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Toddler beaten 3 months ago dies after another beating

A 2-year-old Tampa boy died from a severe beating Tuesday after his mother left the toddler with a boyfriend accused of beating him three months earlier, a sheriff's spokeswoman said.

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

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

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.

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.

In this case, Jonathan's mother, Nadine Flam, was ordered by child welfare officials to keep the little boy away from 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.

Jonathan's death again raises questions about the role of Florida's Department of Children and Families in protecting vulnerable youngsters. In four of the five previous deaths, administrator Edward Feaver said the agency could not have acted to prevent a 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, might have identified Jonathan.

In a report on the recent deaths released Friday, Feaver said the warning system would "red flag" all children younger than 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.

Michelle Lagos, a spokeswoman for Children and Families in Tallahassee, said her agency could not discuss the 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."

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.

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 that the boy 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. Two-thirds of the families under agency supervision are there voluntarily.

Monday night, Flam left her little boy with Cortez when she went to work, despite the agency's orders to the contrary, Flam said at a court hearing Tuesday.

Cortez brought the toddler, who was unresponsive, to Flam's job later Monday evening. Someone there revived the boy through cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and then Flam and Cortez took him to the hospital, Brady, the assistant state attorney general, told the judge.

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

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 said. "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."

"That's not a mistake'

On Tuesday morning, after 2-year-old Jonathan Flam underwent emergency brain surgery at a Tampa hospital, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory P. Holder held a hearing to determine whether the child should be removed from his mother's care. This is an excerpt from the transcript of that hearing.

MOTHER: . . . I was ordered for the baby not to be near Mr. Cortez, not me.

JUDGE: Did you allow Mr. Cortez to take care of your baby?

MOTHER: Just __ __

JUDGE: Just long enough for him to kill your baby. Is that what you're telling me?

MOTHER: No, no. I ordered him to take him _ _

JUDGE: You ordered him to _ _ you allowed that man who had allegedly beaten your child to have unsupervised contact with your baby. Is that what you're telling the court? Is that what you're telling me?

MOTHER: But I'm explaining to you _ _

JUDGE: You're not explaining anything. You're admitting that you don't care about your baby and that you're allowing this man to attempt to murder your child. That's what you're telling me.

MOTHER: I do care about my baby.

JUDGE: If you cared about your baby, you wouldn't allow this man within 2-million miles of your child.

MOTHER: That was my mistake.

JUDGE: He's already facing criminal charges. You allowed him to have unsupervised contact, which allows him to batter that child such that that child has to have emergency surgery on his brain. What does that tell me? It tells me you don't care about your child.

MOTHER: That's the mistake I made.

JUDGE: A mistake. A mistake is spilling your coffee. A mistake is not allowing a man that batters your child to have contact with your child again. That's not a mistake.

MOTHER: I understand.

JUDGE: You don't deserve to have that child. You don't protect your child. You don't deserve to have the child.