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A Times Editorial

Fill gaps in Florida's child protection system before more kids perish

A judge tried to intervene. So did social workers and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. But in the end, in a case that sadly defied logic, Florida's child protection system repeatedly failed to protect 13-month-old Ezekiel Mathis from a violent death even as it shielded his older sister. Now Florida's Department of Children and Families — along with the Attorney General's Office and local agencies that actually do DCF's work in Hillsborough County — need to make a full accounting as to what went wrong and recommend reforms.

Ezekiel did not have to die. He was not a baby who had never come to authorities' attention. With so many people looking out for him, he should have been relatively easy to save from a death by abuse and beating Wednesday night. His mother's boyfriend, Damarcus Kirkland-Williams, 21, has been charged with murder and child abuse.

Just nine days before Ezekiel died, on May 9, a Hillsborough County circuit judge ordered him removed from his mother's home after bearing witness to the head-to-toe bruising his 2-year-old sister had suffered, allegedly at the hands of Kirkland-Williams. The mother, Swazikki Davis, 21, said the child's bruising was a result of falling. But Judge Tracy Sheehan didn't buy it, ordering the girl into foster care, and told the Sheriff's Office, in writing, to consider removing Ezekiel.

Yet, the state Attorney General's Office, which provides legal counsel on DCF's behalf in Hillsborough County, told the Sheriff's Office three times there were not sufficient legal grounds to remove the boy, who showed no sign of injury. Less clear is what happened in the following week, when caseworkers twice checked on Ezekiel and found him with Kirkland-Williams. Ezekiel's mother was under state order to keep Kirkland-Williams away from the child. The state Attorney General's Office in Tallahassee said Monday it had not been contacted after those visits. And DCF officials in Tallahassee also said they were never contacted about the case until Ezekiel's death. Tracing exactly where the line of communications broke down should be a top priority.

DCF's new secretary, David Wilkins, has taken responsibility for failure to intervene on Ezekiel's behalf. That's appropriate, as DCF is responsible for a child protection system that relies so heavily on privatization to carry out its work. Attorney General Pam Bondi has pledged an investigation by Nick Cox, her statewide prosecutor and a former DCF regional director, to determine if there were legal barriers to adequately protecting Ezekiel. That is also a reasonable first step.

But both DCF and the attorney general must also ascertain just what went wrong when so many people in the system clearly had an instinct to do what's right. The public needs to know: Was the Attorney General's Office on solid legal ground when it blocked Ezekiel's removal on the judge's order? Were there renewed efforts to remove Ezekiel to foster care after the boyfriend was found in the home? Wilkins and Bondi can't save Ezekiel Mathis, but they can commit to finding the gaps in the system that he ultimately fell through and filling them quickly.

Fill gaps in Florida's child protection system before more kids perish 05/23/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2011 6:35pm]
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