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Tampa boy, 2, dies after beating

Published Oct. 2, 2005

A 2-year-old Tampa boy died Tuesday from a beating authorities say was inflicted by his mother's boyfriend, a man who was supposed to be kept away from the toddler after he was charged with beating him three months earlier.

Jonathan Flam was pronounced dead about 9:15 a.m. Tuesday at University Community Hospital, said spokesman Pete Moberg.

The boyfriend, 28-year-old Jose Antonio Cortez, was arrested Tuesday night and charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, said Hillsborough sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

The child had a skull fracture and swelling of the brain and had undergone emergency brain surgery Tuesday, said Dyann Brady, an assistant state attorney general who deals with child welfare matters.

Jonathan's death comes only weeks after five other Florida children died of abuse, four of them allegedly at the hands of a mother's boyfriend. The death again raises important questions about the role of Florida's Department of Children and Families in protecting vulnerable youngsters.

In this case, Jonathan's mother, Nadine Flam, was ordered by child welfare officials to keep the little boy away from the boyfriend, Cortez, of 5708 N 47th St. in Tampa. Cortez already was facing aggravated child abuse charges after Jonathan was severely beaten in August, records show.

But sheriff's officials said Nadine Flam did leave her little boy alone with Cortez on Monday between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. when she went to work.

Cortez brought the toddler, who was unresponsive, to Flam's job later in the evening. Someone there revived the boy through cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and then both Flam and Cortez took him to University Community Hospital, officials said.

Cortez walked away from the hospital; Flam stayed with her son, Brady said.

Spokeswoman Carter said sheriff's officials are awaiting autopsy results on the toddler and could not say specifically how he was killed. Cortez was arrested at a Gunn Highway gymnasium about 9:45 p.m. Tuesday.

In four of the five previous child abuse deaths, Edward Feaver, administrator of the state Department of Children and Families, said the agency could not have acted to prevent a tragic death.

However, Feaver said his agency would begin to implement several policy changes designed to ensure that at-risk infants and toddlers were better protected. One of the improvements, an "early warning system" for detecting particularly vulnerable children, clearly would have identified Jonathan.

In a report on the recent deaths released Friday, Feaver said the warning system would "red flag" all children under the age of 6 who, among other factors, were in contact with a parent's boyfriend or girlfriend, or with anyone who had a history of criminal or delinquent behavior.

Jonathan first came to the child welfare agency's attention around Aug. 9, after he had sustained what Tampa police described as a "severe" beating.

Nadine Flam left her son "unharmed" with Cortez on Aug. 9, according to court records. When the child was returned to her, he had "sustained two black eyes, numerous knots on his head, bruises on the neck and ears and numerous bruises in the print of a hand on his buttocks."

Cortez told Jonathan's mother he injured himself after slipping in the bathtub, the report states. However, police concluded Jonathan's injuries were inconsistent with that explanation.

With Flam's agreement, the Department of Children and Families placed Jonathan under what is called "voluntary protective services."

Under such a program, Flam was allowed to keep the toddler while performing specific tasks. In this case, the department's most important requirement was that Flam agree to keep Jonathan away from her boyfriend.

Such voluntary supervision, in which families are not required to appear before a judge at regular intervals, has come under fire recently after several child abuse deaths. A Pinellas toddler who died in September also was under voluntary protection by the department.

In the report released Friday, Feaver said his agency would move to bring a greater percentage of abusive or neglectful parents before a Juvenile Court judge for supervision, particularly in cases where "red flags" are present. Currently, two-thirds of the families under agency supervision are there voluntarily.

Michelle Lagos, a spokeswoman for Children and Families in Tallahassee, said her agency could not discuss the Flam case because records regarding abused or neglected children are confidential. However, Lagos said the agency would agree to a request by the St. Petersburg Times to unseal records of the agency's role.

A judge will decide whether to order the records' release this morning.

"We are anxious to be able to share information about the department's involvement in this case," Lagos said. "We fully support a judge opening files so we can do that."

Meanwhile, at a hearing in Juvenile Court on Tuesday morning before Jonathan died, child welfare officials asked Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory P. Holder to declare Jonathan a dependent of the state and remove him from his mother's care. Holder agreed.

"If you cared about your baby, you wouldn't allow this man within 2-million miles of your child," Holder told Flam at the 8:30 a.m. hearing.

"That was my mistake," Flam replied.

"A mistake is spilling your coffee. A mistake is not allowing a man that batters your child to have contact with your child again," Holder insisted. "That's not a mistake."

Jack Levine, who heads the Florida Center for Children and Youth, said the death "sickened" him.

"Child protection means that every logical action should be taken when we have proof of vulnerability, let alone proof of brutality."

_ Information from Times staff writer Kathryn Wexler was used in this report.