The death of 3-month-old Emanuel Wesley Murray is not the stereotypical story of a child lost in an indifferent and broken social services system. The caseworkers caring for him and his teenage mother did many things right. They also made a number of fundamental mistakes and lost sight of the harsh realities of the everyday lives of many people in protective care. As difficult as many of these situations are to manage, the state Department of Children and Families and its contract providers need to do better.
Authorities say 21-year-old Richard McTear Jr. attacked his girlfriend, 17-year-old Jasmine Bedwell, in her Hillsborough County home May 5. He threw her newborn to the concrete, authorities said, before driving away with the child and flinging him from the car onto I-275. McTear has pleaded not guilty to murder.
DCF reviewed the actions of caseworkers in the days and weeks before Emanuel was killed. Social workers seemed genuinely concerned for Bedwell's welfare and for the security of her and the child. They visited her more than 60 times in the past year. They sought court protection for her after McTear reportedly beat her, and they worked to move her away from a living program for independent teens to hide her whereabouts. They bought the family groceries and diapers and "went to extraordinary lengths," the review shows, to strengthen the mother's parenting skills.
But their mistakes were also inexcusable. DCF said the nonprofit caretaker, Hillsborough Kids Inc., failed to adequately assess whether Bedwell was mature enough to live on her own. It said social workers and child protective investigators from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office failed to examine McTear's criminal history, failed to recognize his spiral of violence and "overestimated" Bedwell's ability to sever her relationship with him.
Case managers failed to check McTear's background even though they knew he frequently visited the home, a violation of state rules. Hillsborough Kids also violated a rule by not assessing Bedwell's coping skills after Emanuel was born in January. Investigators requested a criminal background check on McTear but, the report found, "it does not appear that the results were fully reviewed." These lapses in basic procedure further enabled a man with a history of domestic violence charges to have access to Bedwell and her baby.
The department has called for Hillsborough Kids to better train its staff to spot early signs of domestic violence, especially among children in its care. It wants to explore the adequacy of services to teen mothers. The state also needs to evaluate how responsive it is to foster children placed in the independent living program. That program allows foster children aged 16 or 17 to live by themselves. Officials see the program as a way to keep late teens from running away from foster homes as the state works to prepare them for adulthood. Three such children are in the program in Hillsborough, and 65 are in it statewide. It is encouraging that the state and its providers are not playing the blame game, but rather working together. That is a big change from years past that instills confidence the child protection system is at least becoming more accountable.