Boy's death another scandal for Florida child welfare agency
AUBURNDALE, Florida (CNN) -- A toddler's death erupted into another scandal at Florida's embattled child welfare agency Friday when a caseworker turned herself in for lying about visiting the child and reporting he was alive and well on the very day he was killed.
The slaying victim is 2-year-old Alfredo Montez, whose body was discovered in the woods after days of searching.
The accused killer, baby sitter Richard Chouquer, told police he got outraged after the boy soiled his pants. Investigators said Chouquer, 24, slapped the boy repeatedly and then wrapped his dead body in a blanket decorated with cartoon Dalmatians.
Erica Jones, the caseworker with the Department of Children and Families, was charged with falsifying records -- paperwork that said she had checked on the child the same day the boy was killed, saying he was fine -- even though she never made such a visit, authorities said.
"We take incredibly seriously the fact that something we could have done may have averted this tragedy," said Kathleen Kearney, the head of the department. "The child died as a result of abuse."
It was another severe blow for the DCF, which has been reeling since it revealed earlier this year it lost track of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, a child under its supervision. Rilya has not yet been found.
Rilya's grandmother, Geralyn Graham, said she turned the girl over to a woman she believed was a caseworker in January 2001 and has not seen her since. In the two months since Rilya was discovered missing, almost 140 child welfare workers across the state have been fired for various reasons, including failure to visit children in their care.
Kearney said morale is extremely low among the agency's employees, with many asking themselves "whether they have the stamina and wherewithal to continue doing this type of work under such intense scrutiny."
"Imagine what it is like when one of the colleagues you worked with day in and day out neglected the safety of children," she said.
In another case late last month, several underaged foster children were found, unattended, at a West Palm Beach motel where DCF had rented two rooms for six girls between the ages of 11 and 15.
A private company had been hired to supervise the girls, but a motel employee became concerned and called police after seeing the girls in other people's rooms and drinking at the pool with some of the adult men staying at the motel.
How police found Alfredo
Alfredo's body was discovered Thursday in woods near the northbound lanes of Interstate 275 in Hillsborough County, east of Tampa. Authorities said the boy was killed July 1 and ditched there as the child's baby sitters fled the state.
Chouquer and his girlfriend Amandy Lawrence, 22, were captured Wednesday in Utah and were being extradited to Florida. The two had been looking after the boy and his sister since late June.
Chouquer is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse. He could face the death penalty if convicted. Lawrence is charged with being an accessory after the fact.
Authorities have said both Chouquer and Lawrence have been cooperating with the investigation.
"(Chouquer) confessed that he slapped the child five times after the child soiled his pants. On or about the fifth blow, the child lost consciousness," said Kim Garrett, a spokeswoman for the Polk County Sheriff's Department.
Garrett said Chouqer wrapped the boy's body in the blanket and then waited for Lawrence to return home. When she did, he apparently told her what happened, they sold their belongings and left town, Garrett said.
Authorities said they decided to investigate after they received a call Monday from a relative of the baby sitters who suspected something was amiss.
Polk County Sheriff Lawrence Crow said investigators quickly noticed discrepancies in the case. On July 1, Florida authorities received a call on a child abuse hotline that the boy and his 4-year-old sister, Rheyna, were exposed to harm from their mother.
What was in the DCF report
Investigators said Jones, the DCF caseworker, filled out the false report. However, the mother of the children, Jeanna Lynn Swallows, had told authorities she had last seen her children when she left them with the sitters June 28.
Authorities then began further scrutinizing the DCF worker's claim.
"At that point, we suspected somebody was not telling the truth, but we didn't know who," Crow said. "It seemed like a very serious criminal matter to us early on."
In the DCF report filed by Jones on July 1, she said she had visited both Alfredo and his sister and talked with their mother. The agency had received five phone calls, dating back to August 2000, that accused their mother of abusing the children.
Swallows denied using drugs, as the caller to the hotline had suggested, and said the calls to DCF were the result of harassment, the report stated.
Kearney said she was disturbed by the caseworker's report.
"She described the children in her chronological notes as being happy. She described them as being clean and appeared to be well cared for," Kearney said.
"The reality is there was no contact with Alfredo, Rheyna and the mother of these children," the DCF chief added. "She has admitted as such to law enforcement."
The mother was arrested Tuesday on a parole violation charge involving bounced checks. Rheyna, who was not harmed during the ordeal, is in state custody.
No charges have been brought against the mother relating to the disappearance. Asked if the mother would be charged with negligence for dropping off the children in late June and not returning, Garrett said, "The investigation is continuing. We don't have any charges on the mother yet."
Garrett said the boy's father is a federal inmate in Georgia. She did not know what his conviction involved.
Florida authorities believe missing boy is dead
July 11, 2002
Florida criticized for leaving foster kids in motel
June 29, 2002
Judge: Case of missing girl 'absolutely despicable'
May 6, 2002
Missing girl's caseworker accused of lying
May 4, 2002
Florida girl lost a year before reported missing
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