Siblings put in foster care amid investigation of toddler's death
Suevon Lee & Austin L. Miller
OCALA - Five young children whose 2-year-old sibling died earlier this week, in a case of what authorities strongly suspect was child abuse, were placed into various foster homes early Friday as an investigation into the homicide continued.
The toddler, Faith J. Ray, died Monday at Shands at the University of Florida after being rushed to Munroe Regional Medical Center in the early morning hours of Dec. 6 after going into cardiac arrest. At the hospital, she was found to have bruises all over her legs, chest and arms, in addition to vaginal tearing.
The Medical Examiner's Office ruled her death a homicide the next day.
Faith and her siblings were adopted by Joseph and Violet Ray of Belleview, a couple with no biological children of their own who built a household that a neighbor on Friday said "seemed happy."
A review of the couple's adoption files, completed late Friday afternoon, didn't reveal anything that indicated "anything as horrific as this" was likely to occur, said Carrie Hoeppner, Department of Children and Families' central regional communications director.
The most recent screening date of the couple's background, including financial records, occurred in February, according to Hoeppner.
The Rays adopted two of the six children from private adoption agencies, and the other four from DCF, including Faith and her 1-year-old biological brother.
The other children were taken into custody by their grandmother following Faith's death. But DCF officials felt it in the children's "best interest" for them to be moved into foster care.
"This case has taken a dramatically different turn in the last several days, and we felt in order to best ensure their safety they should enter protective care in a foster setting," said Hoeppner.
Meantime, the Marion County Sheriff's Office said Deputy David McClure "absolutely" followed procedure on the evening of Dec. 5 when he responded to a 911 hang-up at the Rays' residence, thought to have been placed by a 5-year-old at the home.
"[McClure] not only followed proper policy and procedures, he took it a step further by asking to enter the house and to make sure everything was OK," said Sheriff's Office spokesman Capt. Jimmy Pogue on Friday.
Pogue added that the deputy - after learning of an accidental fall in which Faith supposedly fell in the kitchen and bumped her head, according to the adults at the home - offered to call for medical assistance to run an evaluation of the child on two separate occasions.
"The adults at the residence insisted that they would take the baby to be checked out. At that point the mother got up and went to change, making the deputy believe they would take the child to the hospital," he said.
The adults inside the home at the time were Faith's mother, Violet Ray, and Janette and Michael Hamblen, Faith's grandparents.
But it wasn't until the next morning that Faith received medical treatment, with Marion County Fire Rescue receiving a call at 4:38 a.m, with word that the 2-year-old had stopped breathing.
On Friday morning, activity at the Rays' home on Southeast 90th Court east of Belleview - a quiet, working-class neighborhood full of single-story homes, located about five miles from Maricamp Road - was still, with the shades drawn and no cars in the garage.
Neighbors in the Rays' community didn't seem to know much about the couple, but were aware of sheriff's deputies coming to the home on Dec. 6.
One neighbor, Herman Rivera, who said he has been living in the community for 21 years, said he didn't notice any problems over at the Rays' household.
"I saw kids in the backyard playing around and they seemed happy. They had enough toys in the yard," he said.
Rivera added that with so many kids, he could hear laughter from their home and it seemed, "They were just having a grand old time."
"I didn't hear any yelling or anything like that," he said.
With the dark cloud surrounding the couple, Rivera said he's "praying for them."
The father, Joseph Ray, teaches 10th grade math at Wildwood High School and has not returned to the school since the incident, according to a student. Ray was described as a "pretty nice and really laid-back teacher" who "always seemed like he was in a good mood."
"He didn't get mad at anyone even if they were disrespectful," said Mitch Head, an 11th-grader who was in Ray's geometry class last year as a sophomore.
Although Wildwood High School Principal Richard Hampton was not available for comment on Friday, on Thursday he said he was "aware" of Ray's situation. He responded "no" when asked if the school would provide grief counselors for Ray.
According to the Sumter County School Board District Office, Ray became a substitute teacher for the district March 1, 2005, before becoming a full-time math teacher at Wildwood High School on Aug. 2, 2006.