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DCF speaks of changes on one-year anniversary of death; Changes to policy, training cited

By Staff | May 30, 2008

Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of the death of 3-year-old Zahid Jones, reportedly at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend as she neglected the child and allowed her boyfriend to physically abuse Zahid for several days until he died as a result of blunt force trauma to his intestines and liver.

Kashon Scott currently faces charges of first-degree homicide and aggravated child abuse, while Jones’s mother, Nicole Brewington, is charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child.

Unfortunately, history repeats itself in Cape Coral less than a year after Zahid’s death: Joshua Jenkins, 6, was pronounced dead at 9:14 p.m. Feb. 18 at Health Park Hospital.

Joshua’s death was also the result of blunt trauma which caused extensive internal injuries, inflicted by his stepfather Phillipe Ian Gayle, according to authorities. Gayle faces homicide and aggravated child abuse charges.

Scott, Brewington and Gayle remain in the Lee County Jail awaiting trial. No trial dates have been set for any of the three, according to records from the Lee County Clerk of Courts.

Following the deaths of Zahid and Joshua, the Department of Children and Families for the 20th Judicial Circuit came under direct scrutiny from the public and media for not doing more to prevent the deaths from occurring.

In part, due to the scrutiny, DCF has undergone several drastic internal changes, according to circuit administrator Cookie Coleman. Those changes are ongoing, she added.

“Nothing is static and every organization can improve,” Coleman said Thursday. “The changes implemented are a continuation.”

One of the more recent changes was the implementation of a red flag staffing process, which requires special attention be payed in cases which meet a list of criteria to include age, developmental issues, verbal abilities and types of injuries.

Red flagged cases require the comprehensive combined analysis of all investigative parties, Coleman said.

“By bringing in all the people together, you’re getting a full picture,” said Coleman. “Communications at all levels is daily and much more intensive.”

Coleman said the DCF circuit will work more closely with the child protection team than it has in the past — something DCF was criticized for neglecting in the case of Joshua — especially on red flag staffing cases.

Additionally, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office now has physical and sexual child abuse investigators assigned to mirror DCF investigations.

“In the past, we would review hotline reports and decide which to send to law enforcement. Now they get all of them,” Coleman said.

In light of the Zahid Jones “Give Relatives a Voice Bill,” DCF now has a grandparents liaison program headed up by Dianne Ledbetter. The bill was designed to give grandparents and other family members additional rights to information in child abuse cases.

Ledbetter was out of town Thursday afternoon and could not be reached for comment.

The program was designed to help grandparents navigate the sometimes cumbersome legal and departmental processes in child abuse cases, Coleman said.

In-service training for DCF investigators has been totally revamped to “fortify and bring people back into focus on what needs to be done,” Coleman said.

New personnel now spend two weeks training with a case manager and a great deal of training with child protective investigators, as well as a week with law enforcement officials learning how to treat crime scenes and other legal issues.

DCF for the 20th Judicial Circuit, which includes Lee, Collier, Hendry, Glades and Charlotte counties, is now at full staff with 11 employees recently out of training. A vast improvement over the recent 40 percent shortfall in staff, said Coleman.

“Instead of five counties we have a circuit, working towards the same goal,” she said.

DCF spokesperson Erin Gillespie said the average monthly caseload of new abuse cases for child protection investigators with the 20th Judicial Circuit is 28, in addition to two or three current investigation calls per day.

Though the recommended average nationally is 12 new cases per month, Gillespie said the circuit’s average is still better than it has been in the past. She added that all the DCF circuits in Florida likely exceed the recommended average.

With the staff now up to par, Coleman said backlogs are getting cleared and each investigator can spend the necessary time on each case they are assigned to.

In addition to the changes, DCF is working more heavily with diversion and prevention programs which help families with issues such as drinking and anger management.

“Ultimately, the people we need to work with are the caregivers and parents,” she said.

Though Coleman agrees DCF will never be perfect and will always leave room for improvement, she said she has already seen effects from the implemented changes.

“Morale is up, it’s a team effort now, and it really is important we work as a team,” she said.

Regarding more recent child abuse cases, Coleman said, “We’ve done it right, hat in itself speaks volumes.”