Posted on Sat, Jun. 08, 2002
Boy who died was left in bad home
DCF took siblings, left the youngest
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
Police dug James ''Jami'' Cotter from a shallow grave behind a Fort Myers trailer on May 23. It would have been his fifth birthday.
The Department of Children & Families already had taken Jami's siblings away from their parents, who had been reported at least 16 times for allegedly abusing the children.
But inexplicably, the DCF left Jami behind -- then never checked on him again.
In turn, Jami's mother, Lillian Maxine Priest, left the boy with Steven Landry, a neighbor who had been accused of abusing, neglecting and molesting children.
And as the nation watched Florida child welfare officials explain how Rilya Wilson, a 5-year-old foster child, could simply disappear from state care, Gov. Jeb Bush quietly called for an investigation to find out whether the DCF had failed another child -- Jami. One child welfare official called his death ``the worst case I've ever seen of total departmental indifference toward a young human being.''
Police say Landry killed the boy in early May. They have charged him with manslaughter because the boy's body was too badly decomposed to leave any clues as to how he died, other than a broken collarbone, said Capt. Richard Chard of the Lee County Sheriff's Office.
James Cotter's brief life and his death raise troubling questions about the ability of child welfare administrators to protect children they know are at risk.
Jami's story also casts serious doubts on the agency's consistent claims that the scandal now enveloping Rilya Wilson stands as an ''isolated case.'' Rilya went unnoticed by department counselors for more than 15 months and has disappeared from Florida's foster care system.
The DCF's records on Jami's family show numerous red flags, but the records show no sign that an effort was made to ensure he was safe after his older brother -- and, later, his older sister -- were taken into foster care.
Alia Faraj, a DCF spokeswoman, said Jami wasn't given DCF services or supervision after his older brother, the victim of a severe beating, was taken into foster care. Faraj declined to discuss the case further, citing the confidentiality of DCF records.
Jami was the youngest child in the home of Priest and James Cotter Jr., who were married in Labelle, Fla., in 1998 and divorced in April. Cotter has worked as a prison guard and is licensed to work in private security.
The family's history with the state dates to December 1995 when the DCF's predecessor, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, received its first report saying an 11-year-old daughter had been sexually abused by another youth. The report, the first of seven to name the girl as a victim of abuse or neglect, was closed, with officials finding some evidence of abuse but not enough to verify the allegations.
REPORTS ON BROTHER
In the summer of 1997, the department received three separate reports on Jami's older brother, then 4, who was developmentally disabled and suffered severe emotional disturbances. The boy's parents had committed him to a psychiatric hospital, where he remained much of that summer.
One report accused Priest of refusing to give the child needed medication and handling him roughly to control his outbursts. Another report said Priest ''physically abused [him] while visiting'' him in the hospital, leaving bruises on both his thighs. The last report also mentioned bruises, a cut to the boy's forehead and an injury to his palm in which ``the top layer of skin [was] removed.''
While investigators were convinced the boy was abused, they could not determine who left the bruises, so no action was taken.
Reports about the boy were made to the state's abuse hot line eight times between 1997 and 1999, when administrators finally removed him from his parents' home and placed him in protective custody.
Among the most alarming reports are two calls in April 1999. In the first call, on April 12, a caller said 1-year-old Jami ``has been having suspicious injuries. Last week, he had bite marks all over his body. He now has a huge bruise on his thigh, a faded bruise around his eye and a scrape on his nose.''
Department investigators were set to close the case and attribute the injuries to horseplay between Jami and his older brother when a far more serious report was made on the brother.
On April 27, the 6-year-old brother arrived at school ''very disoriented,'' a report states.
``He had a cut under one eye and his left ear is completely black and blue. He has what appears to be a [bloody] adult fingernail mark behind his ear. . . . He has several small bruises on his arms, some faded and some still black and blue [and] several bruises on his legs.''
A detailed exam by the county's child protection team noted even more bruises and a blood clot in his right eye. DCF officials placed the boy in a protective shelter immediately.
By the following October, a judge terminated the parental rights of his mother and father.
The records offer no explanation as to why 1-year-old Jami was allowed to remain with Priest, or whether the DCF tried in any way to ensure his safety.
SISTER TAKEN AWAY
Two years later, in 2001, Jami's older sister was taken into state custody.
She was 16, and DCF caseworkers already had investigated seven abuse or neglect reports on the girl. She had run away from her mother, DCF reports say, because Priest did nothing when the girl was raped by a 34-year-old man and later molested by the mother's boyfriend.
Her father, the report said, kicked her in the stomach when he found out she was pregnant with a biracial child. Her father denied the allegation to DCF investigators.
A May 2, 2001, report said the girl had been ''abandoned'' by her parents and was living with friends with her newborn child.
A short time after his older sister was taken into state care, Jami was living with the Landrys.
Sometime around February 2001, Priest left 3-year-old Jami with neighbors Steve and Linda Landry. Priest gave the couple a notarized, handwritten piece of paper granting them the authority to make decisions on her behalf, said Chard of the Lee County Sheriff's Office.
A year later, in January 2002, Priest tried to see her son, as she had done now and again, Chard said. Every time she called, the Landrys offered an unlikely excuse for why the boy was unavailable. She called police.
A few days later, on Jan. 8, a report to the state's abuse hot line alleged Jami was seen with ''bruises'' of an unknown origin.
''[The Landrys] said that the mother had the child over the weekend and the child got the bruises when he was in the mother's care,'' the report states. ``There is concern that [the Landrys] should not be caring for this child because they have had five to six children removed from their care in the past in Massachusetts.''
Steven Landry, whose occupation is listed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as ''bouncer,'' was arrested in 1991 for alleged child sex abuse. He appears not to have been prosecuted on the charge.
Between January 1996 and July 1998, three callers to the abuse hot line reported that Landry was molesting, neglecting and abusing his daughter. The home was filthy, callers said, and the child received little food because her father spent all his money on crack cocaine. He later was accused of allowing a friend to molest the girl.
Twice, allegations were forwarded to the state attorney's office, which declined to prosecute, said Detective Lisa Barnes of the Cape Coral police.
Steve Emerson, an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said he does not know yet, either, whether Jami was under any type of supervision. ''We are trying to get those questions answered,'' he said.
One Tallahassee child advocate, Karen Gievers, was appalled by the DCF's treatment of Jami.
''Oh, God, what a nightmare,'' said Gievers. ``There's no excuse for them doing their jobs in this manner.
``Once again, the child has to pay the price.''
© 2001 miami and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.