The state's child-welfare chief said the recent death of a 4-year-old Palatka boy, allegedly strangled by an older child in his home, points to the challenges posed by families in which addiction, sexual abuse and domestic violence create a perilous environment.
In the case of 4-year-old Brayden Trahern, the boy's extended family had repeatedly been involved in beatings, molestations, incarceration, homelessness, prostitution and drug abuse going back years, Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said in an interview this week.
"These are deep-seated issues within a family, and we have to do a much better job of assessing whether a family even has the capacity to make some of the changes that we want them to make," Carroll said. "If they can't, it's incumbent upon us to make sure that we put the assistance in place to help them do that, so that it's safe for the kids.
"And I think the report (by a state team) basically says that we didn't do that. It was more a case of, we were dealing with symptoms, or immediate issues, and not necessarily the depth and breadth of issues that this family had over a lifetime."
On July 27, the department learned that Brayden had been found unresponsive in his bedroom that morning; he died two days later. Carroll sent what's known as a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, or CIRRT, to Palatka — standard operating procedure after the death of a child who has been involved in prior abuse reports over the past year.
When Brayden died, child-protective investigations involving both boys were pending. The department had begun receiving reports on the older boy's mother as far back as 2001.
The mothers of Brayden and his alleged killer were a romantic couple who had met in a battered-women's shelter. Both boys were thought to have been sexually abused by other adults coming through their various homes.
And the older boy, age 11, had just been released in late June after six months of treatment at Florida Palms Academy, an inpatient psychiatric program for juvenile sexual offenders in Hollywood.
"Danger threats impacting the children were significant and clearly observable throughout multiple interventions with the family," said the CIRRT report, released Aug. 29. "The behaviors and family condition (were) out of control, and there was nothing internal to the family to control the threat. In addition to the factors that enhanced the vulnerabilities of the children in the home, both caregivers' lack of protective capacities exacerbated the present danger threats. Once (the 11-year-old) was placed in the residential facility (in Hollywood), there was essentially no further assessment of necessary interventions for the children in the home upon his discharge."
What's more, on June 26, a report to the state abuse hotline alleged that Brayden's mother, 23-year-old Kyra Trahern, was not following a safety plan for her children created by behavioral-health providers who had been working with the 11-year-old.
While Carroll faulted some of the communication between the agencies involved with the children, he also said they were dealing with extensive dysfunction.
"This was a case where you knew that we were trying to help the child because everybody worked collaboratively to make sure this child was placed in the (Statewide Inpatient Psychiatric Program)," he said. "So clearly folks understood there was an issue, and people were working to get the family assistance."
However, according to the CIRRT report, "It is evident that both of these mothers suffered extensive trauma, and that trauma had a significant impact on their ability to effectively parent their children and safeguard them from potential harm."
At the department's annual child-protection summit, which ended Friday in Orlando, Carroll told attendees that their jobs included helping thousands of parents develop the ability to shield children from harm.
However, he added, they must also recognize the point at which parents lack the ability or the will to change.
"Sadly, in our system, we have some parents who don't have the capacity to engage," he said. "And these kids … they don't have forever for their parents to get their act together."