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DCF admits mistakes in case where baby may die

TAMPA — The Florida Department of Children and Families acknowledged Friday that agencies under its oversight erred in the custody case of a 16-month-old Tampa boy who police say was brutally beaten by his father and is not expected to survive.

"Mistakes were definitely made in the decisionmaking process to place the child with the father," DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie said. "Right now we're doing a thorough review of the case, trying to decide what went wrong."

That review spans a tumultuous 16 months for Ronderique Anderson. First, there were paternity questions. Then, a shuffle of homes. On Tuesday, the alleged beating. And now, his family struggles with a tragic decision: whether to keep him alive in a vegetative state or to disconnect the respirator.

The DCF's review will likely focus on a possible turning point: a December decision by an independent agency's caseworker who recommended the court terminate state care for Ronderique and leave him unchecked with his father, Dwayne Poole, a 23-year-old with a history of battery arrests.

Earlier this week, police responded to Poole's Temple Crest apartment for an unresponsive child who had fallen down stairs. Emergency responders found Ronderique with a ruptured spleen, fractured forehead and bleeding brain, according to a search warrant application.

Poole later changed his story. As punishment for trying to stick a hanger in an electric socket, Poole admitted spanking, whipping and beating the boy, police said. He also admitted throwing him onto a bed, causing his head to strike a wall or dresser, according to the warrant application.

Poole is charged with aggravated child abuse but could face additional charges if his son dies. On Friday, before Poole was denied bail at a hearing, Assistant State Attorney Lucia Iler told a judge that Ronderique was to be taken off a respirator. His status was unclear Friday night.

The questions now center on why Ronderique was placed with Poole, and if caseworkers ignored his mother's pleas that her child was in danger, which her family maintains they did.

It begins with Ronderique's birth under state care to a 16-year-old mother who was also a ward of the state. His last name of Anderson stemmed from confusion over his biological father. In March, Poole was identified as the father and began regularly visiting his son, who lived with his mother. By July, Ronderique's mother, Fredreda Scott, was in a group home and had given the boy to Poole.

That change triggered a court review. The judge ordered Ronderique be temporary placed with Poole with monthly check-ins from a caseworker.

That caseworker was employed by Children's Home Society, which conducts the face-to-face review of families for Hillsborough Kids Inc., which manages child welfare in Hillsborough County for the DCF. Caseworkers for Children's Home ultimately make the day-to-day recommendations for families.

Children's Home spokeswoman Liz Bruner said the agency checked and approved Poole's home and visited six times in six months. During those visits, Bruner said in an e-mail, the worker "noted that Ronderique was bonding with his father."

Then, in December, with "no inappropriate interactions, warning signs or complaints," the agency recommended the court make Ronderique's placement with Poole permanent, ending the caseworker's visits.

According to Scott's relatives, Poole and his girlfriend then began guarding Ronderique, and with rare visits came evidence of abuse. Scott reported the signs to the caseworker, they said, but her pleas were ignored.

Ronderique once showed up with two missing front teeth that Poole couldn't explain. During a search Wednesday, police found what appeared to be a small tooth in Poole's home.

The three agencies said there appears to have been no allegations of abuse until Tuesday.

Nevertheless, the DCF and Hillsborough Kids said the case was not handled properly and distanced themselves from fault.

"We don't touch these cases," Gillespie said. "We do have responsibility for the child, yes, but there are no DCF employees technically involved in the case until this point in time."

Hillsborough Kids president Jeff Rainey insisted the errors were due to a few employees at Children's Home and not a widespread problem. Children's Home spokeswoman Bruner said in an e-mail that the "preliminary study does not indicate any concerns that would have materially changed the tragic outcome in this case."

But to the friends and family of Ronderique, no excuses or explanations matter now.

"This could've been prevented if they did a thorough check," said Scott's close friend Deja Wright, 21. "They apologize now, but it's too late."

Times staff writers Alexandra Zayas and Dan Sullivan and Times Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or jnicas@sptimes.com.

DCF admits mistakes in case where baby may die 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 11:13pm]
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