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Couple told investigator of danger to grandson

Salvador and Ana Flam feared their grandson was in danger.

In August, 2-year-old Jonathan Flam had been badly beaten, and police said his mother's boyfriend was to blame. A child welfare worker had ordered Nadine Flam to keep her boyfriend away from little Jonathan.

But the Flams were convinced their daughter wasn't keeping her promise.

For weeks, the Flams hounded a child protective investigator, trying to persuade her to take the boy from his mother, they say. But the investigator refused, saying she needed proof the boy was in danger.

Finally, on Tuesday, the Flams got all the proof they needed.

Jonathan had been left with Nadine's boyfriend Monday when Nadine went to work. Hours later, the boy was taken to University Community Hospital with a skull fracture and swelling of the brain. The toddler died Tuesday after emergency surgery on his brain.

Nadine's boyfriend, Jose Antonio Cortez, 28, has been charged with first-degree murder.

"I was so angry when they told me my grandson was dead," said 48-year-old Salvador Flam. "I never thought this could happen to my blood."

"I know if the state would have done its job, this baby would be alive," said Norma Perez, a friend who helped the family communicate with state child welfare workers.

Two-year-old Jonathan Flam of Tampa became the sixth infant or toddler in Florida to die of abuse in the past two months, prompting a groundswell of concern over what has been called an epidemic of child abuse.

Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed a task force Wednesday to study Florida's beleaguered child protection system.

All six children already were being supervised by the Department of Children and Families, most because a parent or caregiver previously had been accused of abusing or neglecting the youngster.

When told of the Flam family's allegations Wednesday night, Samara Navarro, deputy chief of the department, said officials are investigating the agency's actions in protecting Jonathan.

"This case is a critical case, and we are asking and expecting to have full information on how the case was handled by Friday," Navarro said.

"This agency will not tolerate children dying at our hands," Navarro said. "Children are going to die, no matter what we do, because some people in this world are very sick. But we will not, and cannot, tolerate children dying at our hands."

Nadine Flam, 24, met Jose Antonio Cortez at John Knox Village, a retirement community in Tampa, where he worked as a security guard and she served as a caregiver to a resident in the building, said Flam's brother, Aldo, 20.

In the six months they dated, Cortez was good to Nadine Flam and tried hard to win over her 2-year-old son, family members said.

It was never easy.

"The relationship between the baby and Jose was awkward because he was the new guy in her life and the baby was not used to that," said Aldo Flam.

Jose often offered to babysit Jonathan and take care of him while Nadine worked. He bought the baby clothes, diapers and toys including several teddy bears _ Jonathan's favorite.

"There didn't seem like there was anything wrong with him at first," said Aldo Flam.

But on Aug. 9, Cortez was arrested and charged with aggravated assault after the child was hospitalized with severe bruises. Nadine Flam told emergency room doctors that she had left Jonathan with her boyfriend when she went to work and that Jonathan had fallen in the bathtub and injured himself.

To make matters worse, Nadine Flam told detectives, both she and Cortez had "kneaded" Jonathan's bruises with ice in a futile attempt to make the bruises disappear, a police report states.

Perhaps it was the bruise in the shape of a handprint on Jonathan's buttocks, but detectives didn't buy the story.

The police report provides this description of Jonathan's injuries: "I observed two black eyes, a swollen forehead, bruised left ear and knots on both sides of his head. Upon further investigation I observed the child's buttocks, which were severely bruised and showing obvious finger marks."

Salvador Flam, the boy's grandfather, said the child was so badly disfigured "he looked like a monster."

Nadine Flam told police she could not believe Cortez would hurt her child. Flam "made it clear that she had all intention of marrying (Cortez) and keeping her son with them."

Shortly after the incident, a Children and Families caseworker told Flam to keep her child away from Cortez.

"The child was placed with the mother and the grandparents with the understanding that there was to be no contact with the alleged perpetrator of this offense," Josefina Tamayo, an attorney for the social services agency, said in court Wednesday.

But Jonathan's grandparents were convinced their daughter was not complying.

About three weeks ago, Nadine moved out of her parents' house, said Perez, who speaks English well and has been helping the Flams navigate the child protection system. They called Jonathan's caseworker, Joan Frazier, to tell her they feared Cortez was in frequent contact with their grandson.

Numerous times either Perez or one of the Flams called Frazier to persuade her to take custody of the boy, Perez said. But Frazier insisted she needed proof the boy was in danger. To get evidence, the Flans even assigned a family friend to stake out Nadine's apartment with a video camera to get a glimpse of Cortez, Perez said.

More than once, Frazier told Perez that she had visited Nadine Flam and that the young mother had assured her she was keeping her boyfriend away from Jonathan.

"They were just taking her word, not investigating," said Perez, who is studying to be a paralegal.

Perez said that on Friday, Frazier told her she was too busy to follow up on the family's statement they had a friend willing to testify he saw Cortez cooking in Nadine's kitchen. "She says, you know, Norma, I've been so busy. I've got seven new cases and there are only two of us working," Perez recalls Frazier saying.

"I haven't gotten around to this Flam case," Perez said she was told. On Sunday, Frazier visited Nadine Flam one more time, the caseworker told Perez the morning Jonathan died. Again, she took the mother's word her son was safe, Perez said.

Nadine Flam has not been charged with a crime, but Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory P. Holder suggested Tuesday that the mother could be charged with failing to protect the child.

Wednesday morning, Holder held an impromptu post mortem for the child, shortly after agreeing to release records of the Department of Children and Families' handling of the case.

He asked lawyers for the department to explain what they had done in the case and asked whether the agency was changing its policy to make sure no other children die at the hands of a caretaker already accused of abusing them.

"We cannot afford mistakes," Holder said. "We cannot afford any failure because, once again, we see the results of these failures," he added, referring to little Jonathan.

Florida's governor wants to avoid mistakes, as well. Wednesday, he appointed eight people, including Attorney General Bob Butterworth and Edward Feaver, who heads the Department of Children and Families, to a task force to study the state's embattled child protection system.

"I am sickened by the continuing number of children who are dying at the hands of adults, and I want to make sure we're doing everything possible to prevent this kind of tragedy," Chiles said.

For Dr. Charles Mahan, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Public Health, the task force will be the second commission on child abuse on which he has been asked to serve. Mahan is still angry that lawmakers failed to heed that task force's 1996 report, which said the Legislature needed to pay for more child abuse investigators.

"We were just infuriated," Mahan said. "We thought, boy, they were really impressed with our report."

_ Times staff writer Susan Clary contributed to this story.