St. Petersburg attorney Darryl Rouson has taken on the case of Nicholle West, the mother of a baby who died in December on the watch of child welfare workers. He is preparing to sue the agencies involved in Diella Ludwig's short life.
West gave birth to twins Diella and Shyloh last October in an Ocala prison. Caseworkers handed the babies to their father, Thomas Ludwig, who lived in New Port Richey. He is accused of killing Diella two months later, smashing her skull when she wouldn't stop crying.
An internal review by the Department of Children and Families found caseworkers gave the twins to Ludwig, 24, without exploring if he was fit to care for them. He has a criminal record, a history of drug abuse and faced prior allegations that led DCF investigators to recommend he not be left alone with children.
He was charged last month with first-degree murder in Diella's death.
Rouson has filed a notice of claim letter — the legal requirement before suing a government entity — on West's behalf. It names the Department of Children and Families, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the Marion County Sheriff's Office and two private contractors for DCF, Youth and Family Alternatives and Eckerd Community Alternatives.
"We're not interested in beating up on DCF," Rouson said. "We're only interested in improving the process, finding out what actually happened and helping Ms. West get through this."
Rouson, a state House representative, said he hasn't yet decided whether he will represent West in her efforts to regain custody of her other children when she is released from prison. In addition to the surviving twin, West has another daughter and two sons. "She absolutely wants to come out and be the best mother that she can be to all of her children," he said.
A recovering cocaine addict himself, Rouson said the desire to be a father to his young son motivated him to get clean.
His recovery story, in fact, is how he came to meet West, 30. He gave a motivational speech recently at Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County, where West is locked up for grand theft.
He spent the day at the prison, where there were presentations by women who had graduated from the facility's drug treatment program. West was in the audience. Records show she has previous arrests for methamphetamine possession, and last July — while pregnant with the twins — she tested positive for cocaine.
Rouson said she is going through rehab in prison.
"She is dealing very effectively with why she's there, and the kind of person that she is, and who she's growing into, and what she'll do upon her release," he said.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.