9 Investigates: Did the state fail these children?



ORLANDO, Fla. - 9 Investigates combed through 10 years' worth of state records and found a deadly problem with Florida's child care system.

State Department of Children & Families records show 16 children in central Florida died during that time period after the agency created to protect them reunited the children with parents who had previous problems identified by DCF.

WFTV's Tim Barber asked DCF officials what, if anything, can be done to prevent at-risk children from being placed back inside dangerous homes?

But first, Barber visited the gravesite of Tariji Gordon, nestled beneath the shade of a large tree at Restlawn Cemetery in Sanford. The memorial is made up with fake flowers and a tin plate bearing the dates that book end a life cut short: "Born in 2011. Died in 2014."

Sanford Police said Tariji was beaten to death by her mother, Rachel Fryer, a parent with a lengthy history with DCF and other child welfare organizations.

Just three months before her death, Tariji was safe and happy in a foster home, so 9 Investigates asked DCF Regional Director Bill D’Aiuto how things could go so wrong?

"If Tariji Gordon never went back to Rachel Fryer, would she be dead today?" Barber asked.

"You know, that's, that's a, you know, tough question, you know, and to speculate on that, ah, you know, certainly looking back, possibly," D’Aiuto responded.

The 2-year old was placed with a loving foster mother after investigators determined Fryer accidentally killed Tariji's twin, Tavontae Gordon, in 2011.

In November, however, the state decided the 32-year-old mother of eight was ready to get her kids back.

But Barber discovered the decision to return Tariji to a deadly home environment was not the only one DCF, other child-care agencies and the courts have made through the years.

After sifting through 10 years of records, Barber found 15 other central Florida children died after they were returned to their parents.

Some were accidents, but others like the deaths of Ja’Quez Baker in Marion, Aurelia Juarez in Seminole, and the four Johnson children -- Joel, Jazlyn, Jaxs and Pebbles -- in Brevard were murders.

Since 2008, hundreds of other children died under DCF’s watch across Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott recently pushed to give DCF more than $30 million in new funding, which will likely provide the central Florida area with 145 new investigators, checking up on child abuse and neglect cases.

“That will allow us to bring our caseloads down and allow investigators to spend more time with the families,” D’Aiuto said.

Despite clear warning signs indicating that Fryer could not handle the stress of parenthood, D'Aiuto said no one who worked on Fryer's case has been disciplined in the aftermath of Tariji’s death.

D’Aiuto places blame elsewhere.

“Who failed or what failed Tariji Gordon?” Barber asked him.

“Rachel Fryer failed Tariji Gordon,” D’Aiuto said.

The death of Tavontae Gordon, Tariji's twin brother, was originally ruled an accident, but since Tariji's death, the Sanford Police Department has reopened that case.