FRUITLAND PARK — Jaren Hare and her boyfriend did not have to choose between her 2-year-old daughter, Shaiunna, and the stash of drugs the couple had been accused of abusing.
State child welfare investigators allowed Hare to keep her baby and her habit — as well as an 8½-foot-long Burmese python named Gypsy, her pet since she was a teenager. The snake was kept in an aquarium secured only by a safety-pinned quilt that served as a lid.
When the Department of Children & Families received a report on May 1, 2009, that Hare and her boyfriend, Charles "Jason" Darnell, were using cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, Xanax and other narcotics, the couple admitted they took drugs. And that they had no intention of stopping.
Child welfare investigators visited the home and sized up the situation — small tot, large snake and a mother unwilling to abstain from drug use for her child's sake — and decided that Shaiunna was relatively safe.
To make sure, DCF asked the couple to sign a safety plan, a piece of paper pledging not to use drugs in Shaiunna's presence. Shaiunna would be safe from harm, the agency reasoned, if the mom and her boyfriend confined their drug use to the bathroom.
"While generally a safety plan would ask that the parents refrain from using drugs at all, versus 'in the presence of the child,' the parents were unwilling to agree to stop using drugs," DCF's quality-assurance review of the investigation later explained. It called the safety plan "a last resort."
On the night of June 31, 2009, two weeks after the agency closed its investigation, the mother took an unprescribed Vicodin pill and went to bed. While Hare, then 19, was sleeping, the pale yellow snake slithered from the tank and found Shaiunna in her white, wooden crib in the nursery.
Gypsy bit Shaiunna's face, head, abdomen, hands and arms and wrapped around the girl's upper body and squeezing the life out of her. She was found by Darnell, then 32, around 10 the next morning. The snake was still in the crib with Shaiunna, wrapped around her head. The girl's body was cold. Darnell slammed Gypsy to the floor, then stabbed the reptile with a butcher knife and a meat cleaver.
A sobbing Darnell called 911 and said, "Our snake, we have a Burmese python, and she's about 12 feet long. She got out of her cage last night and into the baby's crib and strangled her to death. I'm going to kill the bitch!"
Shaiunna's grotesque death became national news, fed by the endless video loops of sheriff's deputies hauling a limp, injured snake from the couple's trailer in a rural corner of Sumter County, near Ocala. But until now, no one had reported on the backstory — the existence of a safety plan that addressed the drug use but not the presence of the snake.
"I didn't like the snake; I didn't want it around," said 32-year-old Joey Gilkerson, Shaiunna's birth father, who lived in Ohio. "The worst part is that I will never be able to see my daughter again. I have to visit her at a cemetery."
Hare and Darnell were both convicted of aggravated manslaughter. Each was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
One month after Shaiunna's death, DCF conducted a review of the case to determine whether the risk and safety assessments were done properly for the initial investigation, the one alleging Hare and Darnell were abusing drugs.
The review found that the protective investigator observed the snake's habitat — an aquarium on top of a small TV stand — and noted that the tank appeared to be secure and "out of reach of the child."
DCF closed that initial case, concluding there was sufficient cause to go to court to protect Shaiunna but instead deciding to offer in-home services. The couple did not cooperate, and the services were never provided. A month later, DCF learned that Darnell had, in the interim, been arrested twice — once for drugs, the second time for criminal mischief for vandalizing his ex-wife's car. Despite that, the same DCF lawyer now ruled there was no legal sufficiency to go to court. The review of the investigation said it was unclear why the lawyer's opinion changed.
Though it acknowledged flaws in how the case was handled, DCF concluded that Shaiunna's death could not have been prevented.
"It is important to note that the python snake did not play a role in the prior case, and was not seen as a threat to the children," the review said. "The threat noted was that of the family's erratic behavior, and substance abuse."
Gilkerson, a handyman, learned of his daughter's death from his brother, who saw it in a news feed on his computer. He drove 900 miles to Florida overnight, pulling over every half hour or so to vomit, haunted by the thought of his daughter in the coil of a snake.
He said he had warned Hare, his ex-fiancée, that the snake should not be in the home near his only child.
He said his farewell to a small plot of ground without a headstone.
In time, the grief ripened into something else: anger. Not just at Hare and Darnell, but at DCF. Gilkerson sued the agency, asserting it should have looked at the totality of the situation — snake, small child, drug-using mom and boyfriend — and taken decisive action.
They settled the case a month before trial. The terms are confidential, but Florida law caps the amount at $100,000.
"They failed to do anything," said Fort Lauderdale attorney J. Scott Gunn, who represented Gilkerson. "My analogy is if an adult is sitting in a room and puts a handgun on a coffee table, that is fine. But if the adult does that with a 2-year-old around, that is negligent. Having drugs and snakes in the house, if you are living by yourself, is one thing, but around minors is clearly unacceptable."