Aged Out: A Murdered Foster Child's Inopportune Freedom

from: theledger.com

Eric Pera

March 20, 2009

LAKELAND | Samantha Bailey will tell you she's lucky to be alive. Her former roommate, Jessica Upton, wasn't so fortunate.

JESSICA UPTON - was shot and killed March 21, 2008, by a jealous boyfriend. As part of Florida's foster care system, Upton was eligible to start living on her own once she turned 18 years old.

Upton was shot and killed in the early hours of March 21, 2008, in what police called a deadly lover's triangle. Upton and Aundre Barnes, both killed by a sawed-off shotgun, were found in Upton's bedroom.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the murders of Upton, 18, and Barnes, 29. Monquelle Anderson, 19, charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the case, is scheduled for trial on June 1. Prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty.

Police have said the shootings were motivated by jealousy, which Bailey corroborates, having lived in the same Lakeland apartment with Upton and witnessed Anderson's affections for the slim brunette, who he barely knew.

The sad consequences of their brief friendship offer a glimpse into the turbulent lives of former foster children Upton and Bailey.

They were strangers until their 18th birthdays, when they were paired under Florida's Independent Living Program, which extends foster care to teenagers who request help with making the transition into adulthood.

That transition is often fraught with hurdles in obtaining jobs and finding suitable living arrangements.

A statewide survey by the Florida Department of Children and Families, which oversees foster care services, found most children who exit the system at 18 lack the skills and services necessary to live on their own.

Some advocates for children say DCF has done little to improve things. But they acknowledge there isn't enough money to do much about the problem.

No one can know how an improved foster-care system might have changed the outcome for Upton, who, Bailey said, couldn't handle her newfound freedom and who made poor choices in the type of men she dated.

'Jessica was the type of person who liked to have a bunch of people over, like guys,' she said. 'I don't think she was ready to be let out (of foster care) like that.'

The Ledger went to court to obtain Upton's foster care records, which support Bailey's observations and document a sordid childhood.

They show she was sexually abused by siblings under the neglectful eyes of a single mother. Shuttled between foster homes and group homes for much of her life, Upton's past may well have shaded her character.

Should that have caused her caseworkers to tighten the reins? Could anything more have been done to prevent the deaths? DCF officials said their hands are tied when dealing with young adults, that their authority goes only so far.

'It was a sad situation, and she (Upton) clearly had boundary issues,' said Ann Berner, circuit administrator for the DCF. 'She turned 18, and she had the right to make those decisions.'

CASEWORKERS WORRIED

By all accounts Upton was very much on the radar of state child welfare workers, some of whom grew increasingly concerned with the teen's loose dating habits. They warned her of the consequences, state records show.

On or about Feb. 8, 2008, Upton's case manager and transition coach traded concerns that 'Jessica was unresponsive and would not follow directives.'

Records note Upton's lifestyle was troubling.

On or about Feb. 13, 2008, the transition coach noted Upton's behaviors 'could affect her roommate as well as possibly getting her evicted, and that ladies should carry themselves in a high regard to be able to be treated well.'

On March 12, 2008, barely a week before she was murdered, Upton's independent living handlers spoke with her 'about inappropriate behaviors that may be putting her in danger,' DCF records show. Upton, who was admonished for not attending school as required to stay in the program, replied that 'nothing was going on.'

After turning 18 in February 2008, Upton and Bailey were paired and moved at state expense into Lakeland's Willow Glen Place apartments.

Technically, the girls were still wards of the state, eligible for up to a year or more of protection.

That protection included a living allowance, which in Bailey's case was roughly $500 a month, she said. Upton's stipend was twice that amount, DCF records show.

The two teenagers made the most of their freedom. No curfews. No adults to answer to. All that was required was to work toward a high school degree, look for a job and keep caseworkers in the loop.

With help from two Lakeland charities - the Salvation Army and Wings of Eagles - the girls acquired pink dinnerware for their new apartment, along with pillows, sheets, down comforters, a shower curtain and other home essentials.

Bailey was a relative newcomer to the foster-care system, having rebelled against the maternal grandmother who raised her and three siblings. That's how Bailey wound up at a Sebring group home, where she spent two months before turning 18.

Having dropped out of school in the ninth grade, Bailey said she felt inadequate to make a go of it on her own. She said she had no family to take her in. The state's Independent Living program seemed her best option to buy a little time.

Upton and Bailey clicked at first, finding comfort in their newfound friendship and independence. But Bailey said she soon discovered her roommate also was ill-prepared for life without the constraints of adult supervision.

Upton had dreams of becoming a massage therapist or manicurist and harbored a love of literature and writing.

As a ninth-grader at Winter Haven High School, Upton already was working toward eventual independence. She worked with an independent living coordinator to develop vocational goals and establish life skills.

A case manager noted Upton, who was 15 at the time, worked on a fifth- or sixth-grade level, was 'very sexually aggressive' and on birth control.

SECRET TRIPS TO STRIP

As a requirement of the independent living arrangement, the two girls were to get a job or prove they were seeking employment and attend classes to help them cope with their circumstances and work on getting their GEDs.

It wasn't easy, juggling so many things, including trips to Bartow to meet with mental health and substance-abuse counselors, Bailey said, especially when neither girl had a car and they had to rely on the public bus system.

Unbeknownst to her caseworker, Upton was making trips to Gainesville, where she earned money as a stripper, Bailey said. 'They tried to get me to go, but I was like, 'No way!' '

Exacerbating the situation was the neighborhood. Despite frequent visits by their caseworkers, the girls weren't living in the best of circumstances, friends and acquaintances said. Their neighborhood, just off Lakeland's Memorial Boulevard, is a harsh environment, frequented by panhandlers, hookers and drug addicts.

'It was in a bad part of town, and I was scared. We were both scared,' Bailey said. 'We both kept knives in our room.'

For all their independence, Bailey and Upton did get support from their respective caseworkers, said Jon Wozniak, property manager of Willow Glen apartments at the time.

He said he sat in on some of their meetings that dealt with issues of employment and school, and the caseworkers visited sometimes during evening hours to check on the girls' needs.

Wozniak said he assisted by exchanging telephone numbers with the girls and their caseworkers in case an emergency might arise. He said Bailey and Upton 'could have used more life skills training prior to being released' on their own, but that overall their supervision seemed adequate.

The close supervision didn't last for Upton, Wozniak said, because her primary caseworker moved out of state roughly three weeks into the independence program and no one took his place, 'which gave me the impression that somebody dropped the ball on Jessica.'

Wozniak, who is no longer employed at Willow Glen, said Upton's behavior changed practically overnight. He noticed she was having frequent overnight guests during the week in violation of her case plan allowing overnight visitors on weekends only. 'She told me she felt abandoned,' he said.

A new caseworker had been assigned to Upton, but the teen was killed before the two could get together, said Berner, the circuit administrator for DCF. The delay of two or three weeks was within state guidelines, which call for a visit by caseworkers every 30 days, she said.

'There wasn't a big gap. And because the two girls were together they had a support system,' Berner said.

SEX ABUSE AS A CHILD

Bailey soon discovered she didn't have much in common with her new roommate. She said Upton had strange men coming and going at all hours, and she did not feel safe.

Upton's history of sexually aggressive behavior is well-documented.

The Ledger's request to review Upton's files was denied by the DCF without a judge's consent, which, ultimately, was granted, but not without some restrictions.

The partial records obtained by The Ledger shed some light on Upton's difficult childhood and provide some context to her troubled and tragic life.

At age 6, while still living with her mother, Nancy Decicco, Upton and five siblings were the focus of several child-abuse investigations. Among the allegations: Jessica was discovered masturbating in her school cafeteria and was found in a classroom closet kissing another child, records show.

Decicco acknowledged abuse to investigators, that some of her children, ages 6 to 8, had engaged in sexual acts with each other, including intercourse, but that she was unable to stop their behavior.

Several of the children told investigators they were mimicking behavior they'd seen on television but said they hadn't had sex with adults.

Decicco, a single mother living in Eagle Lake at the time, cooperated with investigators and agreed to a number of state interventions, such as counseling and therapy for herself and her children.

The state eventually terminated Decicco's parental rights, casting her children to Florida's foster-care system, which Decicco's mother, Joan Decicco, said was of no help to her grandchildren.

'My daughter did everything she could, (but) she had the worst caseworkers in the world. They were the sweetest kids until they got in foster care,' said Decicco, adding she and her husband, a disabled veteran, were not capable of raising the five grandchildren.

'As a young child, Jessica Upton was good-natured and loving,' said Joan Decicco, who winters in Lakeland and summers in Mississippi. The last time she saw Jessica was the day after she turned 18, when she toured her granddaughter's new apartment at Willow Glen.

Jessica had just moved from a girls group home in Orlando, Decicco said, 'And when they let her out, she went crazy (for boys).'

Decicco said she was appalled at the location of the apartment her granddaughter was placed in, but her complaints were ignored. The locale could have been a factor in Jessica's death, she said. 'The system is the reason why Jessica is dead.'

JEALOUS NEW ROOMMATE ACCUSED IN KILLINGS

The parade of strange men in her home inspired Bailey to spend more and more time at the home of her boyfriend, Bradley Burton. The two decided to get their own place, she said, which didn't seem to bother her caseworker.

'She said, 'You're 18. You're grown.' And that's all she said,' Bailey said. 'So I started looking for a new apartment, and I signed off of the lease.'

She said Upton took the news matter-of-factly and went looking for a new roommate in Anderson, who she'd met at a local fast-food restaurant.

Anderson passed a background check, said Wozniak, the former property manager, and was handed his own key. Anderson, a lanky, 6-foot, 2-inch quiet sort, moved a television and some clothes into the apartment before Bailey was able to clean out her bedroom, she said.

That was on March 18, 2008. By then, the two girls were barely on speaking terms, said Bailey, who was spending nights at her boyfriend's. On the night of March 20, Bailey, with her boyfriend in tow, returned to Willow Glen to collect the rest of her things.

Anderson was there. So was Upton, who was entertaining a 29-year-old man - Aundre Barnes - in her bedroom, Bailey said. Anderson was furious, she said.

Within roughly 24 hours both Upton and Barnes were dead.

Anderson had gone into the apartment with his own key and found the couple in bed together and waited for 'an extended amount of time,' an arrest report said, during which he telephoned an acquaintance.

He'd telephoned Bailey, who said Anderson told her he had a gun and he was jealous of the sleeping lovers. She said she tried to calm Anderson, but he hung up the phone. She called 911. By the time police arrived, Upton and Barnes were dead of wounds from a sawed-off shotgun. Anderson left a note recovered by police suggesting he'd contemplated taking his own life after the shooting.

Handwritten and full of misspellings and poor grammar, the note read in part: 'I can't say that I sorry because I'm not. Every thing happens for a reason. I had to grow up fast that's why I'm diing young.'

Anderson wrote he was 'so scared my heart is beating out of control. If I don't die from the shot to the head don't let me live please...girls ain't nutting but trouble.'

Anderson fled the apartment after the shootings, an arrest report said, and police found him at a nearby motel about two hours after the bodies were discovered. A police spokesman said Anderson refused orders to drop his weapon, which he had pointed at his own head when officers arrived.

One of the officers talked him into dropping the gun. Anderson remains at the Polk County Jail, awaiting his June trial.

HAUNTED BY THE KILLINGS

The months since the shooting have flown by for Bailey, who said she's still haunted by the incident. 'I don't know why it happened. I really don't believe it happened.'

To help her cope with the aftermath of the tragedy, her caseworkers urged her to seek more counseling, Bailey said, but she'd had enough.

The 'young leaders' classes at Polk Works in Lakeland that were a condition of her extended foster care 'were kind of a waste of time,' she said. 'There was less than 10 kids (attending the Monday through Thursday classes), and half the time I'd be the only one there.'

She never did find a steady job.

After her boyfriend found a job in Minneapolis cleaning homes left vacant by foreclosures, Bailey discovered she was pregnant. Three months into her pregnancy, she miscarried. 'It wasn't the right time,' she said.

Now 19, Bailey lives in Lake Placid, a sleepy city straddling U.S. 27 about 70 miles south of Lakeland. It's known for an abundance of caladiums and lakes full of bass. She resides with a worker at the Sebring group home that was her temporary residence prior to pairing with Upton.

Lake Placid is just like the name implies, she said, quiet and good for the soul. 'There's not a lot of drama here like there was in Lakeland.'

Bailey said she's focused now and working on her GED in hopes of becoming a dental assistant. Free of the Independent Living Program, she's no longer in foster care. She's aged out.

[ Contact Eric Pera at eric.pera@theledger.com or 863-802-7528. ]

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