State child welfare officials review adoption screening process after beating death of 9-year-old
By Katie Mettler
NEW PORT RICHEY — State child welfare officials are reviewing their adoption screening process after an investigation into the death of 9-year-old Jenica Randazzo at the hands of her mentally ill uncle revealed potentially dangerous gaps in the system.
Officials also said that Eckerd Community Alternatives, the subcontractor agency responsible for the girl's adoptive placement, has implemented new policies to strengthen communication between their case managers and child protection investigators after it was revealed that information about the man's mental illness was not passed from one entity to the other.
Randazzo and her 55-year-old grandmother Angela Rios were beaten to death with a tire iron by the girl's uncle, Jason Rios, at their home on Catherine Street in New Port Richey February 5, Pasco County sheriff's deputies said. Rios faces two counts of first degree murder and an attempted murder charge related to an attack on one of Randazzo's siblings the same day, deputies said.
After being removed from their mother's care and shuffled between foster homes, Randazzo and her three half-siblings were adopted by their maternal grandparents, Angela and Ernesto Rios — despite documented concerns that they might not be best suited to care for the children. Angela Rios was a double amputee diabetic and her husband was her primary caregiver and the children had been removed once before when the grandparents became overwhelmed. Officials from Eckerd said additional family members, including Jason Rios, were available to pitch in, which eased concerns, and a judge ordered a strict safety plan that included the use of baby monitors and door alarms. The children were not to be alone together.
But a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that despite efforts to help the grandparents, Eckerd had no idea Jason Rios, who lived in the home, had been grappling with mental illness for years. State law prevented them from asking direct questions about his mental heath and his parents, Ernesto and Angela, never revealed his struggles to the state.
In June 2014, the same month Randazzo was reunited with her grandparents on Catherine Street, a case manager visited the home and raised concerns that the grandparents were not being forthcoming about the challenging behavior of one of the children.
"One of the most notable concerns about the grandparents as a placement was that they had difficulty recognizing dangers in their children and grandchildren's behavior, so this would have been an indication that this concern remained unresolved," the state's report said.
On June 23, 2014, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office began investigating a child abuse allegation involving inadequate supervision of the children, the state's findings show. Jason Rios told an investigator he had been Baker Acted two times, but denied any mental health issues or being on any medication.
Law enforcement tried to verify his claims but found that there had been no calls to the family's home that referenced mental illness or Baker Acts, according the state's report.
The investigator logged it into the case notes, but did not discuss it with the adoption case manager.
Jason Rios' family members told the Tampa Bay Times that he had been Baker Acted three times.
The state's report says that Eckerd has "taken action" to improve communication between investigators and case management members during an investigation. They have also built an alert into their software reporting system that notifies Eckerd leadership so they can review all abuse reports upon receipt.
"When tragic incidents such as this occur, it has a devastating impact — not only on the family, but also on those involved in the child welfare system of care," the report said. "The Department of Children and Families and our partners at Pasco County Sheriff's Office CPID, Eckerd Community Alternatives and Youth and Family Alternatives are all committed to continuing to review and improve our system of care."