FORT MYERS — Child welfare caseworkers observed but failed to follow through on numerous red flags leading up to the death of a 3-year-old boy in Fort Myers, according to a review released Monday.
The 11-page review released by the Department of Children and Families concludes caseworkers should have been more diligent in investigating signs that the child's grandmother was not an appropriate caregiver. There were numerous shortfalls, including failing to adequately investigate allegations that the children were being required to sleep in a cat crate.
DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo said the agency has worked with its partners to identify gaps in case management policy.
"We must ensure that supervisors, at every step of the process, are accountable and are diligently overseeing each case because the children we serve deserve nothing less," Jacobo said.
The Lee County Sheriff's Office has charged toddler Michael McMullen's grandmother, Gale Watkins, 56; family friend Donella Trainor, 45; and stepfather Douglas Garrigus, 21, with aggravated manslaughter of a child, a first degree felony. Trainor has also been charged with aggravated child abuse.
According to deputies, the sheriff's office received a 911 call regarding an unresponsive child on Oct. 19. Paramedics responded to the Fort Myers home and took the boy to the hospital.
Michael was pronounced dead 40 minutes later. An autopsy concluded his death was a homicide.
Investigators allege Trainor rolled Michael tightly in a blanket and tied the ends down so he could not escape. He was placed in a crib lying face-down as he pleaded to escape, deputies said.
Shortly thereafter, Watkins entered the room and felt the knot on the blanket was too tight, the sheriff's office said. She allegedly told Trainor to loosen it, but did not stay to see that she did. Garrigus reportedly entered the room about an hour later and urged the boy to calm down as the child continued crying.
Trainor allegedly noticed the knot had loosened and re-tightened it, the sheriff's office said. She went later to wake and release him and found him soaking wet and unresponsive.
The review released Monday states Michael and his siblings were placed in their grandmother's custody by the court after reports of domestic violence in the home that threatened the children. Michael's mother, Samantha McMullen, was seen with two black eyes and her mother, Watkins, expressed safety concerns for her daughter and grandchildren.
One of the children reportedly asked a child protective investigator to pick up his siblings so that Garrigus "would not kill them," according to the review.
Michael and his siblings were under the supervision of a privately run child welfare agency under contract with the state. Officials said last week that two caseworkers were fired after Michael's death. However, the review doesn't address any disciplinary action stemming from the caseworkers' alleged failures.
The probe into Michael's death found caseworkers were right to remove the children from their mother's home, but there were substantial failings once the children were in the care of their grandmother.
In July, a caseworker began investigating allegations Watkins was requiring the children to sleep in a cat crate. The grandmother told the caseworker she was in the process of purchasing bedding, but the review found no indication the current sleeping arrangements for the children were investigated.
The grandmother indicated Michael liked to sleep in the crate with his comforter at times because "he feels safe."
"The issue of where the children were sleeping was never fully resolved," the review concludes.
Also in July, one of the children told the case manager that he and his siblings "sleep a lot," describing their day as taking naps between meals and getting medicine after dinner.
During an unannounced visit in August, the caseworker observed a "penny size bruise" on one of the children, who said her grandmother had hit her on the hand. Watkins first denied knowing about the bruise, but later said the girl and Michael had been biting each other. No teeth marks were observed on the children.
Other red flags: In September, one of the children told a case manager while at school that, "I want to go to someone else's house." And in October, the case manager received a call from the daycare reporting Michael and one of his siblings had not attended in three weeks.
There is no documentation that a background check was ever done on Trainor, a frequent visitor to the home.
"The case manager received concerning information during the course of visits to the home that would question the grandmother's capacity to care for her young grandchildren," the review states.
Are you viewing this story on our mobile or tablet app? Click here to read this story on our full site to see a video report.