TAMPA — Florida's chief protector of children came to Tampa this week to try to figure out what went wrong when a year-old baby under close state supervision died May 18 from a beating.
David Wilkins, secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, said Wednesday he doesn't have all the answers yet. But he said he has learned that when three agencies in Tampa couldn't agree on how to protect little Ezekiel Mathis, no one told the DCF.
"Multiple organizations disagreed," Wilkins said. "We needed to be in the situation."
Hillsborough County's child protection system is different from those in nearly all other counties in the state.
Under the system, the DCF partners with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Hillsborough Kids Inc. and the state Attorney General's Office. The Sheriff's Office does child protective investigations. Hillsborough Kids Inc. provides services for families in need. The Attorney General's Office handles the legal work.
The DCF pays the Attorney General's Office $8.4 million a year for legal services in Hillsborough, Manatee and Broward counties. In almost all other Florida counties, the DCF relies on its own legal team for those services.
Officials say the arrangement here was a pilot project instituted by the Legislature about a dozen years ago, during the tenure of Attorney General Bob Butterworth. It was a time when lawmakers sought to streamline and privatize many services. Butterworth had a reputation for improving bureaucracies.
But over the years, the pilot project never expanded past Hillsborough, Manatee and Broward.
This month, when child protective investigators found danger in the Tampa home of Ezekiel Mathis, the agencies couldn't agree on what to do.
Ezekiel's 2-year-old sister was removed from the home after investigators found bruises all over her body.
But the Sheriff's Office and the Attorney General's Office split on what to do about Ezekiel. The Sheriff's Office wanted him removed. But the Attorney General's Office disagreed. It said Ezekiel had no bruises. There was no evidence of abuse. Ezekiel was to be monitored, it decided, but would stay with his mother.
Then on May 18, Ezekiel was killed. Investigators said the mother's boyfriend, Damarcus Kirkland-Williams, 21, admitted throwing him against a dresser and pounding on his back when he wouldn't stop crying.
Kirkland-Williams is being held without bail on charges including first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.
Investigations of what went wrong are under way by both the DCF and the Attorney General's Office.
The DCF's Wilkins said Hillsborough's peculiar arrangement has had its plus sides. "Bringing so many bright minds together," he said, "can be a real strength in child care."
But when those bright minds can't agree on how to save a child, Wilkins said, the buck will stop with the DCF.