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State child welfare officials review adoption screening process after beating death of 9-year-old

Jason Rios is charged with first-degree murder.
Published Apr. 25, 2015

NEW PORT RICHEY — A Department of Children and Families investigation into the killing of Pasco County 9-year-old Jenica Randazzo revealed a communication breakdown between child protective investigators and family case workers.

State child welfare officials are also reviewing their adoptions screening process after the investigation identified potentially dangerous gaps in the system.

The investigation and 7-page report released this week stem from the beating death of Jenica and her 55-year-old grandmother Angela Rios at their home on Catherine Street in New Port Richey on Feb. 5. Jenica's uncle, Jason Rios, faces two counts of first-degree murder and an attempted murder charge related to an attack on one of Jenica's half-siblings the same morning. The family believes Rios was having a psychotic episode.

Jenica was 6 years old when she was removed from her mother's care in 2011 because of domestic violence and her mother's drug addiction. Jenica then pinballed between foster homes until she reunited with her half-siblings and settled with their maternal grandparents, who intended to adopt the children.

Four days after Jenica was placed with her grandparents, in June 2014, deputies in the Pasco County Sheriff's Office Child Protective Investigations Division were at the Catherine Street house looking into reported abuse, according to the report.

Rios told the investigators he had been twice committed under the Baker Act, a state law that temporarily holds individuals in a psychiatric facility because they could be a threat to themselves or others. Rios, however, denied any mental health issues or being on any medication.

Law enforcement tried to verify his claims but found that there had been no emergency calls to the family's home that referenced mental illness or the Baker Act, the state's report said.

The Pasco Sheriff's Office child protection investigator logged Rios' claims of being committed under the Baker Act into the abuse investigation case notes. But, the report said, the investigator did not discuss the claims with the adoption case manager for Eckerd Community Alternatives, the subcontractor agency responsible for Jenica's adoptive placement.

It's unclear from the report whether the Eckerd case manager ever saw the abuse investigation case notes. Written responses from Eckerd to questions from a Tampa Bay Times reporter were unclear on that point, as well.

The report stated that Eckerd has "taken action" to improve communication between investigators and case management members during an investigation.

"Eckerd established a process to ensure that our staff were immediately notified that a new allegation of abuse had been received at the Sheriff's Office," Eckerd spokeswoman Terri Durdaller said by email Friday. "Additionally, we have established a weekly staffing with Child Protective Investigators and our contracting case management organizations to discuss the status of ongoing investigations involving children in cases open to our case management organizations."

A Times investigation published in March found that Eckerd did not know Rios had been grappling with mental illness for years. State law prevented them from asking direct questions about Rios' mental health as part of the home study because he was not applying to adopt the children, the grandparents were.

The home study identified significant concerns with Angela and Ernesto's ability to adequately care for the children. Angela was a double-amputee diabetic who had suffered several strokes and Ernesto, then an unemployed mechanic, was tasked with caring for his ailing wife and their four grandchildren. One factor the home study found in favor of the application: Other family members, including Rios, who lived at the house, would be able to pitch in.

"Currently, only potential adoptive caregivers are thoroughly assessed as a part of an adoption process," the DCF report read. "Adult household members do undergo background screenings and are included in the Adoption Home Study; however, there is no policy guidance for how to thoroughly assess adult household members who will serve in a caregiving role."

The report indicates DCF "has already begun to determine whether changes are needed regarding the Adoption Home Study process."

Also, Ernesto and Angela never revealed Rios' struggles to the state and, according to the report, downplayed their grandchildren's poor behavior.

"One of the most notable concerns about the grandparents as a placement was that they had difficulty recognizing dangers in their children and grandchildren's behavior," the state's report said.

Eckerd would not say what steps it would have taken had it known about Rios' mental health history.

"(That) would be pure speculation, and we are not going to speculate," Durdaller said.

Times staff writer Zack Peterson contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15

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