State Considers Response To 3-Year-Old's Death
A report by the state Department of Children and Families on the death of a 3-year-old Hollywood boy is prompting talk among policymakers about the next steps in fixing Florida's troubled child-protection system.
The report --- by what is known as the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team --- details a system-wide breakdown in protecting Ahziya Osceola, whose body was found March 19, hidden in the laundry room of his family's home.
"Collection and sharing of information and evidence occurred in 'silo' fashion and was both inconsistent and insufficient" among a variety of agencies, the report concluded. Those agencies included the Broward Sheriff's Office; ChildNet, a community-based care organization; the Office of the Attorney General, which provides children's legal services in Broward County; a child protection team administered by Broward's Human Services Department; and the Seminole Tribe, which included the boy.
The boy's injuries included blows to the abdomen that smashed his liver and pancreas, multiple bruises and a broken leg. His stepmother faces charges of aggravated manslaughter and giving false information to law enforcement about his disappearance. His father has been charged with child neglect.
"This was not a traditional family," Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll told The News Service of Florida. "You had multiple moms and multiple dads, multiple child-abuse history across the board."
The Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, or CIRRT, report, which was released last week, said Ahziya had been the subject of four child-protective investigations, none of which found him to be at risk in his father's home despite a pattern of bruising, reports to the state abuse hotline and his stepmother's previous history of child maltreatment.
Ahziya's birth mother, Karen Cypress, lost custody of him and her three other children following a January 2014 incident in which the boy was found wandering a hotel lobby while Cypress was "intoxicated" upstairs, according to the CIRRT report. The children went to live with their respective fathers. In Ahziya's case, noted the report, his father was considered the "non-offending parent," and his explanations for the boy's bruises were accepted by those responsible for protecting him.
"There was insufficient assessment of Ahziya's safety while in his father's care," the CIRRT report found. "This occurred during individual investigations, over the period of time when yet more reports were received at the hotline with similar allegations of abuse, as well as during ongoing court-ordered case management. This included occurrences of new injuries being observed, a pattern of repeat injuries and inconsistencies between parent/caregivers' statements regarding the origins of the injuries."
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, said the boy was "beaten to death."
Even before the CIRRT report was out, Sobel said during an April 9 committee meeting that she wanted to review the state's child-welfare arrangements with the Seminole Tribe, to which the boy and his family belonged. Seminole Family Services had been handling Ahziya's case jointly with ChildNet, the lead community-based care agency in the region. After ChildNet terminated services to the boy in September, Seminole Family Services alone handled his case.
Although Ahziya's death occurred in a home on state land and not on tribal property, the question of Seminole sovereignty complicates any potential solution.
"You turn over a kid who is living in our nation for services to another nation," Sobel said. "It becomes very complex."
Sobel was displeased that neither the Seminoles nor the Broward Sheriff's Office, which had conducted the child protective investigations in Ahziya's case, appeared at the April 9 meeting.
Carroll said Friday he would reach out to the Seminoles "directly."
"We have got to iron out a better way to make sure that we're sharing information in a timely way, in a way that would most impact and be in the best interests of the children that we're mutually serving," he said. "We will work with the tribe and make sure that happens."
Andrew Frank, a professor at Florida State University whose specialty is Seminole Indian culture, suggested that the tribe would welcome such an approach.
"I would imagine they have a very strong desire to find ways to make sure that their children are taken care of," Frank said, noting that Ahziya's death was as shocking to the tribe as it was elsewhere in the state.
Seminoles spokesman Gary Bitner said the tribe is reviewing the CIRRT report.