Another Florida youngster is dead, and police say he is the seventh child to die at the hands of a caregiver in less than two months.
Jeffery Alexander Petry, a Jacksonville boy who would have celebrated his first birthday in two weeks, was found dead in his crib Saturday night, the victim of a severe beating. Arrested in his death is his mother's boyfriend, 32-year-old Richard John Green, said Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Sgt. Don Schoenfeld.
Jeffery is the seventh child to die of abuse in Florida since Sept. 8, and the sixth child, police say, who is suspected of dying at the hands of a mother's boyfriend. The deaths have started an outpouring of concern among social service administrators, child advocates and lawmakers and already have provoked changes in the state's troubled child-protection system.
The Florida Department of Children and Families, which has been harshly criticized in recent weeks for its handling of some of the other child deaths, had no previous contact with the family, said Lisa Hutcheson, a spokeswoman for the agency in Tallahassee.
But like the other cases, Jeffery's death involves a young mother whose children were at great risk for harm or neglect, said Jack Levine, who heads the Florida Center for Children and Youth in Tallahassee.
"The plague continues," Levine said. "This is a single, risk parent desperate for child care and trusting the little one in the hands of someone, apparently, who does not have the ability, capacity or other skills to be the right person."
"Another grave is being dug," Levine added.
Green has been charged with murder and is being held at the Duval County Jail with no bail. Police expect county prosecutors to decide whether to charge Green with first-degree or second-degree murder, Schoenfeld said.
Jeffery and his two siblings were living with his mother, Ladeena Petry, 21, Green and his stepson. The family had just moved to Jacksonville two to three months ago, Schoenfeld said.
Jeffery's two siblings have been placed with their maternal grandparents, along with Green's stepson, until child protective workers can complete a home study, and a judge decides what to do with the children, Schoenfeld said.
Saturday night, Petry went to work the night shift at a Wal-Mart store. She left Green, who police say has a serious drinking problem, in charge of the four children.
At about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, Green wanted to go to sleep, but the baby was keeping him awake. Schoenfeld said. "Little Jeffery was either playing or fussing in his crib," he said. "He tried to get him to go down (to sleep), but he wouldn't go down."
Green "admitted hitting him with the back of his hand to the face and the side of his head," Schoenfeld said. "He demonstrated his force to us, and it would have been enough, certainly, to injure a child."
The baby then became quiet, and Green assumed Jeffery was asleep. So Green went to sleep. When Green woke up some time later, he realized the infant was dead, Schoenfeld said. He didn't call any authorities, Schoenfeld said.
Petry returned home at 8 a.m. Sunday and found Green in the house crying. "He said, "Something is wrong with the baby. Something happened to Jeffery'," Schoenfeld said. Petry immediately checked the boy, then ran next door to call 911.
"He (Green) got to go to sleep, and he definitely put the boy to sleep, didn't he?," Schoenfeld said. "The little fella never stood a chance."