Thursday, August 16, 2018
Public safety

Beating death of girl called unforeseeable

Jenica Randazzo may have experienced physical and sexual abuse as she was shuttled between family members and foster care in her nine years, child welfare records show.

But none of that could have forecast the brutal attack that killed Jenica and her grandmother , said the head of the nonprofit group charged with safeguarding her.

Jenica died Feb. 6, a day after Pasco County sheriff's deputies say her uncle Jason Rios beat her and her grandmother, Angela Rios, with a blunt object in the New Port Richey home they all shared.

Jenica was living with her maternal grandparents and three siblings after several foster homes in recent years when her mother lost custody of the children.

"Based on our review, we believe there were no indications that could have predicted this tragic outcome for the Rios family," said Brian Bostick, director of Eckerd Community Alternatives, a nonprofit that manages foster agencies in Pinellas and Pasco counties. "Documentation yielded no evidence that the case manager knew of erratic behavior, drug abuse, or diagnosed mental illness on the part of Jason Rios."

Eckerd released more than 3,000 pages of documentation late Monday relating to Jenica's interaction with the state's child welfare system. They show that as far back as 2005, allegations of inadequate supervision, substance abuse, unsafe living conditions and family violence were made against her family members.

Jessica Rios lost custody of Jenica and her siblings in late 2011 after the mother's ongoing issues with drug use. Jenica's father was in prison at the time. She and her siblings landed in the home of their maternal grandparents.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco has described Jason Rios, 24, as a paranoid schizophrenic who may have been using drugs at the time of the killings.

The records released Monday indicate an assessment was conducted of those living in the house. The evaluation in early 2012 raised no red flags about Jason Rios, describing him as employed, having a girlfriend and being a "big brother to the children."

In response to a question about his behavioral health, a case worker wrote: "There are no current behavioral health factors at this time."

Among other details contained in the documents:

• Jenica may have experienced sexual abuse and/or been exposed to sexually explicit activities in her family's care.

• Jenica and her three siblings had been removed from their maternal grandparents' care once before, in 2012, when an abuse hotline received a report that the home was dirty and the children were left unsupervised. The children were placed in foster care.

• In 2013, after being split apart from her siblings and shuffled between multiple foster homes, Jenica was not able to be adopted by a foster family that wanted her because officials had decided to reunite her and her siblings with the grandparents, who had completed counseling and parenting instruction to make them more fit caregivers.

A past foster parent of the girl said Monday that case managers and officials close to the situation had expressed conflicting concerns about the competence of the grandparents as caregivers. The tragedy, the former foster parent said, could have been prevented.

On Feb. 5, the grandfather, Ernesto Rios, was in the shower in the family's when he heard screams. He found his wife dead and Jenica and another granddaughter, La'Nyla Heater, 7, severely injured. Jenica died the next morning.

After an hourslong standoff, Pasco deputies arrested Jason Rios, who was hospitalized with self-inflicted wounds from a drill and faces two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

"Putting that kind of stress on those grandparents was just unimaginable, especially when they had a history of showing they couldn't handle the kids," said Karan Brantley-Nehman, one of Jenica's many foster mothers who wanted to adopt the girl with her husband.

Caseworkers for Jenica decided it was in the best interest of her and her siblings to be reunited with their grandparents. Brantley-Nehman and her husband were heartbroken.

"She had asked us to adopt her, she had also asked other foster moms to adopt her," she said. "She was just desperate for a permanent home."

Before she left, the girl took a sticker and affixed it to the family's front door. She asked Brantley-Nehman and her husband to never take it down, so they'd always remember her.

"It's still there," Brantley-Nehman said.

Times staff writers Claire McNeill, Josh Solomon and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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