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Charges against HRS worker dropped in abuse case

LAKELAND - Former foster care worker Judy Ross said she knew she hadn't done anything wrong in the Bradley McGee case. Now, prosecutors have decided they agree with her. On Tuesday they dropped a misdemeanor charge of failing to report child abuse that had been filed against Ms. Ross, saying the wrong person had been charged.

"It is a mixed victory," Ms. Ross, 46, said Wednesday from her desk at the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) building in Lakeland.

"I'm still concerned for the others," she said. "This has been so traumatic for all of us, beyond our imaginations."

Ms. Ross and three other HRS child protection workers were indicted in September by a grand jury. The indictments were based on a report by the HRS inspector general.

The other workers - Kenneth Houk, Margaret Barber and Shirley Duboise - still face charges of failing to report abuse. Ms. Barber also was charged with child abuse. The first trial, Houk's, is set for Feb. 26.

Two-year-old Bradley McGee, who had been in state care since he was 3 months old, died in July. His death came two months after he was returned to his mother and stepfather, Sheryl and Thomas Coe.

The Coes were charged with murder after telling deputies that the boy was dunked headfirst in a toilet after he soiled his pants. The Coes are scheduled to stand trial in July in Fort Lauderdale.

The toddler's death brought scrutiny of the state's child protection system after several people said they had told HRS of possible abuse in the Coe home.

Although the inspector general's report did not recommend criminal charges, prosecutors relied on it instead of conducting their own investigation when they went to the grand jury, State Attorney Jerry Hill said at the time.

But in a deposition last week "it became crystal clear" that the inspector general's findings in regard to Ms. Ross are wrong, said Ms. Ross' attorney, Glen Brock.

Teresa Jacobs, the woman who had said repeatedly that she told Ms. Ross on Dec. 19, 1988, that Sheryl Coe was abusing alcohol and cocaine, had actually talked to another HRS worker.

After Jacob's deposition, Assistant State Attorney John Aguero agreed that Ross was not the person who took the complaint.

"Based on the recently discovered misidentification, it is apparent that this defendant is not the person who should have been charged," Aguero said.

Ms. Ross was scheduled to go to trial on March 1 and faced up to 60 days in jail if convicted. She had declined a plea agreement to settle the case for a $100 fine.

She said Wednesday that she has received no communication from HRS officials since the charge was dropped.

She has been working in an HRS child support enforcement unit.

Asked if she wants to return to foster care, where she had worked for seven years, Ross hesitated.

"I'm still trying to determine what I want to do," she said. "It is impossible to answer right now whether I want my job back or not. I had worked and trained for that job, then I was indicted and told I was unfit to work with children and families. It hurt, it still hurts a lot.

"Fortunately, my legal determination has been cleared up, but that doesn't take back the publicity and everything. The scenario cannot be undone," she said. "The whole thing has been so unreal; the events, the actions by the state attorney and HRS."