When an emergency room doctor suspected 18-month-old Christopher Parker's fractured elbow was the result of abuse Saturday, the child was immediately removed from his parents' care.
But he wasn't the only child affected by the allegations. His parents, Margaret and Walter Parker, had been housing their 17-year-old niece since April. Officials from the Florida Department of Children and Families decided she, too, should be removed from the home pending the outcome of their abuse investigation _ a process that can last up to 45 days.
Three days later, however, a judge disagreed and on Wednesday returned Sarah Wright to her uncle and aunt's four-bedroom ranch home on 15 acres in Plant City.
"They're a very loving family," said Wright, who left the Bartow courthouse with her relatives. "I'm happy to be home." The case was heard in Polk County because that's where Wright lived before she was placed with the Parkers.
Tom Jones, Children and Families spokesman, said Wright's quick release to the Parkers doesn't mean authorities jumped the gun on taking her out of the home.
"We did what we're supposed to do. We complied with the new policies," Jones said.
Christopher Parker remains with a relative about 10 miles from the Parkers' house. Authorities have not previously investigated his parents for abuse, and neither parent has a criminal record. The suspicions started when Margaret Parker took her toddler to the Columbia Brandon Regional Medical Center's emergency room because he seemed to be in pain when she tried to dress him the night before.
An elbow fracture was diagnosed and the gravity of the injury suggested it wasn't the child's doing, the emergency room doctor told authorities. The doctor became suspicious when Margaret Parker couldn't explain how the injury occurred.
In the last two months, six young children have died of abuse in Florida. The spate of deaths resulted last week in personnel and policy changes at the agency that oversees the welfare of endangered children.
One such change, Jones said, is that caseworkers at the Department of Children and Families no longer deal with voluntary agreements with parents suspected of abuse concerning supervision of their children. That was a practice that drew criticism in the case of Jonathan Flam, a toddler who died last week. His mother's boyfriend has been charged with murder.
Now, whenever doctors determine that children have serious, unexplained injuries, they immediately refer them to the court. That way, in those instances, caseworkers no longer have the burden of deciding if a child belongs with his family, Jones said.
"The courts can agree or disagree with our recommendation, but they buy the responsibility" of the child's welfare, Jones said.
Christopher's 9-year-old sister Melinda was not removed from her parents' care. Jones said caseworkers base their decision to take temporary custody of children on the type of alleged or suspected abuse, as well as a child's age.
Wright's case had "special circumstances" that merited her removal, Jones said. She was living with the family in a loose foster care arrangement, Margaret Parker said.