TARPON SPRINGS — A 2-year-old girl was found with her head stuck in a hole in a wooden privacy fence.
The fence was between the apartment complex where the girl lives, and the day care center next door. A day care employee saw the trapped child Tuesday and flagged down a police officer for help.
At the apartment complex off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, police eventually found the toddler's father looking groggy and disheveled in a filthy, fly-ridden apartment, authorities said.
He told officers that his daughter must have left the apartment through an open sliding door, then tried to wiggle through the fence. He said the girl always wanted to play with the small kids at the nearby day care center when they went out for recess.
The father — Philip Joseph Benoit, 22, of Tarpon Springs — was arrested Tuesday on felony child neglect charges. He remained in the Pinellas County Jail on Wednesday in lieu of $10,000 bail.
Benoit, who has a lengthy criminal record, also was charged with violating his probation on a previous drug conviction.
After paramedics checked out the toddler, police said, she was placed in the custody of her mother, who had been at work during the incident.
The toddler's head had gotten stuck in the fence between two wooden slats, said Tarpon Springs police Sgt. Ed Miller, one of the officers at the scene.
"One of the slats was missing. She had her head in there and couldn't get out," Miller said. "She was actually really calm."
It happened about 11 a.m. Tuesday where a day care center on Huey Avenue backs up to an apartment complex on St. Michael's Way.
Officers had to pry one of the boards loose to free the girl. They picked her up and took her door-to-door in the apartment complex, looking for her family.
Benoit answered his door "with a disheveled and groggy appearance," according to an arrest affidavit. "The defendant did not seem shocked the child exited the home," the report added.
Police said the toddler was dirty, with messy hair and multiple bites and sores on her legs. In the apartment, dirty dishes were piled in the sink, swarming with flies. Counters were covered with clutter and filth. Dirty diapers, ashes and cigarette butts littered the floor, and trash was strewn throughout the home.
"Furthermore," police Officer Anthony DiGiorgio wrote in the affidavit, "I walked into another swarm of flies in the child's bedroom and did not observe a blanket for the child's bed."
Police picked up the girl's mother at work. Miller said the parents began cleaning up the apartment while police were there. A social worker and child protection investigator will follow up on the situation in the home, Miller said.
This was Benoit's seventh arrest since 2008, according to Pinellas County court records. He has previously been arrested on charges of child abuse; drug trafficking; possessing marijuana, Xanax and oxycodone; assault; felon in possession of a firearm; throwing a deadly missile at a building; violating his probation; and failing to appear in court. Benoit's 2008 child abuse arrest occurred before his 2-year-old daughter was born.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected]