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Innocents Lost: When everyone sees the hurt except DCF

When Joshua Jenkins broke his arm, his parents blamed it on the boy's bed.

When Joshua's face and chest were bruised, they pointed a finger at the dentist.

And when the youngster needed staples to close a head gash, they said the boy ran into a wall.

Joshua was either the clumsiest kid in Cape Coral or somebody's punching bag.

Joshua's teachers and counselors were certain it was the latter. They reported his parents at least three times to the state's child abuse hotline. Joshua himself told authorities his stepfather was beating him, saying, "Daddy did it" in the fall of 2006 when he arrived at school with purple bruises on his ear, biceps, chin, neck and head.

"We knew he was being abused in that home," said Sharon Lennox, one of Joshua's pre-K teachers.

Everybody could see it except the Department of Children and Families, whose job is to recognize abuse and shield children like Joshua. Investigators dismissed the teachers' concerns. Joshua paid with his life.

Hundreds of pages of records reviewed by the Miami Herald suggest the DCF did not consider the possibility that Joshua's teachers and counselors could be right. In their failures, they traveled a well-worn path.

Before there was Joshua Jenkins, there was Kayla Mc­Kean. Starting in April 1997, Kayla showed up at school in Orange County with a variety of injuries, including a broken nose, two fractures to her left hand and two black eyes that were swollen shut. Teachers told the DCF. Her father, Richard Adams, had an explanation for all of it. The DCF decided his explanations were credible.

Adams beat Kayla to death after she soiled her pants, then buried her in the Ocala National Forest on Thanksgiving eve. He reported her missing, spurring a huge hunt, before confessing. Adams is serving a life sentence.

A 1998 grand jury investigating that breakdown recommended that "all reports of suspected abuse emanating from a school employee be given a presumption of validity" because, in such cases, parents have an obvious incentive to lie while educators don't.

"Many times," the report said, "the teacher, principal or counselor is in the best position to recognize a pattern of abuse for what it is."

That lesson was forgotten by the time Joshua came along.

Teachers take note

Joshua barely stayed at any school long enough for his teachers to know him well. He attended at least three schools over a two-year period as his parents transferred him in response to the frequent abuse reports.

He struggled with a speech impairment that made him difficult to understand and was diagnosed with developmental delay. In other ways, Joshua seemed typical: He slept beneath a set of Spider-Man bedsheets and watched Disney's Cars enough to know the lines by heart. He got a new bike for Christmas and liked pool and air hockey.

Whatever Joshua did or didn't do at home to trigger his stepfather's rage, his teachers insist that, while mischievous, he was a sweet little boy who mostly tried to please.

Joshua arrived in Florida in 2006. His birth father killed himself. His mother, Rebecca Gayle, fled the ravages of post-Hurricane Katrina Mississippi with her newlywed husband, Phillipe, and her preschool-age son.

It did not take long for Florida's abuse hotline to record Joshua's presence.

On Oct. 9, 2006, Joshua arrived at Tanglewood/Riverside Elementary with scratches on his neck, "finger-shaped" bruises under his chin and a bruise on his temple. The child welfare agency was alerted.

The school's assistant principal told a DCF investigator it was not the first time.

The Gayles had an explanation — actually, several. They said a student named "Kendall" or "Kristin" was bullying Joshua, although there were no students by either name at Tanglewood.

Other marks on Joshua's face were skin irritation caused by a new soap. His shoulder bruise was caused by a classmate pushing him. Scratches on his hand occurred at a park. The scratch to his ear? The barber did that. The mark on his neck was a bug bite.

The most serious injury required Joshua to have his head stapled. His mother blamed it on a wall.

The DCF believed his parents. The Gayles, a report said, were "resilient and work together."

"There is no suspected abuse of any kind toward Joshua," investigator Danielle DePhillip opined on Oct. 10, 2006. "Overall, risk is extremely low," she added later.

It wasn't long before Joshua's teachers sounded the alarm again.

On Dec. 12, 2006, the hotline was told that Joshua had "dark brown" bruises on his wrist. "Dad," Joshua told his teachers, had kicked him on his bottom and hit him in the chest and stomach, leaving more bruises.

Joshua, 4 at the time, told a team of doctors and nurses who specialize in detecting child abuse that his stepfather frequently punched and kicked him, and that he had vomited once after Gayle slugged him in the stomach. He said his stepfather sometimes choked him when he misbehaved.

Not true, the Gayles said. The bruises on Joshua's wrists were made by boxing gloves; a "handicapped child at the park" bruised his torso by "tickling" him too hard.

"We are not abusive parents," Rebecca Gayle said. "He bruises easily." She accused the school of discriminating against her because she was a white woman married to an African-American man. She planned to correct the problem by changing schools.

Risk to Joshua, investigator Wendi Braswell wrote, was "low" because his parents were "protective and concerned."

The DCF ended the investigation in February 2007, calling risk to the boy "extremely low." The agency recommended that the Gayles take parenting classes and undergo counseling — and that Phillipe Gayle submit to anger-management training. The Gayles declined.

The couple enrolled Joshua in another school, J. Colin English Elementary. A few months later, the hotline was ringing with three new reports.

Joshua, the DCF was told on May 2, 2007, had new bruises on his arm, face and chest. The next day, reports two and three arrived: The boy had more bruises to his elbow and forearm, and his neck was hurting.

Explanations

The parents again had an explanation: A bike helmet caused Joshua's facial bruising. The bruised arm came from the dentist holding Joshua down. The Gayles provided evidence that Joshua had a blood-clotting disorder that made him bleed more than most children. Investigators didn't contact the dentist to ask whether he or she had injured the boy.

A DCF supervisor suggested the boy's mother call the school board to complain about what she called "harassment."

After those May 2007 hotline calls, Joshua clung to the leg of teacher Carmen Nieves when Phillipe Gayle came to pick him up from school.

"Joshua did not want to go that day," said another teacher, Sharon Lennox. "He cried and cried and cried."

It was the last anyone at the school saw of the boy, as the Gayles immediately transferred him to another.

The last hotline call was received at 6 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2008. Joshua was dying in a hospital. He had been brought in with multiple bruises on his face, head and rib cage. Also, someone had bitten him. The autopsy cited multiple blunt-force trauma to the boy's abdomen, diaphragm, lungs and liver; deep marks on his head and bites to his feet. He had lost nearly a gallon of blood.

Detectives believe Phillipe Gayle snapped that balmy February morning when Joshua, age 6, wet the bed the two were sharing.

In an interrogation that takes up 359 pages, Gayle initially denied laying a hand on his stepson, then his story began to evolve.

Detective Christy Ellis, who had observed the boy's autopsy, slipped into sarcasm: "Underneath his skin there is a large bruise basically going all around his ear. … It's not from the barbershop."

Detective Kurt Grau jumped in: "You're using him as a piñata!"

As he had in the past, Gayle offered explanations. He said he was only playing when he bit Joshua's foot. Joshua injured his head against a dresser while the two were playing. The fatal stomach injuries? Gayle threw Joshua "up in the sky" and he landed on Gayle's fist.

"My head is hurting," Gayle said, upset that he was being depicted as "the bad guy."

"My heart is," Ellis shot back, "after being at that autopsy."

Phillipe Gayle, charged with aggravated manslaughter, was convicted and sentenced to 30 years. Joshua's mother was not charged.

In the last report, the DCF acknowledged what others had been telling the agency: Joshua was the victim of severe child abuse.

"He was just a child. It's so tragic," said Carmen Nieves, the teacher whose leg Joshua clung to and who still sobs when she discusses him. "I didn't think it could be so painful."

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.

Innocents Lost: When everyone sees the hurt except DCF 03/16/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 16, 2014 9:24am]
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