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Florida DCF Bullying Kills Child

May 26, 2009 permalink

Police refused to prosecute father Thomas Kelly for touching his daughter, but child protectors forced him from his home anyway. His overworked wife could not supervise ten children by herself, and eighteen-month-old Nicholas Ryan Kelly drowned in the pool.


collapse, May 25, 2009

Nicholas Ryan Kelly
Nicholas Ryan Kelly, 18 months, drowned in the swimming pool at his home. (Photo provided by Kelly family)

Father says DCF contributed to drowning death of Cape Coral toddler

He argues its slowness left wife unable to protect son


Thomas Kelly turned numb when he heard the story on the 11 o'clock news in early May.

"18-month-old found in swimming pool."

His twins were that age.

The newscaster said the child lived at Southwest 52nd Terrace in Cape Coral.

His street.

Kelly raced to the Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida, where his son was airlifted.

There, he saw Department of Children and Families officials.

"I'd like to give a big round of applause to Children and Families," he recalls saying, stingingly.

The agency had been involved with his brood of 10 ranging from ages 1 to 14 since April, when Kelly was arrested on a lewd behavior charge and ordered away from his 13-year-old daughter.

DCF then opened an investigation listing Kelly as the potential perpetrator, directing his wife, Dawn, to protect the children from him.

The family had no prior history with the agency.

His wife and daughter soon recanted and the state attorney's office decided not to file a charge due to lack of evidence.

By then, the report had snarled the family into a resource-strapped child welfare system that's often frustrating to navigate.

The chain of events that followed has broken a family's heart forever.

Thomas Kelly and family members say they repeatedly warned the DCF investigator the Kelly children were in danger in the sole care of a frazzled Dawn, who had no money or transportation.

Telephone records from Thomas Kelly showed a call to an investigator April 20 and on April 21 for seven minutes. The investigator who answered said she couldn't speak to The News-Press.

Dawn's mother says she begged an investigator to step in, too.

"She was trapped in the house and couldn't get anywhere and do anything to get help," said Yvonne Pulcano, 61, from Brooklyn, where the Kellys' roots trace. "Her response was, 'I have other cases, too.' I think it overwhelmed her."

Then, tragedy came.

On May 2, around 9 p.m., Nicholas Kelly, the sandy-haired, audacious twin, wandered away and drowned in the home's swimming pool.

Dawn Kelly thought an older child was watching him. "I was spread too thin," said the 37-year-old mother. "The same situation happens every time I have to go to the bathroom."

Nicholas' kidneys failed, then his liver and heart.

He died May 4.

Shortly after, the Kellys reunited. They have been living in a hotel, at times, crammed in one room. Family has been helping foot bills as they're essentially homeless.

They say officials told them to stay away from their rented home pending a final inspection.

"Right now, my main focus is having my kids together as a family," said Thomas Kelly, 39, an out-of-work remodeler. "By the same token, I'm not going to sit back and let his happen to my family or another family."

The head of the local DCF office isn't talking because the case remains under investigation. Renee D'Angelo, who handled the case before Nicholas Kelly's drowning, was removed.

"It's an ongoing investigation on which I cannot comment," said DCF's Cookie Coleman. "I can't speak in general, and I can't speak in particulars."

Terry Field, a department spokesman, said the agency did not refer the case to dependency court, which would have brought the matter before Judge James Seals.

At that point, children are often removed from a parent's custody.

Field said it likely didn't go before Seals because the mother was considered a non-offending parent.

"The decision was made to provide diversion services to the family," he wrote in an e-mail, referring to the program to keep children out of the system.

Jan Gregory, DCF deputy director of SunCoast region, of which this area belongs, said staff found no legal sufficiency after the drowning to bring the case to court, either.

DCF is also making a push to keep children out of foster care as long as they can be safe at home. That is among the lingering questions in this case.

Others are:

  • How swift can a bureaucratic system respond to a family's immediate needs outside of court?
  • Are enough community support resources available? How easily can people attain them?
  • And, what happens when a family's needs may not fit services offered?

Dawn Kelly was given a safety plan directing her to seek an injunction against her husband and bar the children from his side of the family, upon whom they have leaned for support.

Thomas Kelly's sister, Heather Klein, 34, of Cape Coral, says she called D'Angelo before the drowning.

"I thought, 'You're crazy.' I told her, 'She's not capable of doing this on her own,'" Klein said. "It's not OK that they completely disregarded what everyone said."

Department officials said caseworker D'Angelo was reassigned after the drowning, but not due to wrongdoing.

She has not been disciplined, Gregory said, noting that Coleman just wanted another investigator. D'Angelo's personnel file shows no record of disciplinary action for the 40-year-old investigator, who was hired in July 2008.

A second investigator was assigned after the drowning then replaced by a third investigator two weeks ago, the family said, noting the other two apologized.

Deputy director Gregory said investigators are assigned as events arise during on-call hours. Several investigators may be assigned to a family, she said.

The couple says the April 14 dispute that triggered the department's involvement was steeped in stress.

Dawn Kelly called Cape Coral police around 11 p.m. When they arrived, she said her husband had touched their daughter inappropriately.

Thomas Kelly denies it, saying the pair were arguing about coloring her hair when he picked up his daughter and moved her away from a TV. The girl said the same, noting authorities made her feel as if her father had done wrong.

The next morning, Klein said Dawn Kelly called her in tears. She said she made a mistake. Klein then talked to her niece.

"If I thought for one second my brother was guilty, I would have let him sit in jail because kids are number one in this world," said Klein, who bailed out Thomas Kelly on April 15.

The husband and father steered clear of the home because a court order barred contact with his daughter. He stayed with his family.

That day, DCF began looking into allegations of sexual abuse, inadequate supervision and environmental hazards.

Dawn Kelly never pursued an injunction. She said she didn't feel in danger.

D'Angelo, the investigator, referred her to a domestic violence shelter, which Dawn didn't feel applied to their case.

Meanwhile, Thomas Kelly, Klein, and Dawn's mother Pulcano said they peppered the department with concerns.

Klein and her brother worried his wife might have issues with prescription drugs, which Dawn denies.

An agency spokeswoman said allegations are typically investigated.

Beyond that, the mother said DCF didn't deliver on emergency needs.

The deputy director said an investigator can refer parents to services such as counseling, child care and housing, but there has to be follow-through.

After the toddler's drowning, Klein said the department reversed the part barring contact with Thomas Kelly's family and she took in the children temporarily.

"How is DCF looking out for best interests of children?" Klein asked. "I don't see at all."

Sal Bazaz, the Naples attorney representing Thomas Kelly, said the agency also allowed the father to see the rest of his children aside from the 13-year-old.

The children, aside from the two oldest, reunited with their parents in early May and have been staying in hotels,. Essentially homeless, the Kellys say they've yet to see help. Their van - their only mode of transport - is broken. In one room, four children sleep on a queen bed, the twin baby in a crib, two on a pull-out couch and the parents on the floor.

The 13-year-old is also now with her family.

The Kellys remain baffled. The only thing clear is that a baby died.

A family is scarred.

A twin will grow up without a brother.

"This is going to affect him the rest of his life," said Thomas Kelly, who keeps a photo of the twin boys on his cell phone.

They buried Nicholas in Coral Ridge Cemetery two weeks ago, Plot 9a.

It consoles them to think they have nine children ... and one angel.

Additional Facts

How to help

The family has set up the Nicholas Kelly Memorial Fund, in care of Thomas Kelly, at Wachovia Bank to help cover burial costs and family expenses. People can donate at any local Wachovia branch.

Source: Fort Myers News-Press