Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Innocents Lost: The huge red flag that gets ignored in child death cases

The night before Aaden Batista died, his killer played a baseball game on his Xbox, smoked marijuana and gave the toddler a bath.

As Aaden's mother, Whitney Flower, worked as a medical assistant at a nearby hospital, Jason Padgett Sr. prepared the toddler for bed, putting on his diaper before, ultimately, viciously shaking him and slamming his head on the floor.

Padgett, the troubled, abusive live-in boyfriend of Flower, gave Aaden candy and placed his limp body in bed, leaving him to sleep off the hurt. Then he went back to his Xbox. Flower returned to her Palm Bay home that night to an unresponsive son and a suspicious story about how her child fell off the toilet.

Flower rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late. Aaden would hang on for another day, then die from a cracked and bleeding skull. He never turned 2, dying 24 days before his birthday.

Aaden became part of the yearly count of children killed at the hands of paramours — child welfare's oddly genteel term to describe boyfriends or girlfriends of custodial parents. Protecting children from abusive paramours is one of the great challenges facing the Department of Children & Families.

"Paramours are a huge red flag," said Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as chairman of child welfare at the school. "They are enormously over-represented as the slayers of young children."

The Miami Herald's examination of 477 deaths by neglect and abuse in which DCF had prior involvement in the household found that 62 boyfriends and three girlfriends have been deemed responsible by the agency for the death of a child. Not all were charged.

The group has proven repeatedly to be a significant danger, especially to infants and toddlers who cry, scream, fuss, soil the sheets and stay up half the night while the paramour is on babysitting duty.

"We do have an inordinate amount of paramours … who kill the children or hurt them badly'' said interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo. She said she has instructed protective investigators to be especially vigilant in monitoring households with paramours, "especially those with young children.''

For instance, Jacobo said investigators are being trained to critically observe the interaction between paramour and child for non-verbal cues about the relationship.

Thousands of pages of DCF death reviews found a pattern of the agency failing to fully assess the risk of an unrelated mate in the house. Background checks went undone or were delayed. And in some cases, like Aaden's, where the paramour had a documented history of violence, DCF did not restrict access to the child.

The potential danger posed by men sharing homes with children having no blood ties to them has long been known by Florida's child welfare system. In 1988, then-Deputy Secretary Pete Digre, now an assistant secretary, warned in a memo to administrators that children can become "competitors for the mother's attention and affection."

"The children often are seen as 'in the way' by the boyfriend," he wrote. "Jealous rage is predictable."

The years following Digre's memo saw a parade of paramour horribles. In one of the ugliest episodes, an enraged Tampa man kidnapped the 3-month-old son of his girlfriend, then tossed the infant through a car window like litter as he sped down the highway. Emanuel died as traffic whizzed past.

Death on a highway

In the pre-dawn hours of May 5, 2009, Jasmine Bedwell had to make a decision: Take more blows or more chokes — but try to rescue her son from the clutches of her enraged boyfriend — or go find help. She left and borrowed a cellphone to call 911.

By the time Bedwell, 17, returned to her apartment, Richard McTear was gone with the baby, Emanuel Murray Jr. Emanuel's body was found on the shoulder of Interstate 275. He was wearing a blue onesie.

Bedwell, a state foster care graduate living independently, told her caseworker about her romance with McTear sometime in the winter of 2009. The couple had met the year before when she was six months pregnant with Emanuel. By January 2010, the DCF review notes, the agency knew he was either a frequent visitor or living in Bedwell's apartment. But a background check on him was not completed until April. Before that check revealed McTear's violent history, a case manager had "encouraged Mr. McTear to assist with the care of the baby and be a support for Ms. Bedwell," the DCF file says.

The first hotline report about the couple was received in April, alleging McTear had beaten Bedwell, sending her to the hospital. The investigation determined he had previously kicked in the apartment door — twice — and threatened to come back with a gun and kill her and Emanuel. The background check showed a 17-arrest criminal history, including kidnapping, child abuse and domestic violence charges. At DCF's urging, Bedwell signed a safety plan agreeing to stop seeing McTear. She filed for a restraining order but did not complete the process.

In the early hours of May 5, Bedwell returned to her Hillsborough County apartment after staying with a friend and found McTear waiting inside. He is accused of punching and choking her, and throwing Emanuel onto a concrete floor. When Bedwell ran for help, McTear grabbed the boy and sped off in his car, tossing him out along the interstate, where he died of blunt impact and skull fractures. Emanuel was 104 days old.

"Despite knowledge of Ms. Bedwell's prior and current victimization and initial resistance to terminate her relationship with Mr. McTear, domestic violence services were not initiated with Ms. Bedwell prior to Emanuel's death," a DCF report concluded.

It added that caseworkers were focused on Bedwell and lacked "a distinct and separate perspective for the welfare of her child."

McTear remains in jail on murder and kidnapping charges after a mistrial was declared in August. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

22 arrests

On March 29, 2010, 10 days before Aaden Batista's death, the DCF child-abuse hotline received a report alleging that Whitney Flower and her paramour, Jason Padgett Sr., were using drugs around her son in their apartment and driving under the influence with him in the car.

When a report is called in to the state's abuse hotline, background checks are required to be done on household members immediately. If a person is later identified as a live-in boyfriend, regular visitor or caregiver, checks must be initiated within 72 hours.

In Padgett's case, investigators did not request all the law enforcement records. Those records would have revealed he was a violent man with a lengthy record — arrested 22 times on charges including aggravated battery, robbery and domestic violence. He had physically abused his mother, ex-wife, three former girlfriends and his then-girlfriend, Flower. A judge had granted his mother a non-expiring restraining order.

Padgett also had a DCF history involving his ex-wife and biological children. After the March 29 hotline call, Aaden's maternal and paternal grandparents told an investigator they were concerned about Padgett's presence in the house and his role caring for Aaden alone.

Investigators had Flower sign a safety plan promising not to allow drug use around Aaden and not to let anyone under the influence care for him. The plan said nothing about restricting Padgett's access to the boy. Aaden's father, Jeffrey Batista, and his parents also signed a safety plan pledging to call police if they were concerned about his welfare.

"The totality of Jason Padgett Sr.'s involvement with the department, law enforcement and his violent behaviors were not fully considered during the assessment process,'' a DCF management review said. It said staff should have considered going to court to protect Aaden.

On April 7, Aaden arrived at the hospital dying.

Flower told police that Padgett had been upset the night before because he wanted to spend time alone with her, and Aaden would not take a nap.

Padgett first told police Aaden fell off the toilet. He finally confessed that he had shaken and beaten him. The former paramour is serving life.

"What this man did to this innocent child is unforgivable," said then-Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger. "No child should ever have to go through what this little boy endured before death.''

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