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Drugs, domestic violence and abuse reports preceded death of 8-month-old boy

William Hendrickson III, 25, pictured with his daughter, was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on July 27. He has been charged in the death of his 8-month-old son after the boy died because of extreme heat in a mobile home bedroom. [Facebook photo]
Published Aug. 5, 2017

LARGO — There was no shortage of warning signs before the 8-month-old boy was found gray and not breathing in his father's sweltering bedroom.

Three reports to the state's abuse hotline over the past year included concerns about how William Hendrickson III, 26, disciplined his children and noted "ongoing" domestic violence between the parents.

Even after a social worker was assigned to the family, both parents continued to test positive for marijuana, records show.

The home situation grew more chaotic after the mother was jailed July 22 for a domestic violence incident with her boyfriend's parents, who shared the Largo mobile home. Yet the children were not removed from the home and were mostly kept in the father's squalid bedroom.

The last chance to save William Hendrickson IV came on the morning of July 26 when both a social worker and Largo police visited the home, and a fourth report was made to the state abuse hotline.

The call was made at 4:43 p.m., according to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

If the hotline operator had prioritized the need as "immediate," child protection investigators would likely have been dispatched within four hours. But that didn't happen. It was treated as a normal report, requiring a response within 24 hours.

By the next morning, when investigators arrived at the Belcher Road mobile home, the infant was dead and his 2-year-old sister severely dehydrated after being contained in their father's bedroom.

Police investigating the death recorded temperatures in the room of 109 degrees.

The boy's grandparents said that social workers failed the children and didn't want to listen to their concerns about their son's issues.

"They both cried out for help to these people," Bill Hendrickson Jr. said of his son and the son's girlfriend. "He told them he was smoking pot to self-medicate because he needed help."

The performance of care agencies will be one of the focuses of a DCF review conducted by its Critical Incident Rapid Response Team. Under state law, the team has 30 days to file the report to DCF Secretary Mike Carroll.

"The circumstances surrounding this baby's death are horrible, and we are devastated by this loss," Carroll said.

The family was under the watch of a social worker employed by Directions for Living, a Pinellas nonprofit contracted by the county's lead child welfare agency, Eckerd Kids.

Directions officials have declined to comment except for a statement released last week regretting the death.

Eckerd Kids said that Directions had escalated its concerns about the children's safety "to the proper authorities." Reports made to the state's abuse hotline about children in Pinellas County are investigated by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

"This is a sad and unfortunate incident, but because there is an ongoing investigation we cannot comment at this time," said Eckerd Kids spokesman Elliott Wiser.

Florida's child welfare system has come under criticism in recent years that it is too quick to remove children. More than 36,000 children are either in foster care or under the watch of the state as of May.

Yet Hendrickson III and his partner, 24-year-old Elizabeth Rutenbeck, were given plenty of second chances.

The first report to the abuse hotline was in September 2016, before their son was born. Others followed in December and April.

Detailed accounts of those reports have not been released, but investigators verified one abuse report about inappropriate discipline by the father, a DCF incident report states.

That was when Hendrickson III hit his daughter on the face, according to his father.

A case manager was assigned to work with the family in January. The idea was to keep the children in the home and work with the parents to become better caregivers.

That same month the family moved in with the grandparents at the manufactured home at King's Manor Estates.

Hendrickson III and Rutenback were required to submit to random drug testing, and social workers were making three "surprise" visits a week to the home, the highest level of supervision normally conducted.

But the intervention seemed to make little difference.

There were 14 calls to 911 from the home — mostly domestic disturbances, police reported.

And Rutenback used choke holds on her partner in front of their children, according to a July 22 domestic violence injunction filed by Hendrickson's mother, Carrie Hendrickson.

Rutenback's arrest followed.

The children's father locked himself in his room more and more and would not allow his parents to enter as garbage and bugs built up around him.

On July 26, the day before the boy was found dead, the situation at the mobile home spiralled further out of control.

The caseworker visited again early that day. She warned Hendrickson III that his bedroom was too hot and to keep the door to his room open to allow airflow in.

Case managers do not have the authority to remove children from a home. Instead, they are required by state law to call the abuse hotline if they fear for the safety or wellbeing of a child. Following her visit, a call was placed to the abuse hotline reporting concerns about the father's ability to care for his children and possible substance abuse issues. The identity of the caller is confidential under state law.

A little later, Carrie Hendrickson called 911 at 11:43 a.m. because her son had ignored that warning and closed the bedroom door again. She also said that her son threatened to kill her when she told him she would call authorities if he didn't open it.

Police notes show Carrie Hendrickson told the dispatcher her son was locked in his room. At the time, she had not seen any weapons, though the next day, she would find three stubby knives under his pillow.

The dispatcher noted that the grandmother yelled, "No, not the baby," as her son ripped the 8-month-old from her arms. The baby began to cry, the dispatcher wrote, adding "child has marks on arms."

A Largo police officer arrived just before noon.

After officers were able to speak with everyone at the house, "it was determined that no crime had been committed during that incident," Largo police Sgt. Richelle Bradshaw said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

Carrie Hendrickson thinks her 8-month-old grandson died later that night, while her son was in the room.

William Hendrickson III is in jail on charges of aggravated manslaughter. The 2-year-old girl is with other relatives.

From jail, he and his girlfriend each declined to comment.

His parents, trying to help, had allowed the two to live rent-free with them in a three-bedroom manufactured home.

They hoped allowing their son to move back in would help the young couple grow up. Mostly, they wanted to be close to their grandchildren, for whom they have no custodial rights.

The grandparents, who are Native American, are retired.

Carrie Hendrickson said she wasn't able to hold her grandson before officers removed him from the house. She still prays she will be able to do a ceremony for him, similar to one's last rites, to ensure his soul is at peace.

"As a mother and grandmother, I feel like someone has shot my heart," she said.

"I am so sick."

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8862. Follow @sara_dinatale. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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