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DCF: Not enough evidence existed to take girl from home where python attacked

Charles J. Darnell hugs Jaren Hare, mother of a girl killed by a pet python at their home in Oxford in Sumter County on July 1. Shaunnia Hare, 2, was already dead when paramedics arrived.

Associated Press

Charles J. Darnell hugs Jaren Hare, mother of a girl killed by a pet python at their home in Oxford in Sumter County on July 1. Shaunnia Hare, 2, was already dead when paramedics arrived.

When a state investigator stepped inside a Sumter County home in May to check on the children inside, the family's pet python was the least of his worries.

He was more concerned with the human threat.

Charles Jason Darnell and his pregnant girlfriend Jaren Ashley Hare were accused of selling drugs out of their Oxford home. The boyfriend was abusive, a tipster warned, the mother always "high" and the 2-year-old girl who lived there neglected.

But after several visits, the Department of Children and Families investigator couldn't prove that. All the investigator found is that the couple were irresponsible parents who liked to smoke pot.

It wasn't until three weeks later, when the 81/2-foot Burmese python escaped from its enclosure, slithered into a crib and strangled 2-year-old Shaiunna Rose Hare, that anyone knew just how irresponsible they were.

Now the couple is charged in the girl's death.

DCF said Thursday that there was nothing they could do to remove Shaiunna from the home before she died. The records of their investigation reveal that the couple were indeed bad parents — just not bad enough to give the state a chance to save Shaiunna.

"Maybe that ought to be a crime," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgeway. "But there is no crime to being a bad parent."

• • •

What the DCF investigation did show is that the couple regularly used drugs in their Oxford trailer.

That's how Darnell's 7-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter came to learn what the word "weed" meant.

They weren't related to Shaiunna. Their father, Darnell, wasn't Shaiunna's father. But he did father the child that Hare was pregnant with at the time.

They said they visited their father every other weekend or so. The boy not only described what marijuana looked like, he said his dad kept it in a purple Crown Royal bag.

When investigators spoke to Darnell he was "belligerent." He claimed he didn't have a key to his house and punched a hole in the door to let them in.

He denied selling or using drugs — until confronted with his children's statements.

He said he smoked marijuana "because it makes him feel good," the investigator wrote.

The home was "cluttered and messy but not hazardous," the report said, but the fridge was full of food. The investigator also wrote this observation:

"There is a large yellow snake in an aquarium and a pitbull in the home which was friendly."

• • •

Later, DCF spoke to Hare.

She said she used to smoke marijuana, but doesn't anymore. Then she heard what the kids said.

She then told the investigator she might have "hit a joint" two weeks ago.

Later, at DCF's offices, both failed urine tests. Charles tested positive for marijuana and oxycodone, the report said, and Hare for marijuana.

Both signed documents swearing not to use drugs in front of the children. Darnell said he would do "whatever it takes for his children."

• • •

Instead, he was arrested twice during the DCF investigation.

On May 11, he was arrested for criminal mischief for ripping the mirror off the car of the mother of his two older children.

Then on May 23 he was arrested on charges of possession of cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines and driving with a suspended license.

Meanwhile, they dodged phone calls, missed appointments and ignored DCF's offers of help, the state said. Darnell's behavior also alarmed a DCF drug counselor.

"Charles appears to be a master manipulator," the counselor wrote, "and seems to have (girlfriend) Jaren convinced that this was just an innocent arrest."

There was also concern for Hare, 19, that Darnell, 32, might be a "classic textbook abuser."

The counselor recommended a legal option called "direct file." A judge would monitor Shaiunna, but the child stay with the couple. But DCF's lawyer said they hadn't proved their case.

"We did not have the ground to file that petition," said DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner. "Nor did we have the grounds to remove the child."

This is all DCF had proved:

"The reality is that they were two parents who were using drugs," Hoeppner said. "We were not able to directly link the substance use to child abuse."

• • •

Darnell found the python wrapped around Shaiunna the morning of July 1. She had been bitten and crushed to death.

It was later, DCF said, that it learned what everyone else did: that the snake repeatedly escaped, that the couple ignored offers to help secure the terrarium or keep the snake elsewhere, that the snake had even gotten loose the night Shaiunna died, that it was the mother's own pet.

Darnell was again arrested on Aug. 7 on charges that he sold cocaine to undercover detectives from his Oxford trailer. He did it after Shaiunna's death, according to Sumter sheriff's officials.

Then this week prosecutors charged the couple with third-degree murder, manslaughter and child abuse.

Darnell is being held without bond in the Sumter County Jail. Hare was freed Monday on $35,000 bond. She gave birth before her arrest, and her newborn is now in foster care.

Could the authorities have done more to save Shaiunna?

Ridgeway, a top prosecutor in the 5th Judicial Circuit, said they couldn't have proved abuse or even neglect. "It's almost an impossibly high burden," he said. "It can't just be a trashy house."

DCF said Matthew Shelby, a third-year child protective investigator who handled this case, did all he could. But in the end, the couple had the right to ignore DCF's recommendations.

"I think in this case you saw an investigator who worked very, very hard to try and engage this family," Hoeppner said, "and in the end they said no."

Times staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

DCF: Not enough evidence existed to take girl from home where python attacked 08/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 12:59pm]
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