Trail of errors, including lack of background check on Richard McTear, found in death of 3-month-old Emanuel Murray

TAMPA — With state guidance and aid, 17-year-old Jasmine Bedwell was learning to live on her own, with her newborn son.

A social worker encouraged Bedwell's boyfriend, Richard McTear, to help care for the baby, though the child was not his own.

But the case manager didn't check McTear's background. Had she done so, she would have known that the 21-year-old had a string of arrests for crimes such as aggravated assault, child neglect and several domestic violence charges, the first at age 14.

This blind spot about the boyfriend's background was one of numerous flaws in the handling of Bedwell's case before it turned deadly, according to a report released Wednesday by the Department of Children and Families.

In the early morning hours of May 5, authorities say, McTear attacked Bedwell and her 3-month-old son, Emanuel Wesley Murray, throwing the baby onto concrete, then driving away and flinging the baby out of the car on Interstate 275.

It wasn't his first act of violence against Bedwell, who had reported being battered or threatened by McTear before, according to sheriff's officials and DCF reports.

DCF leveled most of its criticism against Hillsborough Kids Inc., its nonprofit contractor in charge of child support services, in the wake of Emanuel's death.

DCF's 13-page report on Bedwell's case also criticized the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Child Protection Investigations division for not better protecting Bedwell and her son.

The report characterizes her as a teenage mother given too much responsibility and not enough help to protect herself from a violent abuser in her home.

Though the reports cites many mistakes, it never claims the baby's death could have been prevented.

At 17, Bedwell's care was in the hands of the state after she had been neglected by caretakers all her life. She lived at an apartment Hillsborough Kids found for her in a subsidized independent living program aimed at helping her become an adult.

Hillsborough Kids helped her go to school full time, enroll in parenting and Healthy Start programs and buy food and diapers for her son.

Hillsborough Kids case workers stayed in close contact with Bedwell, but the DCF report said the agency never should have let her live on her own.

Among other DCF findings, the report found:

• Hillsborough Kids should have given Bedwell a psychological evaluation immediately after Emanuel's birth in January to assess her coping skills, mental health and ability to protect her child, as required by Florida administrative rules.

• Hillsborough Kids' "service strategy," or life plan, for Bedwell wasn't adjusted to help case workers intervene when her live-in boyfriend became violent.

• Hillsborough sheriff's child protective investigators and case management staff "overestimated" Bedwell's ability to break up with McTear.

• Both the Sheriff's Office and Hillsborough Kids failed to study McTear's extensive criminal history. While both agencies pushed Bedwell to get a restraining order and sign a safety plan — which required Bedwell to make sure McTear wasn't around her child — it wasn't enough. "Ms. Bedwell did not appear to demonstrate the ability to follow through with this responsibility without adult intervention," the report said.

• Although a child protective investigator requested criminal background checks and other records on McTear, the investigator did little with them. "It does not appear that the results were fully reviewed and that the investigator understood the safety implications of the information contained in those reports, which outlined a pattern of escalating violent behavior with Mr. McTear." The arrests resulted in numerous convictions; a few cases were dropped.

• Hillsborough Kids case managers failed to check McTear's background even though they knew he was a frequent visitor at Bedwell's house. Florida administrative rules require all household members or frequent visitors ages 12 through 26 to have a delinquency and criminal records check through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Department of Juvenile Justice and the Florida Abuse Hotline.

• Both Hillsborough Kids and the Sheriff's Office "overestimated" the power of a restraining order in keeping McTear away from Bedwell. A judge granted a restraining order against McTear in early April, but he could never be found to be served with it. "Based on Mr. McTear's history of disregard for the law and prior domestic violence history," the report said, "his willingness to abide by a court-ordered document was unlikely."

• While Hillsborough Kids helped Bedwell find a new home after initial attacks or threats, she never moved. The report says there was no urgency to move her and Emanuel into that home.

The report calls for the immediate review of all children and teenagers in subsidized independent living arrangements under Hillsborough Kids' supervision to see whether they are safe. It also recommends more training for Hillsborough Kids' staff in several areas, including domestic violence and how to better evaluate and care for teens under the state's watch who have children.

Hillsborough County sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter declined to comment on the DCF report, saying her office hadn't thoroughly reviewed it yet.

Jeff Rainey, CEO of Hillsborough Kids Inc., did not return a message left on his cell phone Wednesday evening. In an interview May 7, he said he wanted such an analysis on Bedwell's case to see what gaps and flaws needed to be fixed.

"We're doing a very thorough review of our system that we did in her life. We're doing that with the Department of Children and Families. …," he said. "We will find some things we could have done differently or done better, and if we do we will do everything we can to implement change."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Trail of errors, including lack of background check on Richard McTear, found in death of 3-month-old Emanuel Murray 05/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2009 3:50pm]

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