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DCF: No mistakes in case of 4-year-old girl whose mother drowned her

Published Nov. 16, 2018

TAMPA — Amid the outrage that followed the horrific drowning of a 4-year-old girl who police say was carried into the Hillsborough River by her mother and then abandoned, the head of Florida's child welfare system promised a "comprehensive'' review of an earlier investigation into the family.

This week, the Florida Department of Children and Families released a 3-page report that concluded the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's child protective investigative division were right to leave Je'Hyrah Daniels in the care of her mother, Shakayla Denson.

The sheriff's investigation into Denson was closed July 30. Just two days later, Denson carried little Je'Hyrah into the dark waters of the Hillsborough River near the Columbus Drive Bridge north of downtown and then emerged without her daughter. Denson, 26, is charged with first-degree murder.

The record of the investigation shows nothing to suggest that Je'Hyrah was either unsafe or at risk of harm, the report states.

"The last moments leading up to Je'Hyrah's tragic death are a horrific reminder of a life cut short. The fact that a mother would do this to an innocent child is incomprehensible," said DCF spokeswoman DaMonica Smith. "DCF will continue to support the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office during the course of their criminal investigation to hold Je'Hyrah's mother accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

The seemingly inexplicable crime also prompted the Sheriff's Office in August to re-examine its original findings. It also concluded the case was handled appropriately.

Denson came to the attention of investigators in June after they received a report that Je'Hyrah got out of her great-grandmother's home and walked to a park about six minutes away.

Hillsborough is one of about six Florida counties where child protective investigations are conducted by the sheriff's office. Abuse and neglect reports are handled by trained civilian investigators under the supervision of law enforcement officers.

The investigator and supervisor assigned to the case are not named in the report. The investigator, known as a CPI, held a bachelor's degree in sociology and had more than seven years experience in the child welfare field, the report states.

During the two-month period that Denson was investigated, the CPI handled 35 cases, well above the recommended number of 12 per month. The caseload was not a factor in the investigation of Denson, the report states.

The supervisor has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and 33 years experience in child welfare.

The report that alerted the sheriff's office about Denson also said she seemed overwhelmed. Je'Hyrah Daniels had recently been diagnosed with autism. Her mother had started a gofundme campaign for therapy equipment.

Investigators found that Denson "appeared to not only understand Je'Hyrah's needs but also had realistic expectations with regards to her behaviors."

Neighbors and members of her extended family were also interviewed. All reported having no concerns about Denson's ability to care for her daughter.

The review concluded that there was no obvious explanation for what many have struggled to understand: how a mother could have done what police say Denson did.

"In tragic events such as this, the human condition has a need to seek a reasonable explanation for an individual's behavior to make sense of a senseless act," the report states. "Based on the information that was available in the previous investigation, a correlation cannot be made between the circumstances of the prior report and the events leading up to Je'Hyrah's death."

Denson was receiving some social services to help her deal with her daughter's autism.

One of the programs paid for a Safety Net bracelet, a device that gives off a radio frequency that would have worked as a tracking device should Je'Hyrah wander away again.

It was never activated.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at or follow @codonnell_Times.