Bartow, FL - Marcus Brown, 29, of Lakeland, shook his head as the judge read back the charges he faces - Aggravated Child Abuse and First Degree Murder - in the death of his stepson.
The state says Deondray Ashe, 2, died after Brown beat him with a belt, nearly 30 times, on Sunday.
What's worse, there may have been a red flag two months earlier when DCF first received a report of possible child abuse from the Lakeland Regional Medical Center. Ashe had two fractured ribs then. Lakeland Police closed the case without charges, saying the parents provided a plausible explanation.
A DCF caseworker spent the next month monitoring the family. Circuit administrator Ann Berne told 10 Connects
By the end of May, the DCF case was closed.
In June, Ashe died.
Hindsight being 20/20, we asked the agency if it made a mistake in this case and Berner answered, "That's exactly what we're trying to evaluate by reviewing our reports. Obviously, we closed the case so we didn't think we were wrong at that time."
But in court on Thursday, the DCF caseworker testified Ashe's three other siblings were also in danger. "The children are beginning to disclose that there's been some physical beatings for them as well," said Julia Hermelbracht.
Clearly she couldn't tell that before Ashe died. Berner's explanation was, "There weren't those obvious signs, like no domestic violence calls to the home. There wasn't a history of substance abuse."
The agency blames Brown but he isn't the only one. The caseworker pointed the finger at the boy's mother, Ina Brown, who broke down in court Thursday when the judge ordered her kids out of her custody.
"She was a witness to the beatings of the child. She's aware of the whole circumstance and has failed to protect the children," said Hermelbracht.
So what about the system failing these children? Berner was not willing to say that until she's reviewed the full internal report which should be released next week. Berner says she welcomes any lessons learned, if that's the case.
As for the three other children, they're now staying with their aunt.
Brown is in jail without bond.
Erica Pitzi, 10 Connects Reporter