As she moves from one modest place to another, Sharon Childs never forgets to take the cardboard box with the little red velvet dress. - It is the dress she bought for her daughter, Brittany, at Christmas in 1990, the year they came to Florida. - The dress Brittany wears in a photo of her standing in her playpen. - The dress she would never outgrow. - On Feb. 9, 1991, Childs had just started on the night shift at a Largo nursing home. She left 15-month-old Brittany with her new boyfriend, a man Childs barely knew, a man who so resented having to babysit and change Brittany's dirty diaper that, as he later told police, he "freaked out." - Freaked out so badly that he swung the little girl like a baseball bat, repeatedly bashing her head against the floor and the furniture. Medical examiners said her injuries were equivalent to being hit by a car. - Very few women know what it feels like to return home to a dead child. Very few women know what it feels like to be the person who invited her child's killer into her home. - Childs knows, and just like the baby's dress, she carries that knowledge with her everywhere she goes. - "I did not kill my daughter, I know that, but because of my youth I was unable to make appropriate decisions about her safety and well-being. There's a little part of me that feels responsibility for her death. I couldn't have told you that 20 years ago. I could only tell you that today because of age and experience." - It has been called "the boyfriend problem.''
Young and jealous
In the Tampa Bay area alone, authorities say at least 17 children have been killed since 1990 by their mothers' boyfriends.
There was Alexis DeJesus, 3, who died in May from what Hillsborough deputies say was a fatal beating.
And Isiah Ian McGuire, 11 months, who died in April 2009 of head and internal injuries.
And Mia Alvarez, 16 months, pummeled with a closed fist on the top and sides of her head in May 2007.
Although there are no good statistics on kids killed by boyfriends, one study found that children living with unrelated adults are nearly 50 times as likely to die of physical abuse as kids living with both parents. And the injuries often come at the hands of young adult males.
"Youth is a biggie - if you look at data on homicide in general it spikes really big around 18 to 24 because that's when testosterone is high and status competition is high,'' says Joseph Vandello, a social psychologist at the University of South Florida. "Both for biological and social reasons young adulthood is a time of a lot of conflict and violence.''
Boyfriends, while possessive toward the mother, are also apt to be hostile toward a child not their own.
"Nonmarried couples are less stable than married ones, and if you add a child from a previous relationship you're setting up the context for resentment toward this child,'' Vandello says. "The kid is like a constant reminder of that other relationship and I think that's where jealousy comes in.''
Richard "Rico'' McTear Jr. was jealous. Soon after his girlfriend, Jasmine Bedwell, gave birth on Jan. 25, 2009, to another man's son, McTear demanded to know when she was going to have his baby. She rebuffed him, and three months later, authorities say, McTear kidnapped little Emanuel Wesley Murray Jr. and flung him from a moving car into traffic on Interstate 275.
In Florida, 11 of the 31 child deaths due to intentional injury in 2008 were caused by "male paramours,'' the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee found. Though biological fathers accounted for slightly more deaths, 13, the boyfriend problem was serious enough to be highlighted by the committee in its report to Gov. Charlie Crist and state lawmakers.
Typical triggers, the report said, are crying and dirty diapers. Frequently, there are histories of substance abuse, domestic violence, criminal activity.
And "common factors (in many deaths) include young males between the ages of 18 to 30 who are unemployed and often providing primary child care while the biological mothers work,'' the committee said. "The fact that many of these males are unattached, nonbiological fathers contributes to their inability to cope and lack of parenting skills.''
Adding to the normal stress of caring for kids is the high unemployment rate. And it could make the boyfriend problem even worse.
"You have some people with children staying with people they might not stay with if they were not in a bad economic situation,'' says Alan Abramowitz, director of family safety for the Florida Department of Children and Families. "Or there are people who have to leave their child with someone who, if they thought it through, wouldn't. The economy has become a challenge for some of these families.''
Looking back at her life, Childs knows that financial struggles were one reason she ended up with the man who killed her daughter. But the path that led her there began much earlier.
"I was just wanting somebody to love me. Because of circumstances that happened to me as a child'' - she won't say what - "it caused promiscuity in my life.''
At 17, she had her first baby, Joshua. The father was white, but most other white boys ignored her.
"Let me show you something,'' she says, fetching a studio photo taken in her senior year. "I weighed 165 in that picture. They called me a 'fat b----.' "
Black boys, though, whistled and threw her approving looks. "It was better than nothing," she says. "I think that's why I went in that direction.''
By the time she was 20, Childs had two more kids - Ashley, then Brittany - by a man who was half-black. She gave up custody of Joshua to her parents because "he wouldn't mind, and I was going to end up hurting him myself.''
She also lost custody of Ashley. To escape from what she says had become an abusive relationship with the girls' father, Childs and Brittany moved to Pinellas County where her parents were living.
Childs worked at Checkers and a nursing home. She found an apartment in Largo, got a new man. After he moved out, it wasn't long before she met 23-year-old David Roger Flint Jr.
Flint, adopted as a baby by two white parents, had always "felt awkward because he was a little darker complected,'' his mother Patricia would later recall. "We could never really tell him if he was biracial or not. We did tell him his father may have been Puerto Rican and black.''
Childs was instantly attracted.
"He was funny. And going back to why I like blacks, he liked me, and the fact he liked me made me like him.''
Flint, who had a minor criminal record and a history of anxiety and depression, had been living off and on with his divorced mother. Frustrated by his inability to hold a steady job, she told him to leave. He moved in with Childs. It seemed like an ideal arrangement.
"I was a young mother. I had to go to work,'' Childs says. "He had recently lost his job and I was going to work the night shift so in the day he could get out and find a job. That was how I could work and the baby would be taken care of.''
Childs had no reason, she says, to suspect that her shy new boyfriend could turn violent. Nor did she realize that every time she left, Brittany cried.
Just a few days after Flint moved in, Childs left at 10:30 p.m. for her nursing home job. She arrived home the next morning to a strong odor of menthol.
"I walked into the bedroom - there were twin beds - and David was lying on one and Brittany on the other. He was on his bed smoking a cigarette so nonchalantly and Brittany was on the other in a fetal position, her legs underneath her.''
"What in the world is that smell?'' Childs asked.
Flint said Brittany apparently had fallen out of her crib during the night and hit her head on a table. Because she seemed to have trouble breathing, he had turned on a portable vaporizer. But Childs saw no gentle rise and fall of breath.
"I turned her over onto her side and there was vomit coming from the side of her mouth and out of her nose. And the shell of her ear was purple. At that moment I knew my baby was dead.''
Childs wrapped Brittany in a blanket and with Flint driving, took her to nearby Suncoast Hospital. There was nothing the hospital could do.
From there, memories blur. Childs recalls her father suggesting that Flint had intentionally hurt Brittany. She recalls Flint being even quieter than usual.
"I just chalked that up to, this isn't her father and there's no emotional attachment to Brittany.'' And she recalls Flint going to Albertsons for cigarettes. He never came back.
Police arrested him two days later at a friend's place. Using a rag doll to demonstrate, he admitted "continually bumping'' the baby's head for up to three minutes on the carpet, her crib and an end table.
Flint told police he felt bad about what he had done.
But he "stated that he felt used by Sharon and felt that he was nothing more than a mere babysitter and someone to change the baby's diaper,'' the police report said. "He did not enjoy changing the baby's diaper but frequently had to do it because Sharon would leave the baby's diaper dirty for hours at a time.''
Detectives told Flint he would be charged with homicide. He asked what that meant, and they said, "It's when one person takes the life of another.''
"I did that,'' Flint said.
Search for motive
The case was assigned to Pinellas prosecutor Diane Bailey Morton. She specialized in child abuse cases and knew the difficulties they present.
Even "if you have someone who admits caring for the child in the window of hours that the abuse took place, they'll offer an explanation - they fell down the steps, they hit their head,'' says Bailey Morton, now in private practice. "And then it becomes a medical case. Do the injuries match up to the description the defendant gives?''
Bailey Morton had never gone to the morgue to view a child's body. This time she did, even though the little girl reminded her of her own young daughter. Unusual abrasions around Brittany's vaginal area had prompted suspicions of sexual abuse. But the medical examiner concluded that the injuries were due - as Flint had said - to Flint using a rough paper towel to clean Brittany after changing her diaper because there were no baby wipes around.
The medical examiner also found that Brittany had 16 bruises and died of bleeding around the brain.
"Having been a parent I could understand the frustration, but not crossing the line to abuse,'' Bailey Morton says. "Look at all the alternatives he had as opposed to abusing the child. Walk away. Call somebody. Call 911. Ask a friend. There's a million alternatives to abuse.''
The state wanted the death penalty. The jury recommended life, after Flint tearfully apologized for Brittany's death.
"I didn't come into her life to destroy it,'' he sobbed. "I don't know what happened. I wish I could make it up to her, but obviously I can't."
Childs has little doubt what happened.
"He knew my daughter was of mixed race and kind of like all of the anger he had toward his biological parents he took out on my child. I still don't understand the logic in that. You put your anger at those parents, not off on my child.''
Six weeks after Brittany's murder, Childs' mother died of a heart attack. Childs struggled to cope with their deaths, telling herself that God took them because they had served their purpose on Earth - Brittany to give her courage to leave Ohio and a bad relationship, her mother to help her deal with Brittany's death.
In the years following the trial, Childs bounced from job to job, went on food stamps, moved into low-income housing. "This was not the life I imagined for myself,'' so she got an associate's degree and became a radiology technician.
She also had a brief marriage that produced Jamie, now 16. Afraid of letting her out of her sight, Childs wouldn't let her go on sleepovers or even to parties.
"She now uses over-protection against me,'' Childs says. "Now she wants to go here, there and everywhere. She uses the excuse that I kept her in prison."
Once plump like her mother, Jamie recently lost 40 pounds and has attracted the attention of a 28-year-old man. Childs worries, but is afraid to be too strict with her: "I feel like if I fight too hard, I'm going to send her running into his arms.''
When Jamie opened a MySpace account a few years ago, Childs got one, too. A man in Morocco named Rezak Hadada e-mailed Childs and asked if they could be pen pals.
"I figured, what the hell, he's far away and young. I'll give him someone to talk to.''
After corresponding for two years, he asked her to marry him, although he is a Muslim 11 years her junior. She flew to Morocco and finally met him in person. Presented with hundreds of e-mails and letters between the two, consular officials were sufficiently convinced theirs was not a sham relationship that they gave Hadada a visa to come to the United States.
The couple married last summer. She took his Arabic last name but remains a Christian. Her new husband, who manages a sub shop, hopes to get his citizenship so he can bring over the rest of his family.
For Sharon Childs Hadada, now 41, life is perhaps as good as it ever has been. She still struggles with her weight, approaching 300 pounds on her 5-foot frame, but makes enough money at a Clearwater walk-in clinic to pay for a weight-loss procedure this summer.
One cloud: Flint, now 43 and almost two decades into his life term, is trying to get a new trial. He says his lawyers didn't tell him that he might be eligible for early release or gain time if he offered to serve 40 years.
The lawyers say they did tell Flint, and Childs doubts he will ever get out. But it has revived memories, even guilt.
"I was stupid, I was very naive. I should never have allowed a man to move into my home with my child after only knowing him a few weeks. Never choose a man over your children. I did that and it just about killed me and made my life hell. There's no man on this entire Earth that should ever come before a woman's children.''
Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at email@example.com.
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Help is available
Almost anyone, not just boyfriends, can get annoyed at a baby who won't stop crying or a toddler who can't get the hang of toilet training. So the state of Florida has a toll-free hotline - 1-800-FLALOVE(1-800-352-5683) - for those who feel they're near the breaking point or have questions about a child's behavior. Called the Parent HelpLine, it is staffed by crisis counselors from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, except for state holidays.
At other times, and on holidays, Tampa Bay residents can dial 211 to be connected with a counselor who can also refer them to various social services.
Parents and others "need to realize that sometimes they need to take time out,'' says Alan Abramowitz, director of family safety for the Florida Department of Children and Families. "It's okay when you get frustrated to call someone and talk about it.''