report — expressed concern over the arrangement, but said he or she "hoped for the best."

    On Sept. 6, 2013, Schoonover shook Logan and then slammed his head against his crib, killing him. She confessed to police, records show.

    Said McDonald, the former Illinois child welfare chief: "How can you possibly manage safety when don't know who the perpetrator is yet, but you know there is one?"

    'Red flag case'

    When William Sloan was born on Dec. 5, 2008, his two siblings were already in foster care, owing to his parents' severe drug abuse and his mother's mental illness, a DCF report said. When William came to the department's attention two days after his birth, a DCF supervisor in Bay County observed: "This is a red flag case."

    The boy's father, John Robert Sloan, refused to talk to the agency, angry over what he called DCF harassment: Members of the family had been investigated 11 times. The newborn's mother, eager to keep William and hoping to regain her other two children, signed a safety plan agreeing to refrain from drug use and to provide adequate care and supervision for William.

    Six months after Tonya Osburn signed her safety pledge, conditions had worsened, reports show: The home had no electricity and was "trashed," a caseworker wrote. Osburn had stopped taking her mental health drugs, and was kicked out of a treatment program. Mother and baby were sleeping on a mattress on the floor, contrary to all safety precautions. "Dog crap" littered the home.

    Another hotline report arrived, saying Osburn was acutely ill with bipolar disorder, and would sleep and not watch the child. After a visit with his mom, William returned, the report said, wearing the same clothing, including a shirt that appeared to be burned by a cigarette. The report added that Osburn had not fed the child in as long as two days and that "she has left the child with 'just anyone' while she goes out and parties at bars."

    On May 21, 2009, Sloan and Osburn were asked to sign another safety plan, this time pledging not to do drugs, or to leave William in a hazardous home.

    Five weeks later, John Sloan bought a fifth of Lord Calvert, with Coke as a mixer, the DCF file said. His wife had left him. Father and son went to sleep around midnight. Sloan awoke later to play video games, then "passed out" at about 4 a.m. — with William next to him on the couch. He found the infant dead the next morning, smothered.

    According to the death review, Sloan talked to a friend afterward and confided: "Yep, I drank it all by myself."

    He was charged with manslaughter. Two years later, a judge dismissed the case after Sloan's lawyer argued there was no evidence to suggest he had been drunk.

    Innocents Lost

    Miami Herald investigation on how 477 children died of neglect or abuse while on the protective radar of the state of Florida.

    Database of child deaths

    Digging through six years of DCF files, the Herald found hundreds of children who died of abuse or neglect whose families had contact with the agency over the previous five years — far more than the state reported. Read their stories at

  • Mar 17 2014

    Innocents Lost: Drugs cause scores of child deaths every year in Florida

    by By Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, Miami Herald
    They are among the most prolific killers of Florida children, but they don't carry a gun or a knife. The danger they carry is small enough to fit inside a pill bottle, a bong or a syringe.

    Drugs are the cause of scores of child deaths every year in Florida.

    The youngest casualties of Florida's drug culture include Evan Longanecker, almost 2 months old when he was smothered by his drug-abusing mother, who passed out while breastfeeding him; 7-month-old Ella Moon Martin, whose mom stashed her pot in the baby's diaper bag; and Logan Suber, a 2-month-old who died in a barn surrounded by his mother's drugs and paraphernalia.

    "Drugs are what drive the child-welfare system," said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen, a veteran who oversees the county's drug program for unfit parents. She has called the state's programs for combating parental drug addiction "inherently flawed and tremendously dangerous."

    They are inherently flawed, she said, because the system is, for the most part, voluntary. Parents can "just say no" — to testing, to treatment, to acknowledging their demons.

    The Miami Herald's comprehensive examination of 477 child deaths whose families were known to the Department of Children & Families found that, in 323 cases, one or both parents had a state-documented history of alcohol or drug abuse. The investigation also found a clear-cut pattern:

    • When parents denied they had a drug problem — contrary to all evidence — that answer was usually sufficient for DCF investigators.

    • When parents were asked to take a drug test and they refused, they were not forced to do so. The refusal carried no consequences.

    • When moms and dads did agree to go to drug treatment only to drop out or flunk out, DCF seldom followed up.

    In Florida, to compel parents to change their behavior requires filing a court petition and getting a judge's approval. Through its actions, the state has shown a reluctance to do that.

    "We have no ability to order anyone to do anything unless a court orders them to do it," said Esther Jacobo, DCF's interim secretary.

    Of the child-death cases with links to drugs or alcohol, more than one-third involved at least one parent using prescription pain pills like oxycodone, the pharmaceutical scourge of the past decade. Seventy of the 323 children drowned, 60 were smothered (the majority by accident), and 76 were killed by traumatic injuries — most the result of beatings. Twenty children choked, and 12 were shot.

    "We have been doing the same thing over and over and over — and expecting a different result," Cohen said. "It's insanity."

    As the number of drug-related child deaths climbed, Florida budget-makers pared down the spending plan for programs aimed at helping to repair families wrecked by substance abuse. The total allocation for substance abuse in the DCF budget has declined from $222.7 million in 2005-06 to $209.3 million in the current fiscal year. Gov. Rick Scott's proposal for next year, aimed at shoring up child-welfare programs, would lop off an additional $9.8 million.

    One of the largest drug-treatment programs in Central Florida is called Operation PAR, serving 12,000 to 14,000 patients in six Tampa Bay-area counties each year. Because state budgets were reduced, the "Par Village" program saw its residential bed capacity shrink by half, from 60 to 30 beds, said Nancy Hamilton, the program's president. Average length of stay in the beds declined as well, from 12 months to about 90 days, she said.

    Under DCF's last administration, "there was this mentality that providers like us were getting rich," Hamilton said.

    The Village, Miami's largest drug-treatment program, also saw reductions during that stretch. From 2008 to 2013, the program's average number of clients declined from 161 to 118. Average length of stay went from 99 days to 70, said Frank C. Rabbito, a senior vice president at WestCare Foundation, which runs The Village and its treatment program for addicted parents in the county's child welfare court system.

    Even when beds are available, parents can and do resist treatment.

    Evan Longanecker was 7 weeks old when his mother fell asleep while breastfeeding him on a couch. Also 7 weeks old was a DCF hotline report that both Evan and his mother were methadone addicts. The Citrus County infant was born so severely addicted that he suffered tremors, shaking and jitters as he endured withdrawal from the drug, the death review said.

    Evan's mother, Abbey Jaros, told an investigator she could not stop her drug abuse without a treatment program. And though referrals were made, Jaros had not received any drug treatment before her son died, a report said. She also had refused help from a crisis-response team. On Oct. 18, 2011, a DCF supervisor asked an agency lawyer to consider filing a court petition, saying Jaros "continued to breastfeed the child while using illegally obtained methadone." Evan was smothered the next day.

    Evan was among at least four babies who died while their drug-abusing mothers were breastfeeding them. One of them, 6-week-old Lauralye Presgrove of Citrus County, apparently "died with the mother's breast in her mouth," a report said. She, too, was smothered.

    Failed treatment

    An October 2011 report by the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare showed that parental alcohol or drug abuse was, far and away, the leading cause of Florida parents being stripped of their rights to their children. Close to 45 percent of all parental-rights terminations in the state were caused by substance abuse, compared with about 32 percent for the nation as a whole.

    The same report said that Florida's primary program for evaluating drug abuse among parents had a woeful record for successfully treating addicts. During the 2010-11 budget year, about 5,525 parents from the Miami-Dade judicial circuit were referred to the Family Intervention Specialists, or FIS, program. Among them, only 97 completed drug treatment.

    Many parents were never offered drug treatment, even when their child-abuse histories, criminal histories and even recent drug-testing showed strong evidence of addiction.

    Robert Jerrell's own mother said he had been a drug addict for eight years, with a particular fondness for cocaine. In late 2011, DCF was told Jerrell was abusing methadone, Xanax and pain medications. Jerrell had been charged with driving while under the influence of narcotics, a report said. Though he had a "history of drug- and violence-related criminal charges," investigators concluded that he did not, at that time, have a drug problem and that he would not harm his baby, Aaron.

    On May 15, 2012, Jerrell left Aaron in a water-filled bathtub unsupervised while he nodded off in another room; the boy was 9 months old when he drowned. The Nassau County man nodded off again during an interview with detectives at the hospital. He is serving eight years for aggravated manslaughter of a child.

    Investigators looking into reports that a parent's drug abuse is endangering a child can come to counter-intuitive conclusions when a parent spurns DCF's involvement.

    Two years before Ryan Wagner was born, DCF received a report that his father, Patrick, was using crack cocaine "every day." Patrick Wagner's home was about to lose its electricity for lack of payment, and one of his children had gone 11 days without necessary medical care. Confronted by an investigator, the Walton County man refused to take a drug test. DCF did not press further by going to court and getting a judge to intervene.

    The paperwork from that investigation concluded: Investigator "is closing case (unfounded) for substance exposure due to the parents refusing" a drug test. The report also noted the investigator "did not see any use of drugs while in the home."

    The report was filed away. Four years later, Wagner's son, 3-year-old Ryan, wandered into a "dark green" pool and drowned. The case was verified by DCF as death by neglect.

    DCF did the required death review — a look at what went wrong and whether agency intervention might have averted the tragedy — and zeroed in on the four-year-old notations.

    "The father's refusal to take a drug test certainly did not disprove the allegation," the review stated. As for no drug use taking place while the investigator was in the home, the death review observed: "It is very unlikely that the parents would do drugs in the presence of the (investigator)."

    Placing infants on grown-up beds or co-sleeping with an adult or older sibling on a bed or couch is especially deadly when drugs and alcohol are involved. Of the 78 co-sleeping deaths that were verified as abuse or neglect, 60 had a link to substance abuse.

    "Most of the parents or caregivers in these 'roll-over' deaths had histories of substance abuse and/or tested positive for drugs following the child death," the Casey Family Programs reported last year in a study of 40 Florida child deaths. "Very few of the parents with substance-abuse issues involved in these deaths ... appeared to be in recovery, or even enrolled in treatment programs."

    The report, commissioned after a series of Miami Herald stories about child deaths, said investigators frequently left babies in the homes of drug-abusing parents, relying on pledges to stay clean and brochures about safe sleeping.

    "Giving information regarding co-sleeping (one time) to drug addicted parents, and having these parents sign agreements to refrain from co-sleeping with infants," the report said, "is a highly risky and questionable basis for safety planning."

    Three times during Ella Moon Martin's short life, DCF had been told that her mother, Nina Martin, was abusing drugs and alcohol and endangering the infant with risky behaviors. Martin, the agency was told, smoked pot, took LSD, snorted cocaine and drank excessively. Investigators noted that Martin was using her baby's crib as a junk box, and in two different safety plans Martin agreed to "(clean) the child's crib out."

    On Dec. 20, 2008, Martin left 7-month-old Ella alone on an adult bed and went outside her Alachua County home to have sex in a parked car, the DCF file said. When Martin came back inside, Ella had slid from the bed and become wedged between the mattress and a wall. The infant had vomited and then suffocated. The cause of her death was positional asphyxia. At the hospital, Martin smelled of alcohol, a nurse told authorities. Police found marijuana in Ella's diaper bag, in a box with the baby's medicine.

    Family influence

    When the tots of drug-abusing parents turn into teenagers, they sometimes inherit their parents' habits. The deaths of 14 teenagers were linked to drug abuse, including eight overdoses, five suicides and one 17-year-old who was hit by a car while crossing the road under the influence of prescription drugs. For them, drugs and drug dependency were handed down like a family heirloom.

    St. Petersburg teenager Amanda Nipper was one of those drug victims. Five Octobers ago, Amanda, daughter of a woman portrayed in the family's DCF file as a longtime drug user, took her mother's car and credit card and drove to the mall with friends.

    Amanda had been taking the sedative Xanax that day, and her friends said the 14-year-old was "out of it." Later that night, she became tearful and depressed. She slipped into the family's garage and vanished. No one looked for her.

    The next day, Oct. 19, 2009, Amanda's mother, Heidi Dente, returned home from a meeting at the Pinellas County state attorney's office. Prosecutors were investigating allegations that Dente's boyfriend supplied drugs to her daughters and that he took suggestive pictures of them in their underwear.

    Dente, her boyfriend and other friends unwound by smoking a joint in the backyard, a DCF report said.

    To the rear of the yard, they noticed what appeared to be a Halloween decoration.

    It was actually Amanda, hanging by the neck from a tree with rope from a clothesline. She had been on display for the better part of a day.

    DCF, which had been involved with the family for more than a decade, wrote a death review citing maternal substance abuse, lack of appropriate supervision, lack of structure and guidance, and the agency's own inaction.

    Reaching out

    One day in April 2010, Michelle Vasquez, a mother with a history of mental illness, wrapped her 8-day-old baby, Madison Flores, in a blanket and carried her into the woods near her rural home in tiny Gulf Breeze, just outside Pensacola. She called her mother. Police were summoned.

    When police arrived, Vasquez escorted detectives to the lifeless body of her newborn. She had been dead just long enough for the cold to set in. "She died in my arms," Vasquez said. "I killed my own baby."

    During four investigations in the course of a year involving her older son, Vasquez had told DCF repeatedly that "she needed help with anger management." And though DCF had offered Vasquez drug treatment, mental-health care and parenting classes, there is no documentation showing she partook of the services. Nor did the agency ever move to protect the baby despite red flags that included Vasquez's documented mental instability, a prior neglect history involving her son, and domestic-violence accusations by and against her.

    "This child's tragic death was probably preventable," a DCF self-examination concluded. "It appeared at times she was actually reaching out for help."

    Michelle Vasquez is serving life in prison.

    Death in a barn

    Even when parents are willing to undergo drug treatment and counseling, sometimes the slots aren't available, at least not right away.

    In testimony last September before legislators, Circuit Judge Larry Schack complained that courts can drug-test suspected addicts only on certain days in one of his counties, Okeechobee. The lab is closed otherwise, said Schack, whose caseload includes about 710 abused or neglected children.

    "Very often, there is such a scarcity of treatment beds or intensive outpatient services that parents are required to call the service provider on a daily basis to find out if there is space available to them," Schack added. "If they do not call, they are put at the end of the line."

    Logan Lanier Suber's mother went on a drug-treatment waiting list not long after his birth. Logan was born on Sept. 10 — his mother's birthday — in 2011. Kortney Suber tested positive for amphetamines, the anxiety medication benzodiazepine and marijuana while in the maternity ward. She told DCF she got the stimulant Adderall from a friend "because she needed some energy" and obtained the sedative Klonopin, also from a friend, for anxiety.

    A "family intervention specialist" recommended that Suber be given intensive counseling for her drug problem. DCF closed its investigation into Logan's welfare on Nov. 4, verifying that Suber's drug problem endangered her baby.

    Twenty-four hours later, Logan was dead, accidentally smothered on a patterned couch when his mother fell asleep with him on top of her. Mother and son were living in a Tallahassee-area barn, with three horses and "large bales of hay stacked two high."

    Also stashed in the barn: a pile of clothing and blankets, a can of Budweiser, a pack of rolling papers, a knife inside a sheath, seven yellow pills, two grams of cannabis, one glass pipe, a clay smoking pipe "with marijuana print" — and a baby bottle and a white onesie.

    In Kortney Suber's purse, police found Xanax, Valium, marijuana and a pipe. She had been given no treatment. She was not charged with a crime.

    DCF closed out its case with a puzzling notation: "Risk is low. The child is deceased."

    Innocents Lost

    Miami Herald investigation on how 477 children died of neglect or abuse while on the protective radar of the state of Florida.

    Database of child deaths

    Digging through six years of DCF files, the Herald found hundreds of children who died of abuse or neglect whose families had contact with the agency over the previous five years — far more than the state reported. Read their stories at

    Coming Tuesday

    Florida relies on "safety plans" — signed promises by violent or neglectful parents to shape up. They often don't work.


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