Judge on emaciated child: Didn’t anyone notice?
By Carol Marbin Miller, cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com, February 11, 2012
Edward Bailey, father of the 9-year-old boy found wandering naked and malnourished, was in Judge Cindy Lederman's courtroom Wednesday.
TIM CHAPMAN / MIAMI HERALD STAFF
Though Marsee Strong and Edward Bailey remain in Miami-Dade jails on aggravated child abuse charges, an inquiry Wednesday into the welfare of their 9-year-old son focused largely on the role of the doctors, therapists and investigators who were intimately involved with the family — yet failed to notice that the boy was profoundly malnourished and displaying visible signs of abuse.
Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, who presides over child welfare cases at the county’s Children’s Courthouse in Allapattah, had an unusual hearing in the case Wednesday, requiring administrators with the Department of Children & Families to provide a detailed timeline of the agency’s involvement with the parents, as well as the involvement of other professionals. The 9-year-old, who is one of the family’s six children, was picked up by police last week after he was found wandering his North Miami Beach neighborhood naked, emaciated and sporting an injured eye.
“I still don’t understand how the child could get in this condition, how nothing was done, or inadequate things were being done,” Lederman said during the hearing.
The boy, who was described as having the frame of a 3-year-old, remains in the hospital, where doctors are fighting the effects of malnutrition, said DCF’s attorney, Christine Lopez-Acevedo. “He’s doing better,” Lopez-Acevedo said.
Officially, the children have been under the supervision of DCF since 2002, when a physical abuse report to the state’s abuse and neglect hotline led the agency to take custody of them. They remained in DCF’s care until 2004, when they were returned to Strong and Bailey. DCF retained jurisdiction over the case since then.
DCF’s attorney, Lopez-Acevedo, told Lederman the agency had substantial contact with the family in the ensuing years, though it appears much of the scrutiny concerned one of the 9-year-old’s older sisters, who has had significant involvement with the state’s juvenile justice system, and does not currently live with the family. Though investigators had spoken with the family several times over the past two years, no allegations emerged that Strong or Bailey had mistreated the kids, Lopez-Acevedo said.
Indeed, in June of last year Strong asked DCF for help in raising the children, Lopez-Acevedo said.
Neither the 9-year-old nor his siblings are being named by The Miami Herald to protect their privacy.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Lopez-Acevedo did not accuse the parents of mistreating their children. She said the 9-year-old at the center of the case appears to suffer from poorly understood psychiatric and medical conditions that cause him to eat excessively, and then vomit. Though police described him as horrifically malnourished — he weighed only 35 pounds at age 9, and Lederman said in court last week that he looked like a concentration camp survivor with protruding bones — the boy had been under the regular care of pediatricians and mental health workers, Acevedo said.
“There were a number of eyes on this child, and the [state child-abuse hotline] reports that came in did not include the possibility that he was not being fed in the home,” Acevedo told the judge. “To the naked eye, with his clothes on, you could not necessarily tell this child was suffering from malnutrition.”
Rita Doval, a nurse with the state’s Child Protection Team who interviewed the children, said the kids assured her they were well-fed at home. The 9-year-old said that his parents sometimes withheld food from him, but Doval said the parents contend they were told by other doctors to regulate what the boy ate because he would sometimes eat until he made himself sick. Though the withholding of food may have seemed like a punishment, Doval said, it was intended to protect him.
A court-appointed psychologist, Michael DiTomasso, said neither the 9-year-old nor his siblings suggested they had been abused by Bailey or Strong, though some of the children said they had been allowed to beat each other.
“Three of the children all made clear they had a good mommy and a good daddy,” DiTomasso said. “They were really defensive. They felt really bad, and they saw their parents get arrested. They miss the little one, too. They worry about him in the hospital.”
DiTomasso said he asked the 9-year-old pointedly to explain the marks and bruises police found on his body, but was unable to get an explanation. “My God, you look at the little boy and say, what happened to him? I saw the pictures, and then I saw the child. My first impression was, My God, who did this to him?”
The psychologist said the 9-year-old was in dire need of a comprehensive medical and psychiatric evaluation, and he was surprised that such a battery of tests had not yet been performed. “Something was really wrong physically with this child,” DiTomaso said. “He needs a thorough physical work-up. He’ll get it now, right?”