Is Florida Bad for Kids?


    Alfredo Montez' was beaten to death by a baby sitter

    Even if she had actually visited the 2-year-old's central Florida home on July 1, child-welfare caseworker Erica Jones would not have found little Alfredo Montez. He was being beaten to death in a mobile home 10 miles away, allegedly by his baby-sitter, Richard Chouquer, 23, as punishment for soiling his pants. The child was then wrapped in a bedspread, one with characters from Disney's 101 Dalmatians, and allegedly thrown into the trunk of Chouquer's gray Ford Taurus. Police say that as Chouquer and his girlfriend, Amandy Lawrence, 22, drove off to find a spot to dump Alfredo's body, they took the little boy's sister Rheyna, 4, along for the ride. The caseworker knew nothing about that. She was nowhere near to stop it.

    But Jones is accused of a lie that has put her at the center of the latest crisis in Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF)--and, by extension, the re-election campaign of Republican Governor Jeb Bush. Jones, 27, was supposed to check on Alfredo and Rheyna that same day in response to reports from neighbors of abuse that had left the children with welts and bruises. She never went, perhaps because she had been on the job less than a year, was eight months pregnant and was overwhelmed by a case load of 50 children on a $28,000 salary. Yet when news circulated on July 9 that Alfredo was missing, Jones allegedly falsified the case records to show that she had visited the children's home on July 1, scribbling into the report that Alfredo looked "happy." Alfredo's corpse was found in a ditch north of Tampa nearly two weeks later. Jones was not only fired but also charged with felony fraud under a new state law. Jones' supervisor was also fired.

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    The law is so new — and the scandal that inspired it still so fresh in the public's memory — that its violation has put the Governor on the defensive, even though it was Bush who pushed the measure through the legislature last spring. He had acted to defuse criticism arising from the DCF's last debacle: the case of the still vanished 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, who was missing for 15 months before her caseworkers realized it in April. Rilya's caseworkers also fudged reports and lied about visits that never took place.

    The Governor had promised four years ago to fix the state's child-welfare mess. But even though Bush oversaw a 27% increase in child-protection funding, 60 children who had previous contact with the state's child-welfare system died of abuse or neglect in 1999 and 2000, and as many as 1,000 were unaccounted for. Bush's Democratic challenger, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who is lagging in the polls, was quick to use the tragedy against Bush. The murder, she says, "certainly indicates that Rilya Wilson's case was not an isolated incident. There is simply too much at stake to stay our current course." Says Democratic state representative Frederica Wilson, who is pressing Bush to open a grand jury investigation into the DCF's disasters: "If he doesn't stop and get a handle on this, he's going to look clueless and heartless come fall."

    Bush called the tragedy "heartbreaking." The public's immediate wrath will probably focus on Bush's handpicked DCF chief, Kathleen Kearney. Critics have called for her head since April, saying she focuses too much on whisking kids into foster care and too little on repairing her agency's bureaucracy. Kearney insists that cases like Jones' "are not widespread."

    Alfredo and Rheyna were not officially under state care, but Jones was assigned to investigate their situation last December, when neighbors complained to the agency about the alleged drug use of the children's mother, Jeanna Swallows, 21. (Their father is in a federal prison for drug trafficking.) DCF officials concede that although Jones went to the family's house on a couple of occasions, she never met the children or their mother. Swallows, who says she was going off to look for a job, took the children to stay with Lawrence, a high school friend who was living with Chouquer. After Chouquer and Lawrence allegedly discarded the toddler's body, the couple left Rheyna with a cousin of Lawrence's, then headed for Utah, where they were apprehended. Swallows has since been jailed for violating probation. That leaves Rheyna without a brother, mother or father. Perhaps all she will have is the DCF.