Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi was remarkably candid Thursday in releasing the critical internal investigation into the abuse death of 13-month-old Ezekiel Mathis of Tampa. Her willingness to lay bare the facts — that two members of her staff misread the law in refusing to remove Ezekiel from his home — is a crucial step toward improving the state's child protection system. At a moment when other politicians may have pointed fingers, the attorney general demonstrated real leadership by accepting responsibility for the error and promising changes.
The investigation by Florida Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox and Bondi's inspector general, James Varnado, does not explore why a social worker who visited Ezekiel hours before his death May 18 failed to report to law enforcement authorities the presence of the mother's boyfriend. The court had ordered Demarcus Kirkland-Williams barred from the home. He has been charged with murder and child abuse.
But the 15-page report does illuminate a key mistake Bondi's staff made after a May 3 hotline tip that Ezekiel's 2-year-old sister Fantasia was being abused. On May 6, after Fantasia was medically examined, Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Gore decided a Hillsborough County sheriff's child protection investigator had not established probable cause to remove either child, though the family did qualify for ongoing monitoring and services. Later that day, Gore and her supervisor, Bill Navas, acquiesced to Fantasia's removal after Navas discussed her injuries with the doctor who examined her. But they continued to block the removal of Ezekiel — who showed no physical sign of abuse — saying the state did not have probable cause.
That was a mistake. "While the attorneys were correct in considering Ezekiel's lack of injuries in their analysis, once it was decided that Fantasia should or could be removed, Ezekiel should have been removed as well," the report said. The problem, Cox and Varnado found, was that Gore and Navas — while conscientious in carrying out their duties — were faulty in their legal analysis. They considered court rulings related to terminating parental rights, a much higher standard than required under state law to temporarily remove a child considered at risk of abuse.
But Cox and Varnado also found a systemic problem contributed to the decision in Ezekiel's case. In Hillsborough County (one of three in the state where the Department of Children and Families turned over its duties to the attorney general, sheriff and nonprofit agencies), child protection workers view the Attorney General's Office as a final arbiter on most questions when that authority should be limited to legal ones. On factual issues — such as whether a frontline investigator perceived Ezekiel was at risk — the lawyers' job was to advocate that position, not block it.
The report's depth and breadth reflect Bondi's wise choice in having Cox — a former DCF regional director in Tampa and Hillsborough assistant state attorney — conduct the investigation with Varnado. Cox's insight into how the child protection system works translates into five constructive recommendations to improve the management and training of child protection attorneys. Bondi has promised fast action. Florida's children are counting on it.