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A mother, a slaying; can she be trusted now?

Paul Schaill investigated a lot of deaths during his years as a Polk County sheriff's detective. Only one of them still makes him cry.

The killing of 2-year-old Bradley McGee in 1989 had that effect on many people, who swore up and down that no other child in Florida would have to suffer as he did. For the crime of dirtying his pants, Bradley had his head plunged into the toilet by his stepfather. His mother made him eat his feces.

So many other Florida children have died since 1989 _ the latest, Alfredo Montes, was also from Polk _ that we tend to forget. This Sunday marks the 13th anniversary of Bradley McGee's death. Paul Schaill talks about the case as if it had never been closed.

In a way, Schaill's right.

For Bradley's mother, Sheryl Coe Hardy, now 33, is living in Illinois, married to another man, and raising another child.

When Hardy gave birth to a son, Billy, in February 2001, Illinois welfare officials immediately took the baby, citing Hardy's Florida conviction. Last November, an Illinois judge returned Billy to Hardy. The judge ruled that Hardy's actions in Florida were the result of abuse she suffered as a child and at the hands of Bradley's stepfather. After nine years in prison, the judge said, Hardy had rehabilitated herself. Even three experts who examined her were impressed with her progress.

The question is tantalizing: Can a person who commits a crime rehabilitate herself?

Even if you answer yes to that question, isn't there a difference between the redemption of a bank robber and that of a child killer?

Paul Schaill put the question more succinctly:

"How many children do you have to kill before you're not allowed to have any more?"

I would ask that of Sheryl Hardy, but her lawyer said she's having nothing to do with reporters. She is waiting for the outcome of an appellate hearing that took place last week.

Since the judge returned Billy to Hardy, Illinois state child welfare officials have had no contact with her. John Goad, deputy director for protective services for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, said the agency offered to send her a homemaker a couple of times each week but that Hardy flatly refused it.

Goad didn't hide his worry. "The best predictor of her behavior is her past behavior," he said.

Bradley McGee's death spawned a multimillion-dollar reform of Florida's child welfare system, a reform that, as so many child deaths since establish, didn't go far enough. There was such outrage then that four caseworkers were arrested.

The outrage still exists, fanned by people like Paul Schaill and Kip Liles. When Bradley at 4 months old was abandoned by his parents at a mall, Liles was the first person to take him in. Bradley later was returned to his mother after his foster parents tried to adopt him.

All these years later, Liles maintains a Web site in memory of the boy she calls Braddie. This weekend, she will put silk flowers at his grave in a Lakeland cemetery. And like Paul Schaill, she follows Sheryl Hardy's Illinois case carefully.

I asked Paul Schaill what people could do if they wanted to help. He wished that people would write the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in Springfield, Ill. _ something, anything to keep up the pressure _ or even contact the Illinois courts.

Bradley McGee would have been 15 on Sunday. He'd be itching for a car, daydreaming about girls, deciding about whether to go to college in Tallahassee or Gainesville.

In Illinois, Billy Hardy _ who would be Bradley's half-brother _ is the subject of an enormous experiment about whether his mother can be trusted. His life has been put at risk so she can get a second chance.

I thought we put the safety of our children first in all things. Since when did that principle get tossed?

_ You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelonesptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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