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Two DCF Workers Resign; Second Child Dies On State Watch


Agency Failed To Conduct Background Check On Keys Suspect

NBC 6 News Team

MIAMI -- Two state child welfare workers resigned Friday and Department of Children and Families officials acknowledged failing to conduct a background check on a Key West man with a criminal record before he took custody of his 5-year-old son last year.

Christopher Lamont Bennett, 28, is charged with fatally beating his son, Zachary, at their home Tuesday. The boy died of blunt trauma and had a ruptured liver, a bleeding brain, and "broken ribs consistent with having been stomped," an autopsy found Thursday.

On Friday, DCF employees Julius Mathis and Sharon Cobb handed in their resignations over the case. Mathis had been a caseworker at DCF for 3 years. Sharon Cobb, a supervisor, was with the agency for 25 years. DCF officials say the two should never have placed the child with Joseph, who police said has a long criminal record including violent crime and aggravated child abuse charges.

Bennett had previous arrests for allegedly selling cocaine, stalking and assault and battery. A domestic violence restraining order prevented him from going near a girlfriend.

But Acting DCF Regional Chief Samara Kramer said the caseworkers never conducted a basic background check on Joseph prior to placing his son with him.

Kramer, the interim district administrator for the agency in Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys, took over the district after the department was accused of mishandling cases of several children who disappeared or were killed.

"I have serious concerns about the way this case was handled," she said Thursday. She said the department was conducting an investigation, and that placing a child with a person who has a criminal past is "sloppy" and "unconscionable."

"This is not a system failure and not due to backlog," Kramer said. "This is simply a matter of people not doing their jobs."

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, who granted Bennett custody of the boy without knowing of his violent past, was demanding answers on Friday.

"This child is my ultimate responsibility. But I can only rely on the information presented to me," Lederman said. "I absolutely did not know that this father had any criminal record whatsoever."

Lederman is the same judge who blasted DCF last year for bungling its supervision of

Rilya Wilson

, the 6-year-old who disappeared from state custody for more than 15 months before her absence was discovered by the agency. Rilya's disappearance prompted the resignation of then secretary Kathleen Kearney and triggered pledges of a top-to-bottom overhaul of the by the governor. Gov. Jeb Bush appointed a blue-ribbon committee to make recommendations for reform and hired a new DCF secretary, Jerry Regier, last year.

On Friday, Bush stood by the agency, saying its performance is improving.

"Our strategy is to lessen the number of children in the custody and care and we've begun that," Bush said. "These cases that do occur, apart from being heartbreaking, they really anger me because it diminishes the good work that thousands of people inside the department are doing."

But the agency was dealt another public relations blow Friday after a 16-month-old boy died after Miami-Dade County police said he was beaten to death by his DCF-appointed guardian.

Deondre Bondieumaitre

died Wednesday shortly after he was taken to a hospital by paramedics, investigators said. An autopsy Thursday showed that he died from blunt force trauma.

Gregory Joseph, 23, admitted striking the boy and was arrested Thursday, Detective Randy Rossman said. He was being held Friday without bail on first-degree murder charges.

Joseph and a woman volunteered last year to become Deondre's legal guardians after his parents said they could not take care of him, and DCF and the courts approved the arrangement, Rossman said.

Rossman did not know if Joseph has a criminal record and it could not be immediately determined if he has an attorney. DCF officials did not immediately return a call Friday about Deondre's death.

Deondre's death was the third of a child under state care in the past month.

Zachary's Life Had Tough Start, Tragic End

Zachary was born prematurely with a heart murmur, asthma and severe reflux disease.

In April 2002, he was taken from his mother after complaints that she left the boy for extended periods without his medication or provisions for his care. Zachary was sent to live with a great-grandmother, Virginia Rolle, in north Miami-Dade County.

Four months later, DCF investigators went to Rolle's home and discovered the child was with his mother on an unsupervised visit, in violation of the agency's instructions.

The boy was then sent to live with his father after DCF workers told Lederman he would be a suitable guardian.

Lederman said DCF investigators did not tell her they had received a December 2002 report that Zachary had sustained bruises on his face and jaw while living with Bennett. The allegations were ruled unfounded. In February, Lederman ended state supervision of the boy.

Bennett was being held Friday on charges of murder and aggravated child abuse at Monroe County jail.

2003 Apr 18