JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The death of a 4-year-old girl and a new lawsuit, claiming negligence against an agency contracted by the state Department of Children and Families is sparking new questions of how some cases are handled.
"There's a lot of folks including us sitting around wondering what the hell just happened here," said Michael Gordon.
Gordon and his wife, Jamie, were step-grandparents to Kristina Hepp. "This 4-year-old child was allowed to have contact with someone that the system did not know anything about," said Helen Spohrer, an attorney who filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kristina's estate in April 2011.
She slipped through the cracks of a broken system, Spohrer said.
Kristina was born in July 2004 to her 16-year-old mom, Elizabeth Hepp and immediately there was concern over the care of Kristina, but the DCF investigated and signed off on two people who were living with the Gordons.
"When I held her she was just so beautiful," said Jamie Gordon.
Hepp was married to the Gordons' son, but when Kristina was nearly turning 3, Hepp was found with drugs.
DCF contracted with a private group, Partnership for Strong Families, or PSF, to manage her case. Kristina was allowed to stay with her mom, but case workers visited routinely, sometimes weekly. Hepp was ordered to take parenting classes and have routine drug screens.
She also was forced to tell the court who Kristina's father was, something she had not disclosed before. Paternity tests confirmed it was Matthew Roland.
Roland's criminal background dates back to 2000 and includes charges involving drugs, burglary, battery and violation of probation. "This is at age 22. This is an individual being considered to look after a child. I do not understand it," said Spohrer.
Email records show PSF was to develop a case plan to help him parent Kristina. At the same time, Hepp and her attorney requested her case be closed because, records show, they thought Hepp had successfully completed her case plan. Judge David Glant, who was monitoring the case, granted the request.
But DCF records note that Hepp's case plan was incomplete and that Roland's was never adopted. The record also said the reason for closing the case was not addressed in the court's order.
"Kristina essentially lost her safety net," said Spohrer, who recently filed a lawsuit against PSF saying the agency failed to protect Kristina by not investigating Roland and following through on his case plan.
"Why not ask for more time at that hearing that day? Why not put up your hand and say we're not ready yet, please can we please have a little more time to finish this," she said.
Once the case was closed, Kristina and her mother moved to Kentucky, but a short time later Hepp sent Kristina back to Florida to live with a relative. Roland filed a motion in family court for temporary custody.
In February 2009, 13 months after Kristina's dependency case was closed, Glant awarded temporary custody of the 4-year-old to Roland.
According to court records, Glant said, "The mother is living in Kentucky...and is late in a pregnancy term with medical complications...(and she) has no means of supporting herself and Kristina."
Glant also noted that Roland had the, "...ability to provide for the needs and care for Kristina."
Two months after going to live with her father, in April 2009, Kristina was dead.
The 4-year-old died a brutal death, tortured with a hair iron, beaten all over her body, according to DCF records. Roland was charged with first degree murder.
"What we had heard (at first) was that Kristina slipped and fell in the bathtub," Gordon said. "I can't sit here and explain what went on."
Roland eventually pleaded no contest to the charge and was sentenced to life in prison. He is now appealing the sentence.
But the Gordons still have many questions, including why Kristina's case was closed, and why she was given to a father she hardly knew who had a lengthy criminal history.
"We do not know how this could have happened particularly given the history of Matthew Roland and what was readily available to those who had considerable resources to find out," said Spohrer.
She said Kristina slipped through the cracks when PSF did not finish its case plan for Roland.
"There should have been a home study. You need to know where is Matthew Roland living, who is living there with him, what does the home look like, can he care for a child - a 4-year-old he's never had any relationship with - and then visits should have been scheduled with Kristina," said Spohrer.
There was a case plan developed for Roland that went nowhere, said Shawn Salamida, CEO of Partnership for Strong Families. "We had submitted a case plan. The jurisdiction was closed before it was accepted by the court."
Salamida said it's normal to abandon a case plan. "Once jurisdiction closes in dependency court, we don't have any; our services end. We don't have any more authority or jurisdiction," he said.
"In our view, we are trying to figure out how they are connecting a child's death which happened a year and a half after we closed the child's case. How they are connecting that to us, considering dad went to family court to get custody of Kristina?"
Salamida said after the review of Kristina's death, PSF had no concerns about how it did its job, but since the lawsuit, he is reviewing the matter again. So far he's found no evidence that PSF was contacted by the family court about Roland seeking custody, he said.
"It's more of a concern for me that the family court would award custody to the other parent without doing any background checks or without checking into dependency involvement. That's the concern for me," said Salamida.
Glant declined a request for an interview, saying he doesn't talk about cases. Judicial rules prohibit judges from discussing cases.
There is no centralized system in place where DCF, its partnering agencies and the courts can see a child's case history. "I'm not aware of any central location to pull the info. That's where I think the gap is," said Salamida.
John Harrell, a spokesperson for DCF, declined to interview, saying it would be "inappropriate" since PSF is being sued.
The agency released a statement saying, "There is no central data base. There are many laws to insure confidentiality of school and child welfare records that our staff and other professional staff have to observe. During investigations, there are provisions to share information to safeguard children. There is no ongoing data base that tracks how children are doing that is shared."
The Gordons want the system changed so this doesn't happen to another child. "All of them are at fault. It should be one system; when a child's name pops up, every caseworker knows what is going on," said Jamie Gordon.
What's ironic, the Gordons said, is that a background check was done on them before Kristina lived in their home, but it appears one was not done on Roland. They want that changed, too. "Are we angry? I'm not angry. I'm furious. We see this happen again and nothing is being done," said Michael Gordon.
The Gordons still have everything, including Kristina's toys, her pictures, her swing set. They can't let it go, at least not yet.
"I go there to the cemetery a lot," said Jamie Gordon.
She can often be found at Kristina's grave. She talks to Kristina and sometimes spots a little reminder of her, a butterfly.
"That's a sign of life. They suffer in the cocoon."
But, she said, when the suffering is over, there is beauty and that's how she chooses to remember her little girl.
First Coast News