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Chronic case of red tape killed that little boy

Officially, the coroner's report will indicate that 13-month-old Ezekiel Mathis was beaten to death after he was thrown across a room and his head struck a dresser. He also was beaten on his back when he would not stop crying. • But that's not what really killed this little boy. Ezekiel Mathis succumbed to a fatal case of terminal bureaucracy and complications arising from severe incurable finger-pointing resulting from an epidemic of shuffled paperwork. There is no cure for this affliction commonly found in courtrooms, government offices and policy manuals.

We can be naive sometimes about the legal system, deluding ourselves into believing that when a judge issues an order, people are going to do as they've been instructed.

The chance at saving his life never arrived at the door.

But Damarcus Kirkland-Williams did.

This month after a Hillsborough circuit judge ruled that Ezekiel's bruised head-to-toe 2-year-old sister should be removed from his mother's home and placed into foster care, Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan ordered deputies to immediately investigate the well-being of her brother.

You would think, especially with evidence in hand that one child had already been abused, it would be a matter of common sense to remove a second child living under the same roof, especially since a judge had expressed grave concerns for Ezekiel's safety.

But this is Hillsborough County, the land where reason goes to die. This is Florida, too, where rules, procedures, policies, regulations and guidelines are to be followed explicitly — right up to and including the funeral procession.

After Sheehan's order, investigators agreed Ezekiel needed to be placed in foster care. But wait! And wait, and wait, and wait.

Because of a unique and byzantine arrangement involving the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Florida's Department of Children and Families, Hillsborough Kids Inc. and the Florida Attorney General's Office, everyone had to rub their chins, ponder the situation and then ruminate some more.

The cumbersome relationship between all these agencies was created as a "pilot" program by the Florida Legislature to streamline child protective services. Leave it to Tallahassee to conclude that creating more layers of clipboards of bureaucracy would be regarded as striking a blow for efficiency.

And that is how Judge Sheehan's order had about as much legal force as a lunch diner place mat. Under the terms of the “pilot” program, in this case it was Attorney General Pam Bondi's office that held the deciding legal authority over Ezekiel's fate.

Although sheriff's investigators wanted to remove Ezekiel, the attorney general's factotums balked. They needed to think about it some more, before engaging in a parallel universe of theorizing that although the boy's sister looked as if she had just gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson, there was no evidence to suggest Ezekiel might be at risk.

Ezekiel stayed at home. And Damarcus Kirkland-Williams, with a record of nonviolent offenses, arrived to pay a visit. The record was about to grow.

Kirkland-Williams, 6 feet 10, has admitted to law enforcement authorities that he threw the 13-month-old child across the room and then hit him. He is being held on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.

The soul of Ezekiel Mathis should take great comfort in the knowledge that everyone feels simply awful about what happened to him, especially since they all had nothing but his best interests at heart.

Officials for the DCF, the Sheriff's Office and, of course, Bondi's office all took time out from their diligent efforts at deflecting blame to note that it appears they probably could have done a better job communicating with one another in trying to figure out what to do with the child.

At the same time, the Attorney General's Office continues to insist that since the child showed no signs of abuse there really wasn't enough evidence to remove the boy from the home, notwithstanding the minor point that the only reason Ezekiel had come to the attention of the court was because his sister had been abused. But let's not get bogged down in details.

For his part, DCF Secretary David Wilkins defended the multiagency "pilot" program that played such an important role in Ezekiel's death by noting that the partnership brings "so many bright minds together."

Well, you have to admit, aside from the minor glitch of a dead child, the system worked exactly as it was intended.

This column has been revised to reflect the following corrections: Damarcus Kirkland-Williams, who is charged with killing 13-month-old Ezekiel Mathis, has no previous record of violent offenses. Ezekiel's older sister was not removed from the mother's home by Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan but by another circuit judge.

Chronic case of red tape killed that little boy 05/26/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 30, 2011 12:24pm]
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