10 News: Who failed our children? Former foster parent speaks

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Ashley Rhodes – Courter says she knows first hand about the death of a child.

“We saw are kids sent back to these homes they were taken away from, and pray nothing would happen, then it did,” says Rhodes-Courter, a child welfare advocate.

Rhodes-Courter was a foster parent for Jenica Randazzo, who was killed by a family member after being put back into the care of her grandparents. Continue reading

Part Two: New York Times Best-Selling Author Refuses to Be Silenced by Gag Order

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Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s life came full circle five years ago when she and her husband Erick became foster parents in Florida’s Tampa Bay area.  Ashley, a New York Times best-selling author of two books – Three Little Words and Three More Words respectively – had spent nearly 10 years in foster care before her adoption at age 12.  Part One of this series described why Ashley and Erick surrendered their foster parent license, rather than sign a “gag order” that would have prevented them from speaking publicly about the gruesome murder of a former foster child.

Foster Parents Still Disrespected

Perhaps the most surprising part of being a foster parent for Ashley was the lack of respect foster parents must still endure – despite Tampa Bay’s “Fostering Respect Hotline” or Florida’s “Quality Parenting Initiative” to correct this problem. Although foster parents are promised to be treated as partners, she found the opposite to be true. Especially when voicing safety concerns to child welfare professionals about case management decisions. Continue reading

WFLA: Florida foster mom speaking out, leaving system

A foster parent who recently spoke out with concerns about Department of Children and Families decisions says she and her husband are giving up their license to be foster parents.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter  says she received “negative feedback” to her comments after the death of her former foster child Jenica Randazzo, a 9-year-old who investigators believe was killed by her uncle.

Rhodes-Courter is a child advocate, an author and also a former foster child. She raised concerns specifically about where Randazzo had been placed to live and more generally about DCF efforts to keep families together. Continue reading

Seattle Times:

Special to The Times

WE see the news stories all too often. Three young children in Washington state, who police say were abandoned by their mother with no heat and no food, locked inside a house littered with garbage and animal waste. Or the case of a former foster child returned to a family in Florida, where a relative allegedly beat her to death.

These horrendous situations leave us shaking our heads. Why does it happen, often even after Child Protective Services reports or alerts from teachers or the concerns expressed by foster parents? Why does the system fail to address what is in a child’s best interest? Continue reading

Caseworkers: Pasco girl’s death could not have been prevented

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New Port Richey, FL — After combing through thousands of pages, caseworkers say it’s a tragedy, but they don’t think they could have predicted – or prevented – the death of 9-year-old Jenica Randazzo.

Deputies say the little girl and her grandmother were killed by 24-year-old Jason Rios, who was living in the same New Port Richey home.

Eckerd Community Alternatives, the agency handling the case, reviewed thousand of documents.

Executive Director Brian Bostick says based on their review, there’s nothing the agency could have done differently to save Jenica.

“Indications are that we don’t have any information that would say that we knew that this was going to happen or that we could’ve prevented this,” said Bostick.

Jenica and her grandmother Angela were killed, say Pasco deputies, by Jason Rios, who was Jenica’s uncle. He’d been living in the same New Port Richey home as Jenica and her three siblings.

Records show until Feb. 6, caseworkers considered Rios no threat. In fact, notes indicate he would act as a “big brother” – protecting the kids and watching them when their grandparents could not.

But deputies say Rios, suffering from schizophrenia, brutally attacked Angela, Jenica, and Jenica’s sister.

Caseworkers say they were unaware of Rios’s mental health issues. They say the family had failed to disclose it, and admit that as an agency it had failed to specifically inquire about mental illness in the home.

Asked if that should be something specifically asked about, Bostick answered: “I think you make a good point, and again, if there are any changes that need to be made we will make those changes.”

LEARN MORE:Read the report from Eckerd Community Alternatives

Records show Jenica’s grandparents were working toward permanently adopting her and her three siblings, but that caseworkers raised concerns about the couple’s ability to handle four children.

One of Jenica’s former foster parents, says in her opinion, the system did fail Jenica, and that the report exposes red flags aside from Rios.

“I feel like they weren’t asking the right questions. They weren’t doing the proper vetting,” said former foster mother Ashley Rhodes-Courter. “And it seems like there was just a very blind push to have the children together in this situation against what many professionals had been saying was not a safe idea.”

Gov. Rick Scott, asked about the Rios case, and the recent death of five-year-old Phoebe Johnchuck, whose father is accused of throwing her from a bridge, says the Department of Children and Families is already making changes.

“As you know, we have been increasing the number of child protective investigators, and we have put more money this year in the budget,” said Scott. “We are adding rapid response teams. So we’re going to do everything we can.”

Officials with Eckerd say they are also working with DCF to see whether they need to implement any changes in policy.

In the meantime, the three surviving siblings have been placed with separate foster families. They are able to see each other two or three times a week, say caseworkers.

As for the grandfather, and his plan to legally adopt them, there has been no word yet on whether they plan to move forward.

Eckerd Center investigates death of girl, 9

Original Article

A local child protection agency is speaking out after a 9-year-old girl is murdered under its care.

Eckerd Support Center says its preliminary investigation shows there were not any warning signs that Jenica Randazzo was in danger. Her former foster mom disagrees.

The little girl had been staying with her grandparents who were working to adopt her.

Her uncle, Jason Rios, is accused of attacking and killing her and her grandmother in Pasco County last week. Jenica’s younger sister, survived.

When we’re charged with ensuring the safety of children we should be held accountable,” says Eckerd Executive Director Brian Bostick.

Bostick says the agency is making the investigation into Randazzo’s death a top priority. Right now, they’re digging through more than 3,000 pages of records to uncover if social workers missed warning signs that could have saved her life.

Before Jenica’s death, her uncle and accused killer, Jason Rios, had been living under the same roof with his parents and four nieces and nephews. Despite relatives acknowledging Rios suffered from schizophrenia, his parents, Eddie and Angela Rios, had been in the process of legally adopting their grandchildren.

“We don’t see anything that states that these children are in danger of being placed in the home with her grandparents and raised by their family,” says Bostick.

After the murder of Jenica and her grandmother, the state removed the 3 other kids from the home. Adding to the heartbreak, early Wednesday morning, Jenica’s older brother, 13-year-old Dominic Putnam ran away from the shelter where he’d been staying. Deputies found him safe hours later.

“Dominic has gone through a very tragic experience, so he’s possibly running to something,” says Bostick. “I would say Dominic wants to be with family members, and at this time were not able to facilitate that.”

“You’re just going to put all that baggage onto elderly disabled grandparents?” questions Jenica’s former foster mom, Ashley Rhodes-Courter.

Rhodes-Courter says she knows case workers tried to keep the kids with relatives after their mom and dad lost custody, but insists she raised concerns that this wasn’t the best home for the kids to thrive.

“Our words fell on completely deaf ears and that was so frustrating. But this time, it ultimately lead to a fatality and that’s completely unacceptable,” says Rhodes-Courter.

Eckerd hopes to release Jenica’s records and its review Monday. There will also be a state investigation, similar to the one released this week into the death of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck.

To read Jonchuck’s investigation, click this link.

Backlash follows DCF probe of Jonchuck case

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There is major backlash over the Department of Children and Families’ investigation into the murder of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck. Some local leaders say the state should not be looking into their own failures and are calling for an independent review team.

“It’s not just about Phoebe, it’s about the entire system, and I feel they could’ve done a much better job of looking at that and really being honest and transparent,” says St. Petersburg councilman Steve Kornell.

Kornell is also a social worker. He’s pushing the council to pass a resolution that will call on DCF to mandate more training, and a master’s for child protection investigators. He also wants an independent team to review child deaths not DCF.

“When you have a 5-year-old thrown off a bridge, they have to say, ‘We take responsibility.’ If you’re really taking responsibility, you’re going back and say we’re not only going to change our telephone protocol you’re going back and looking at every case,” says Kornell.

During the monthlong investigation into Phoebe’s death, child protection investigators contracted through the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office blame being overworked and understaffed. Workers claim they juggle an average of 25 cases, and that the investigator assigned to Phoebe’s family in December had 27 cases at the time.

READ REPORT: DCF report on visit with Jonchuck

10 News uncovered DCF’s Scorecard for December that shows Hillsborough’s average caseload was 13 families, significantly lower than they claimed in the investigation.

Here’s DCF’s explanation of the discrepancy: “The Critical Incident Rapid Response Team conducted interviews with the HCSO Child Protective Investigation (CPI) unit. The information provided in the CIRRT report was relayed to the team during those interviews. The HCSO supervisory staff estimated that the CPIs were receiving between 5 and 7 new cases each week and carrying an average of 25 open investigations at any given time. The report produced is a result of the interviews conducted. The CPI scorecards provide high level snapshot of average investigations per CPI. It is point in time data. The number of active investigations is divided among all CPIs who have at least one assignment the day the report is run.”

Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a foster mom and knows the flaws and failures of the child protection system. “It’s so frustrating and so disheartening, because it seems like DCF is just looking for a scapegoat and all of these little technicalities to excuse the fact that children are being murdered,” says Rhodes-Courter.

FATHER’S ASSESSMENT:Jonchuck ruled mentally incompetent

A year ago, she’d been caring for 9-year-old Jenica Randazzo. The little girl was sent back to live with her family and murdered last week, deputies say, by her uncle.

“Both of these cases with Jenica and Phoebe you can see that somebody obviously messed up systemically, yet no one is taking real responsibility,” says Rhodes-Courter.

The person who is supposed to be held criminally responsible: Phoebe’s dad, John Jonchuck. A judge revealed Tuesday that two doctors assessing Phoebe’s dad found right now, he’s mentally incompetent to stand trial, yet he is the one who had custody of his little girl.

Dec. 29 call to DCF about Phoebe Jonchuck’s welfare.

In a monthlong investigation into Jonchuck’s death, the state acknowledges missed warning signs, failing to act on two calls to the abuse hotline, and fault local case workers for never providing services for the family.

“Let’s stop with the semantics here. We’re talking about kids who are dying on their watch that is completely unacceptable,” says Rhodes-Courter.

In a statement, DCF addressed the shortage of child protection investigators: “Last legislative session Governor Scott recommended and the Legislature funded an increase of $8 million to sheriff’s offices in six counties—Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Seminole, Pasco and Broward — who perform child protective investigations in order to fund additional resources they need to protect the children in their counties. DCF was provided additional funding to hire 270 new frontline staff, in order to reduce caseloads below the national recommendation from the Child Welfare League of America. The department has worked to quickly recruit more than 245 new Child Protective Investigators and Supervisors throughout the state with the goal of hiring individuals with social work degrees or other human-service related educations. As positions are filled, DCF is committed to increasing staff retention to ensure a stable and professional workforce.”

Former foster parents devastated by Pasco child’s death

FOX 13 News

Original Article
NEW PORT RICHEY (FOX 13) –
When Ashley Rhodes-Courter read down to the names in the article about children who investigators say were beaten by their schizophrenic uncle, she knew one name well.

“When we learned that Jenna had died, we couldn’t believe it. It is our worst fear as foster parent, completely confirmed,” said Ashley Rhodes-Courter.

Jenna Randazzo, 9-years-old, was a former foster child to Ashley and her husband Erick Smith.

“We felt an immediate connection,” said Rhodes-Courter.

“She was just so happy and intelligent,” said Erick Smith.

Rhodes-Courter can’t say much because of confidentiality, but she will say that they cared for Randazzo for less than a month.

They say that based on Randazzo’s case file, which they get access to anytime a child is placed with them, they were concerned about the ability of Randazzo’s grandparents to provide a safe environment.

They were disappointed when the sheriff confirmed after the attack that DCF placed the children back with the grandparents.

“If someone doesn’t speak up and say that bad calls are being made, despite every professional trying to warn against what’s happening in these homes,” said Rhodes-Courter.

DCF won’t immediately confirm anything about the case other than that they had previous contact with Randazzo’s grandparents.

DCF’s secretary testified this week in front of a House subcommittee concerning the death of another child, and admitted they need to be more proactive and transparent.

“The pendulum and the policies are so heavily entrenched with the idea that biology is best, that kids are constantly going home to unsafe situations because the kids are treated like property rights,” Rhodes-Courter said.

Since yesterday’s attack, three have come forward claiming to have been a foster parent to Jenna Randazzo.

Rhodes-Courter said Jenna craved stability, which this couple said she had very little of.

“Despite everything that she had been through, she was so free to love, and was so willing to bond and willing to attach,” said Rhodes-Courter. “For an older child, you don’t see that very often. She was just amazing.”

Law dictates that DCF send a critical response team to get to the bottom of any child’s death.

DCF is slated to release a report on Monday concerning on their response to the death of little Phoebe Jonchuck, who died at the hands of her father.

Bay News 9: Girl, 9, injured in New Port Richey attack dies; uncle charged

One of the young victims of Thursday’s attack inside of a Catherine Street home in New Port Richey has died.

Jenica Randazzo, 9, passed away from her injuries on Friday morning. Her uncle, Jason Rios is accused of attacking her, her 7-year-old sister, and killing his own mother.

“It’s unfortunate that her life was taken at such a young age and Jessica was never able to really prove herself,” said Sara Seymour, a friend of Jessica Rios. Continue reading