About six weeks ago, child-protection workers fielded a report from someone who said Shakayla Denson wasn’t properly supervising her daughter.
The 4-year-old autistic girl was non-verbal, according to the caller, and Denson seemed "overwhelmed and tired" from caring for her.
"It seems like the mother is upset that she has these disabilities and (she) is not the baby she dreamed of having," a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s child-protective investigator wrote in a record of the initial report.
But during a June 20 visit, an investigator found that Je’Hyrah Daniels seemed happy and healthy. The Sheriff’s Office closed the investigation Tuesday, concluding that there was no evidence of maltreatment, abuse or neglect.
Two days later, police say, Denson carried her screaming daughter to the depths of the Hillsborough River and left her to drown.
Denson, 26, is now charged with murder. A Tampa police investigation is ongoing.
The strange and seemingly inexplicable crime prompted the Sheriff’s Office to re-examine its original findings. That review agreed with the initial conclusion. But a few hours later, Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll ordered another "comprehensive’’ review of the Hillsborough investigation, which he said is standard whenever a child dies within five years of an investigation.
The Times has obtained a summary of the initial probe. If police are right and Denson did murder her daughter, it offers some insight into the most confounding question: Why?
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The first report of concerns for Je’Hyrah’s well-being came June 19. The information that child-protective investigators received was that the girl had wandered off while visiting her great-grandmother’s home, and walked to a nearby park, the report stated.
A tipster expressed concern that Denson "is always tired and sleeping," according to the report.
"The mother is easily distracted and doesn’t show much attention toward Je’Hyrah," the tipster stated. "She just lets her run around and do what she wants. She doesn’t seem to have the maturity to address the special needs that Je’Hyrah has."
The next day, an investigator visited Denson’s home.
The mother and daughter lived in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment that was equipped with a security system and had no hazards, the report stated. The mother and daughter had a small dog, which the investigator said appeared to be friendly.
Denson said she was shocked that someone reported her, according to the report. She described herself as a great parent but admitted it was difficult as a single mother to take care of a special-needs child.
She was not together with her daughter’s father, but he pays child support when he can, the report stated.
She denied that Je’Hyrah had ever wandered out of their home, "but she is very preoccupied with water and always wants to jump in no matter where they are," the report read.
Je’Hyrah seemed happy and energetic, the investigator wrote. She did not have any marks or injuries and responded to basic commands. As they walked through the residence, the girl would follow them, the report noted.
The girl’s disability is redacted from the report, but Denson apparently created a GoFundMe page last year that says her daughter had been diagnosed with autism. The report also makes reference to multiple autism-treatment entities.
Denson told the investigator her daughter’s diagnosis had changed her life. The girl could not speak and was prone to throw tantrums, she said.
She said she kept her apartment alarm on to alert her if Je’Hyrah tried to wander outside. She said relatives helped care for her daughter. She feared leaving her with others because they might not know how to deal with the girl’s behavior, she said.
Denson said she worked three to four days a week at a McDonald’s but was looking for a job she could work from home so she could spend more time with Je’Hyrah.
She said her daughter had received some behavioral therapy. She was working on getting her enrolled in the Florida Autism Center of Excellence (FACE).
"She denied that there is anything wrong with her that would prevent her from being able to take care of the child," the report stated. "She denied that she is too immature to care for the child."
The investigator spoke with Denson’s sister, whose name was redacted from the released report. The woman said she sometimes helped watch her niece. She said the girl did sometimes try to wander, but that Denson was good about supervising her. She had no concerns for her well-being.
Two of Denson’s neighbors also reported they had no concerns for the girl’s safety.
The investigator noted Denson had two prior arrests for failure to appear in court, but showed "no pattern of violent, impulsive, or concerning behavior."
In late July, investigators checked in again with Je’Hyrah’s grandmother. She reported that things were going well.
The report noted that Je’Hyrah was now linked with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, where she was learning to communicate by pointing to pictures in a book. She had also been enrolled in the FACE school.
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Hillsborough Circuit Judge Catherine Catlin ordered Denson held in jail without bail Friday morning.
The defendant stood briefly in a jailhouse conference room Friday morning to hear the charges against her, which include murder and aggravated child abuse. She wore an anti-suicide vest, her wrists in handcuffs, as sheriff’s deputies escorted her to a lectern.
She hung her head as a judge and attorneys discussed her case via a closed-circuit TV. She did not speak.
Times staff writer Chris O’Donnell contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] Follow @TimesDan.