POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) was aware of a Polk County girl’s consistent weight loss two years before she died of long-term starvation, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office says DCF launched a medical neglect investigation in December 2019 that revealed the toddler was “consistently losing weight” and her parents were “not following-up with doctor appointments.”
The case was closed, after an undisclosed amount of time, after the parents complied with DCF and Children Home Society instructions and showed several positive weight checks, according to the sheriff’s office.
The girl died this week in Davenport, at nearly 3 years old, while weighing 9.5 pounds, the sheriff said.
“This investigation is underway. We don’t know what we don’t know about the DCF investigation at this time,” said Sheriff Grady Judd at a press conference Thursday. “I stop short of throwing stones at this point in the investigation at DCF because DCF is called to hundreds of events every day.”
News Channel 8 has asked for an interview on this case from DCF, including why and when the initial case was closed.
DCF has not provided that information.
The girl’s parents, Regis Johnson and Arhonda Tillman, were arrested on negligent child abuse with great bodily harm charges. More charges are possible.
A judge ordered them both held on $500,000 each.
Johnson’s brother, Frank Robinson, was arrested Thursday on child abuse and failure to report charges.
A judge ordered him held on $500,000 bond on the child abuse charge and $100,000 on the failure to report charge.
According to an arrest affidavit, the girl had not seen a doctor since January 2020.
“This case is an example of why a strong child welfare system with a stable workforce, adequate resources, services and supports is so important,” wrote Teri Saunders, CEO of Heartland for Children, the lead agency for Community Based Care in Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties, in a statement. “There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered to understand the full picture. We understand that law enforcement and DCF are conducting their own investigations.”
Attorney and former prosecutor Joshua Sheridan said the case showcases the limitations of the child protection system.
“The government oftentimes is too understaffed, too underpaid, too underfunded to be able to adequately address all of it,” said Sheridan, of Busciglio, Sheridan and Schoeb, P.A. “They have a certain amount of jurisdiction but it’s finite, it’s not endless. They can’t just keep people under their thumb in perpetuity.”