Thursday, August 16, 2018
Public safety

In Rios family tragedy, a deadly blind spot for child protection

NEW PORT RICHEY — Shampoo was dripping down Ernesto Rios' face when he heard his granddaughter screaming.

He jumped out of the shower and peered around the corner to investigate, shielding his naked body behind the wall.

He saw his 24-year-old son, Jason, wielding a tire iron and his 7-year-old granddaughter cowering below, her face bloodied and battered.

Ernesto didn't know it yet, but elsewhere in the house his wife and another granddaughter had been bludgeoned in their beds, clinging to lives they'd eventually lose.

He rushed at his son, wrestled the weapon away and shoved him outside. Jason was staring into the distance, face blank, pupils dilated — as if he were asleep, Ernesto said.

He shook his son awake.

"What did I do, Dad? What did I mess up?" Jason asked.

"Did I f--- up?"

"Yes, son," Ernesto said. "You f----- up big time."

A blind spot

The brutal incident that shocked Tampa Bay on Feb. 5 ended only after Jason Rios, who had suffered for years from mental illness, had an hourslong standoff with deputies. Once in custody, he was hospitalized for a series of self-inflicted wounds to his neck and face from a power drill. His father, 55, considers them a suicide attempt.

Last month, a grand jury charged Jason Rios with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.

The family buried Jenica Randazzo, 9, and her grandmother, Angela Rios, 55.

It was an outcome neither the family nor the state's child protection system say they saw coming. Tampa Bay Times interviews and a review of case files indicate Rios fell into a blind spot in both the state's child protection and mental health systems.

Even though he lived in the home, Jason Rios never came under the same scrutiny by child protection officials as a potential adoptive or foster parent.

Meanwhile, his family didn't fully appreciate the depths of his illness — they saw him as sweet and nonviolent despite having him involuntarily committed three times. They never reported his behavior to the agency that oversees child protection in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

And revolving caseworkers, hemmed in by state privacy laws, were apparently oblivious to the greatest threat in an extended family already stretched to its limits.

The price was the violent end to a young child's already tumultuous life, a grandmother's equally brutal death and the eclipse of a young man's future.

Girl's troubled life

The night before the attack, family members say, Jason took his niece Jenica around the neighborhood to sell chocolate for a school fundraiser.

He had long played the role of the third guardian to her, her two half brothers and a half sister. For years, Jason's parents, Ernesto and Angela, had fought to gain custody of the four children born to their troubled eldest daughter, Jessica. Jason frequently babysat.

Such a portrait is more of a snapshot than a defining narrative, public records of Jenica's short life show.

Born in August 2005, she was the second of Jessica Rios' four children, each with a different father. The mother, now 32, said last week that she has been off drugs for nearly three years and has been working toward regaining custody of her children.

But before that, Jessica's life had been a tangle of trauma and mental health issues, illegal drug use, and a criminal record. She had a tendency to choose similarly troubled boyfriends. Among them was Eric Randazzo, 30, who appears to have fathered Jenica while on probation for a drug possession charge.

Starting in 2008, officials were called numerous times to check on Jenica and her siblings under Jessica's care, case files show. In April 2009, Jessica's oldest child witnessed an argument that ended with someone brandishing a knife. The next day, Jessica hit Jenica, then 3, in the stomach and arms after she had apparently roused her mother from sleep. Four months later, children were present when an abusive boyfriend dragged Jessica around an apartment by her hair.

By Dec. 20, 2011, Jessica's drug addiction had spiraled, and the state removed all four children from her custody. Jenica went to her paternal grandmother's house, where she suffered verbal abuse from her grandmother's partner. By April 2012, she joined her half siblings at Ernesto's and Angela's home at 4720 Catherine Street.

But cramming four young children into the modest ranch home proved overwhelming for grandparents having their own troubles. Angela Rios suffered two strokes and spent the better part of the summer in the hospital. She was already a double amputee who used a wheelchair. That left Ernesto, a then-unemployed mechanic, caring for his wife and the four children.

By September, two Department of Children and Families investigators lodged concerns of unsafe conditions for young children, including a toddler: garbage bags on the floor, clothes piled high, food containers left open, a pool in the backyard that might not have been secure.

A day later, a caseworker with Eckerd Community Alternatives — contracted by DCF to oversee foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties — noted Jason's presence in the household. Ernesto was driving a grandchild to football practice and Jason was caring for an apparently still-recuperating Angela, who was babbling incoherently.

By Sept. 13, 2012, a judge ordered all four children from the house. They were placed in different foster homes.

Bouncing through foster care

In the about 18 months after she left Catherine Street, Jenica was shuttled between at least eight foster homes across three counties. She stayed in some for months and others for only days. Officials yanked her from one placement when her foster dad was caught using drugs; another after her foster mother slapped her.

At least some stops were safe havens.

In September 2013, her new foster parents said Jenica was begging them to adopt her and they wanted to. In the Nehman family's home in Clearwater, Jenica excelled academically and was learning Greek and Spanish at a charter school. She sang and danced and read them stories. Jenica was bright and intuitive, foster mother Karan Brantley-Nehman, 44, said, and a fiercely protective big sister.

"She had an emotional depth about her that most kids that age don't have," she said. "If you hadn't known her history, you'd never guess."

Brantley-Nehman said caseworkers and therapists for the foster care agency led her to believe the grandparents would not qualify to adopt because of concerns about their ability to manage the children.

Case files confirm various members of Jenica's protection team at Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services — an agency hired by Eckerd to provide foster care services — had concerns about the Rios home.

Within weeks, the situation changed. Overnight, Jenica had a brand-new case manager and therapist under a new agency, Carlton Manor, because PEMHS had shut down its program.

Officials for Eckerd said the plan had always been to try to reunite the children with their grandparents. State law favors family reunification, and it grants grandparents who have cared for children for at least six months the same rights as parents.

Two years after their grandchildren had been removed due to unsafe conditions, Ernesto and Angela Rios passed the agency's screening process and home inspection for adoption.

Among the factors in the Rios' favor, Eckerd director Brian Bostick said, was that other adult family members were available to pitch in, including Jason Rios.

Ernesto and Angela Rios had to answer whether they took any medications or had any mental illness that might impact their ability to care for the children. But they weren't asked outright if they had mental illness. State law does not allow discrimination based on mental illness unless it's a clear risk to the child's health or safety.

Jason had to pass a background check as a member of the household. But questions pertaining to mental health were never asked of Jason because he was not applying to adopt anyone.

An unclear diagnosis

Jason Rios is being held in Pasco County Jail without bail. Authorities said he declined a Times request for an interview.

But law enforcement reports in February were unequivocal about Rios' mental health. Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco called him a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition that usually emerges in the late teens or early 20s.

Family members differ on whether that diagnosis was ever official. His sister Jessica said doctors had only diagnosed a panic disorder, but through her own research the family came to wonder if more was going on. Family members no longer have Jason's medical records to check. The sheriff seized them as evidence.

Regardless, Jessica, her sister Melissa Rios, Jason's twin brother, Eddie Rios, and their father, Ernesto, all say Jason's mental episodes had never been violent. Without a more serious diagnosis, they weren't alarmed and didn't see the need to push for more treatment. They saw them as mere interruptions of a family-oriented young man.

"It is unbelievable" what Jason is accused of doing, said Jessica, "Had Dad not seen it, I would never believe it."

The siblings and father say Jason was the one to step up after Angela began suffering complications from diabetes, eventually losing both legs. He would comb her hair, clip her nails, and run her errands after heart attacks or strokes.

Records indicate he had shielded his nieces and nephews in the past when Jessica had come by the family home inebriated. And he told caseworkers he would help out with the children "in any way possible."

Melissa, 28, said Jason was starting to get his life back on track and was two courses shy of earning his GED. He had dropped out of Gulf High School by his junior year after a ninth-grade football injury kept him off the team.

"He was real sweet," Melissa said. "He was the one who would remind us that it's Dad's birthday or Mom's birthday."

Jason's descent

But a darker side was emerging that child protection officials were never told about.

Once in 2012 and twice in 2014, family members said Jason was committed under the Baker Act, a state law that temporarily holds individuals in a psychiatric facility because they could be a threat to themselves or others. His brother Eddie, 24, said Jason's problems revealed themselves over time, starting with him worrying at parties that others there were trying to hurt him and, eventually, that friends were out to get him.

In February 2014, before the children returned to their grandparents', Ernesto said his son woke him and handed him a bat and a knife, saying there was "a bunch of bikers" outside poised to break in. Ernesto drove him to the hospital and committed him.

Jason was treated and released from the hospital but never sought follow-up care, family said. Jason did not have health insurance. He told his family he had no recollection of what had transpired.

But the episodes continued. Jason would have trouble sleeping. He'd seem dazed. Eventually, after several sleepless nights, he'd start hearing and seeing things. Once, according to Melissa, he said he saw her face morph into something else .

The third commitment was in November, after the children were back in the home. That time, Jason returned home with 30 days of medication but no long-term treatment plan, Ernesto and Melissa said.

"We thought if it was bad … we thought they'd put him in a home like they did our uncle," Melissa said. Ernesto's brother had been institutionalized since 17 for schizophrenia, the family said.

Ernesto and others said they never thought to tell child protection officials that there was a person suffering periodic acute mental episodes living among the four children.

And due to privacy laws, Eckerd and its subcontractors said they do not have the authority to ask outright if anyone in the home had mental issues beyond asking if there were risks to the children. It's the same conundrum DCF often cites when it comes to a parent's live-in paramour. Until there is evidence of abuse, the adult's role in the child's life is largely unscrutinized.

"They asked us questions like if we felt the kids were in harm, and of course we didn't," Melissa said. "Jason, he's so caring, you know?"

On the morning of the attack, Ernesto said, Jason was up and restless. He hadn't touched one of his favorite dinners the night before: chicken stew with rice and beans. Jason had had trouble falling asleep. All of this worried his father, and while Jason didn't know it, Ernesto says he had planned on taking him to the hospital that day.

But first he hopped in the shower.

Times staff Claire McNeill, Nathaniel Lash and John Martin contributed to this report. Follow @josh_solomon15, @kemettler and @zackpeterson918.

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