TAMPA — The office of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi admitted Thursday it erred in blocking the removal of a year-old baby from his Tampa home before the boy was beaten to death last month.
In a review of how numerous child protection officials failed to prevent Ezekiel Mathis' death, Bondi's office said it applied the law too narrowly and was cut out of the loop on continuing dangers to the child in the days leading up to his death on May 18.
It also said the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office could have removed Ezekiel without its permission, but sheriff's investigators misunderstood their authority.
The bottom line: The Attorney General's Office became too wrapped up in narrow legal issues. Ezekiel's safety should have come before anything else. Legal mistakes could have been corrected later.
"Both the law and common sense dictated that Ezekiel should also have been removed from a dangerous home environment," Bondi said in a statement. She said her Tampa legal office will probably be restructured.
Her report said that "the safety of a child exposed to physical violence must be, and is, paramount. Investigators and attorneys must act as a team and maintain the safety of a child as paramount to anything else, including strict adherence to the law."
Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan, who clashed with the Attorney General's Office on removing Ezekiel, said the report concluded what any parent would know intuitively. "Do we have a common-sensical approach? Do we have a smell test? Sometimes those things get lost in applying the law."
"We erred on the side of the law rather than the side of caution," said Nick Cox, Bondi's statewide prosecutor. He co-wrote the review with Bondi's inspector general, James Varnado.
The attorney general's findings were released simultaneously with a report by the state Department of Children and Families that reached most of the same conclusions. The Attorney General's Office works under contract with the DCF to handle all the child protection legal work in Hillsborough County. Neither agency recommended a parting of the ways, but rather more training and communication.
Most of the missteps, large and small, could be traced to miscommunications and misunderstandings among multiple levels of bureaucracy.
Much of that confusion revolved around the man accused of killing Ezekiel — Damarcus Kirkland-Williams, the mother's boyfriend. He has been charged with first-degree murder. Detectives said he admitted throwing Ezekiel against a dresser and pounding on the baby's back to make him stop crying.
One example of the missteps cited by the DCF: On May 10, a therapist visiting Ezekiel relied on e-mail rather than a phone call to alert a sheriff's child protection investigator to the continued presence of Kirkland-Williams in the home after Judge Sheehan had barred the boyfriend from going there.
The e-mail went to the wrong address. It was resent May 13, but the investigator didn't open it until May 19, the day after Ezekiel died.
Another example: The Attorney General's Office remained unaware of an April incident at a park where Kirkland-Williams was questioned by a sheriff's deputy and caught on a surveillance camera striking the mother's 2-year-old daughter.
Beginning on May 3, child protectors knew there was trouble in Ezekiel's home. His sister had been taken to a hospital with bruises all over her body. The mother, Swazikki Davis, blamed the bruises on the girl's clumsiness. But other family members blamed them on Davis' boyfriend, who they knew only as "Slim."
The Attorney General's Office decided the 2-year-old's bruises were ample cause to remove her from her mother.
The Sheriff's Office found a "high risk" to Ezekiel's safety as well, but the Attorney General's Office said it lacked enough probable cause to remove him.
That was a mistake, the report concluded.
First, it said, "This review finds that probable cause did exist as to both children."
It said the Attorney General's Office failed to look at the "whole picture."
The boyfriend was "an unknown potential perpetrator of abuse, and they relied too much on the mother's assurances that he was kicked out of the home," the report said.
Second, it said, even if the legal issues were murky, the child should have been taken anyway. It said its lawyers "required that definitive, conclusive evidence of abuse be presented to support a removal, rather than probable cause. Their focus should have been on whether reason existed to believe the children had been abused, or were at risk of abuse."
It also said the lawyers didn't listen hard enough to the workers who visited the home.
"While the attorney is certainly schooled and experienced in factual child welfare decisions, they are not the expert, nor the 'feet on the ground' in the investigation."
The report said there was a mistaken impression in Hillsborough that "the lawyer is the person who makes the final decisions on factual, social work decisions, as opposed to be being the case legal adviser and advocate."
Cox, the co-author of the report, said Thursday that no one he knows of has been fired or disciplined.
John Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3383.