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LAWSUIT FILED IN GIRL'S DEATH IN FOSTER CARE

The suit blames the Sheriff's Office for not providing a required medical screening.

The family of a 5-year-old girl who died in 2013 after she was taken into foster care filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri saying his office's failure to provide a medical screening for the child ended with her death from untreated tonsillitis.

The suit filed by the parents of Elizabeth Holder disputes a finding by the Pinellas Medical Examiner's Office that the girl died Jan. 19, 2013, of a heart ailment that was aggravated by her tonsillitis.

The family's attorney, Joseph Saunders, said at a news conference that Elizabeth died from lack of oxygen because her throat was swollen.

"Kids don't die of untreated tonsillitis," Saunders said. "But that's what happened in this case."

Gualtieri acknowledged shortly after Elizabeth's death that his office failed to provide Elizabeth with a health screening within three days of her being taken into protective custody. That violated a state requirement.

The girl had been taken into custody eight days before her death after a neighbor spotted her wandering unattended at the Gulf to Bay Mobile Home Park near Clearwater. Her parents, the Sheriff's Office said, were high on prescription drugs, though Saunders said the mother took medication for cancer.

Gualtieri said in an interview Monday his office is seeking an opinion from an independent medical expert on whether the failure to do a medical screening for the girl led to her death. If the expert determines that a screening would have saved the child, he said his office would settle the lawsuit and compensate the family.

"I said it then and I'll say it now. The ball was dropped," Gualtieri said. "We had a process and system failure."

But he said it would be unfair to taxpayers to pay for a settlement if an expert finds the screening was unlikely to have saved the girl.

In August 2013, the sheriff said an inquiry of the death resulted in his office changing procedures to ensure children taken into custody receive the mandatory screening. The inquiry had found of 884 children removed from their homes by the sheriff's Child Protection Investigation Division in 2012, 198 or 22 percent did not get the medical screening in the required three days.

In 238 of the cases, records were too incomplete to determine if the child received a screening.

Gualtieri said those results pointed to "a system failure."

The Medical Examiner's Office said Elizabeth died of endomyocardial fibrosis that was aggravated by the tonsillitis. The heart condition, officials said, may not have been found even had the medical screening occurred.

But Saunders disputes that finding, noting that a cardiovascular pathologist examined tissue samples from Elizabeth's heart for the Medical Examiner's Office and found no clinically significant indication the girl died of a heart ailment.

Elizabeth grabbed her head and cried out, "It hurts. Make it stop," before collapsing. Saunders said the headache is a common symptom caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa said the Sheriff's Office violated Elizabeth's constitutionally guaranteed due process rights and seeks unspecified damages. The complaint says the medical screening would have saved the girl's life since tonsillitis is "easily diagnosed."

Saunders said the girl's parents, Corey D. Holder and Stephanie Ann Judah, would not comment about the lawsuit.

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

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