What is perhaps most dismaying about the death of 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau is that the state had ample opportunity to save this vulnerable child and he died anyway. Born to unfit parents who put him in danger starting at 3 months old, Jordan was placed in a stable, loving foster home for more than a year. The fact that he was returned to his mother, who is charged with murdering him three months after regaining custody, cries out for a full accounting of how and why the child welfare system ultimately gave him back, a decision that appears to have cost him his life.
Jordan was found dead Tuesday in a wooded area behind the Largo Sports Complex following a three-day search for a suspect described to police by the boy’s mother, Charisse Stinson. She said she had been walking near Belcher Road and East Bay Drive with Jordan when the man offered them a ride but then attacked her. She said she later woke up in Largo Central Park and her boy was missing. But the story was a fabrication, according to authorities, who say Stinson has since admitted to striking Jordan in the face "during a moment of frustration." After he began having seizures, she left him to die. Those horrifying details, juxtaposed with photos of the beautiful, beaming boy, are unbearable and irreconcilable.
Yet these are the real-life scenarios that the Department of Children and Families, and its many contractors and subcontractors, contend with every day. They are called in when kids are abused, neglected, housed in deplorable conditions, exposed to drugs, guns and domestic strife. They are tasked with making high-stakes decisions about how to best protect kids from their own families. In Jordan’s case, he was placed with foster parents in January 2017, when he was just 6 months old, because drugs and gang violence were commonplace at his home. Foster parents Sam and Juliet Warren said this week that Jordan learned to crawl, walk and talk with them and was thriving with a family and village that loved him. Then, a year and a half later, a judge sent him back to his mother.
Court records from May say Stinson had met the required conditions to win back custody of her son, and she was still in compliance in July, providing stable housing and income, receiving counseling and meeting other requirements. A caseworker from Directions for Living had visited her the day before the mother reported Jordan missing. Directions for Living is a subcontractor of Eckerd Connects, which runs foster care in Pinellas for DCF. The state agency has an over-arching goal of reuniting families when it’s in the child’s best interest, but it’s easy to see how that objective could be obscured and misapplied through layer upon layer of outsourcing. Reunification is a tricky balance that DCF has reckoned with for years and clearly needs re-examining now. It does not advance accountability or transparency when it’s so hard to untangle what went wrong and who’s responsible when a child dies.
In numerous cases around the state, child welfare workers have failed to act and left kids in unsafe homes with tragic results. But Jordan Belliveau got a lifeline, only to later be taken from a foster home where he was thriving — leading to the same tragic result. What must follow is a full explanation of why the measures in place to protect him failed him so completely and reforms to reduce these horrific outcomes.
There is no perfect, foolproof system that can save every endangered child. But we must keep trying.