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Workers in boy's death punished

The top social service administrator for Hillsborough and Manatee counties was demoted and a child protection investigator was fired Thursday after the Tampa Bay area's fifth death from child abuse in the past two months.

The moves came as Edward Feaver, head of the Department of Children and Families, struggled to stabilize a troubled child protection system linked to several recent deaths, including the death Tuesday of 2-year-old Jonathan Flam.

"This case was not handled well by our department," Feaver said.

Charles "Chip" Taylor, the district administrator for Hillsborough and Manatee, will face a pay cut. Joan Frasier, a Tampa child abuse investigator since November 1992, was asked to retire Thursday.

In addition, two supervisors in the department were suspended without pay.

Thurman Clifton, an investigative supervisor since August 1993, was suspended for 30 days. Linda Wilson, another protective investigations supervisor with the department since 1995, will be suspended for 10 days.

All the actions were announced Thursday by Feaver.

Taylor, who has been administrator since May 1994, could not be reached for comment.

Circuit Judge Gregory P. Holder, who had harsh words for Jonathan's mother and caseworkers after being asked to intervene in the case, was relieved to learn of Feaver's actions.

"It is intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that in the tragic case of Jonathan Flam the department's own policies and procedures were not only not followed _ they were consciously ignored," Holder said.

"We see once again the tragic results when policies that are designed and implemented to protect children's lives are not followed."

The deaths began in early September, with a boyfriend suspected in all but one of the cases.

Jonathan died after he sustained a skull fracture and his brain swelled. Police say the toddler was beaten by his mother's boyfriend, Jose Antonio Cortez, 28.

Jonathan's death came as child welfare administrators already were facing tough questions.

Oct. 24, Feaver released detailed reports about the five previous deaths and concluded that his agency could not have acted to protect all but one of the youngsters. An investigator was fired and his supervisor was suspended in Osceola County after that incident.

But child welfare administrators could not put the tragedies to rest.

Monday night, Jonathan was taken to University Community Hospital after he had stopped breathing. Doctors performed emergency surgery to insert a shunt into his brain, but about 9:15 Tuesday morning, the toddler was pronounced dead.

A review of the agency's handling of the matter made it clear, Feaver said, that an investigator and two supervisors had bungled the case.

Jonathan first came to the agency's attention on Aug. 11, the day he was severely beaten. An on-call investigator who arrived at St. Joseph's Hospital that night described the boy as having "raccoon" eyes, a large bump on his forehead and a swollen left ear. The boy's behind was about 90-percent "covered with purple slap marks."

Jonathan's mother, 24-year-old Nadine Flam, agreed to keep the boy with her at her parent's house and to keep Cortez away from the child.

A police officer told Nadine Flam that Cortez would be arrested and warned the young mother that she, too, could go to jail for protecting her boyfriend.

Soon after, when police arrived to arrest Cortez, he was on the telephone with Nadine Flam, records show.

The department's "safety plan" began to unravel further around Oct. 8 when Nadine Flam took her son, his baby bed and her belongings and moved out of her parents' house.

Jonathan's grandfather called Frasier, the caseworker, that day to say he feared that Nadine Flam would be staying with Cortez, records show.

Frasier talked to Nadine Flam about her parents' concerns two days later.

She said she was living with a friend, but refused to name the friend. In her report, Frasier said she "needed to know where Jonathan is to assure that he is safe. She (Flam) said, "He's safe. Trust me,'

" Frasier's notes reflect.

And Frasier did trust her.

In an interview with administrators after Jonathan's death, Frasier said "she did not sense that the child was probably in danger," a department death review states.

Frasier erred by not placing the boy in protective custody and asking a juvenile court judge to review the case at that point, Feaver said.

In fact, he said, the department should have placed Jonathan in a safe shelter the night he was first reported to be the victim of severe abuse.

"Any child that is reported at the hospital or in the emergency room where there is suspected or confirmed abuse, that child should automatically be put into shelter," Feaver said. After that, a judge should be involved in any placement decisions.