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Mother of baby thrown from car on I-275 plans to sue DCF, Hillsborough Sheriff's Office

TAMPA — The mother of a baby thrown out of a car onto Interstate 275 claims the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Department of Children and Families bear some responsibility for her child's death.

Seventeen-year-old Jasmine Bedwell has notified the agencies through her attorney that she intends to sue them, Sheriff's Office and DCF officials have confirmed. Reached by phone, Bedwell said she sent a similar letter to Hillsborough Kids Inc., DCF's nonprofit contractor in charge of child support services.

Investigators say Bedwell was living on her own under guidance from state social workers when ex-boyfriend Richard McTear attacked her and her baby on May 5. He is accused of driving away with 3-month-old Emanuel Murray Jr. and hurling him from a car on I-275, killing the child.

In a brief conversation Tuesday night, Bedwell said she believed the Sheriff's Office should have picked up McTear earlier. "If they would have took him," she said, "my baby wouldn't be dead."

Bedwell's attorney W. Thomas Wadley said that Emanuel's death and Bedwell's attack could have been avoided were it not for "the negligent handling of her case by the Florida Department of Children and Families," according to the letter his firm sent to DCF.

Sheriff's Office attorney Tony Peluso refused to release a similar letter received by his office and declined to discuss any details, including naming Bedwell's attorney.

Less than three weeks before Wadley sent the June 15 letter to DCF, the child welfare agency conducted its own internal investigation into what happened in the Bedwell case.

The teenage mother was in the state's Subsidized Independent Living Program, which allows foster children between ages 16 and 17 to live by themselves while developing into adults. Hillsborough Kids Inc., DCF's nonprofit contractor in charge of child support services, handled her case.

According to DCF's own findings, Hillsborough Kids Inc. and the Sheriff's Office Child Protective Investigations Division each failed to recognize how McTear's relationship with Bedwell could affect her safety and that of her child.

Though he was a frequent visitor to the home, caseworkers didn't follow regulations and conduct a background check on McTear until April.

McTear, 21, had an extensive history of violence, including domestic violence. And though caseworkers and child protective investigators were helping Bedwell seek a permanent domestic violence injunction against him, they "did not accurately identify the escalating violence occurring between (Bedwell and McTear) as a significant risk factor," according to the DCF report.

Bedwell was advised that future contact with McTear could result in her son's removal. At one point, DCF's investigation noted, Bedwell tried to hide the fact that she had been assaulted by McTear — and expressed a desire to keep seeing him.

DCF concluded that Bedwell's caseworkers were considerate of her and her desires but failed to make responsible decisions for baby Emanuel's safety.

Bedwell said that after news of her intent to sue broke Tuesday, she received messages on her MySpace page from people calling her names and harassing her.

Nick Cox, regional director of the DCF's SunCoast division, said his office and the agency's legal staff are evaluating Bedwell's claim, and he could not comment further.

Hillsborough Kids Inc. CEO Jeff Rainey referred calls about the matter to Tampa attorney Ed Savitz.

Savitz, citing client confidentiality, said he couldn't confirm whether or not Bedwell had sent Hillsborough Kids Inc. a similar letter expressing intent to sue.

Neither Wadley nor his firm's owner, Joel P. Yanchuck, whose name is also on the DCF letter, could be reached to talk about the case on Tuesday afternoon.

Wadley has made news before. In 2003, he received a $15,000 settlement from the city of Largo after it admitted that it should not have arrested him on a DUI charge.

Three years later, he posted in his front yard a copy of a Danish cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammed — a cartoon banned by many U.S. newspapers after inciting riots across the Middle East.

McTear remains in jail without bail on charges that include first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated child abuse.

He could face the death penalty if convicted.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Drew Harwell contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Mother of baby thrown from car on I-275 plans to sue DCF, Hillsborough Sheriff's Office 06/30/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 12:01pm]
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