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Column: Death by ignorance — what really killed Baby Jordan and Baby Will?

Jordan Belliveau, the 2-year-old toddler who Largo police say was killed by his mother Charisse Stinson last year. The 21-year-old mother now faces a charge of first-degree murder. [Courtesy of the Warren family]
Jordan Belliveau, the 2-year-old toddler who Largo police say was killed by his mother Charisse Stinson last year. The 21-year-old mother now faces a charge of first-degree murder. [Courtesy of the Warren family]
Published May 31, 2019

Nine months ago, Jordan Belliveau's body was found near the home of his mother, Charisse Stinson. Just a year earlier, law enforcement and child welfare workers found baby William Hendrickson IV deceased in the rear bedroom of the Largo mobile home of his father, William Hendrickson III.

Hendrickson pleaded guilty to murder in his son's death. Stinson faces a murder charge, and a trial date has been set.

Both families were involved with the child welfare system.

Both fatalities were the subjects of Department of Children and Families "Special Investigation" reports that critiqued Pinellas County's child welfare agencies.

Both DCF reports were challenged by state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation; Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. Both DCF reports badly missed a single common factor in the two fatalities.

Both children died from brain injuries, Jordan from abuse and Baby Will from neglect.

Brain injury is the leading cause of death and disability from child abuse and neglect in Florida. Despite the high frequency of brain injuries that occur in the child welfare system, there is no mandatory requirement for brain injury education among the agencies that oversee these cases. But could a mandatory neuroscience course have made a difference in the deaths of Jordan and Baby Will?

Jordan was removed in infancy from his parents and placed with foster parents Sam and Juliet Warren until he was 22 months old. His circumstances then changed dramatically. His mother tearfully pleaded in court for Jordan's return. The court granted her petition for immediate change from foster care to full-time parent reunification.

A neuroscience course could have prompted a "transitional" family reunification procedure. Instead, the "all or none" reunification method unintentionally created separation trauma for Jordan and enabled his exposure to parental domestic violence and case plan noncompliance. This continued through the day of the death blow allegedly inflicted by his mother. No system is perfect, but transitional reunification allows the court and child welfare workers time to discover and remedy any agency or parenting deficiencies.

Jordan died from abusive head trauma, the deadliest form of child abuse. But what about "mild" concussions that are so often unidentified?

When adults hit, backhand or pop young children in the face or head, there is concussion risk. The brain shifts, bounces and twists within the liquid medium of cerebrospinal fluid, even with a "minor" blow. The child is left dazed, stunned or confused. One blow is rarely significant, but parents who target a young child's head seldom engage in such punishment in "ones."

Head trauma is only one form of brain injury that is rampant in the child welfare system. Baby Will Hendrickson's death from heat stroke is an even more conspicuous example of the need for brain injury education.

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Will and his toddler sister slept in a poorly ventilated bedroom in their father's mobile home. Such a bedroom mimics what occurs in a Florida motor vehicle. When law enforcement found Baby Will deceased and his sister with symptoms of life threatening dehydration, the outside temperature was in the 80s, but the bedroom was 109 degrees.

A crucial brain injury fact not recognized in Baby Will's case is: the body and brain of a young child can increase in temperature four to five times faster than an older child. A basic neuroscience course would teach the following formula:

Child under six plus inadequately ventilated room plus outside temperature of 75 degrees or higher equals immediate child removal. The crucial factor is the child's age, not just the outside temperature or the bedroom environment.

In Florida's 2019 legislative session, there was a comprehensive effort to rectify this system-wide training deficiency. Sponsored by Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, and with extraordinary public support, "Jordan's Law" passed unanimously through three House committees, the full House and two Senate committees.

Unfortunately, as stated by the bill's co-sponsor, Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, a third Senate committee let the bill "die on the vine." Rouson commented, "We hope that no children are put in jeopardy because this bill didn't pass." Sadly, this wish will not come true until this bill is quickly resurrected.

Ignorance of the basic science of brain injury, the leading cause of death and disability from child abuse, poses a continued threat to Florida's child welfare system.

Dr. Jim Lewis is a clinical neuropsychologist with Florida Children's Medical Services in St. Petersburg. Dr. Lewis has over 40 years of experience as a brain injury evaluator and educator in the greater Washington metropolitan area and in Florida.