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

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

A 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 miamiherald.com/projects/2014/innocents-lost.

Coming Tuesday

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

Innocents Lost: Drugs cause scores of child deaths every year in Florida 03/16/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 16, 2014 9:25am]

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