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Officials: 3-year-old's death could have been prev...
Officials: 3-year-old's death could have been prev...: A three-year-old who died after a bizarre punishment Oct. 19 might have been saved had child welfare workers made necessary background checks. Video by Michael Braun.
Michael McMullen died Saturday, Oct. 19 after he spent four hours tightly wrapped in a blanket in a bizarre form of punishment / Courtesy of WINK NEWS

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3:44 p.m. update

A Department of Children and Families review of the recent death of a three-year-old East Lee County boy who died after a bizarre punishment Oct. 19 found that necessary background checks were not completed and a more thorough evaluation would have offered better information on those caring for the boy.

The review was released Monday afternoon and made the following findings and recommendations:

- Protocols on background checks were not followed

- The need for a real-time quality assurance process evaluating safety factors

- Continuous assessment of a relative’s ability to cope with children and provide a safe environment

- That services identified for children get implemented immediately as well as grief counseling when a sibling dies

- Case management agencies should develop a protocol for enhanced supervisory oversight for young children under their supervision.

According to the review, a child safety assessment started June 3 after a report of abuse was filed regarding the McMullen family.

After the case was accepted for case management in June there were three home visits in July, three unannounced visits in August, two visits in September and one Oct. 8.

A second child safety assessment was put into play July 8 after allegations that children in the home were being made to sleep in cat crates. Further interviews found that Michael did sleep in the crate at times, according to his grandmother, because “he feels safe,” the report found.

The grandmother and Michael’s mother, Samantha McMullen, 26, denied the children were forced to sleep in the crate.

Findings from the investigation showed adults involved in the care of children at this home were not forthright with critical information when talking with investigators and staff.

“However, Child Protective Investigators missed opportunities to reconcile inconsistent statements and assertions by and among adults in this home that would have provided additional insight..," the review stated.

“I don’t know if getting that information would have ultimately protected these children because we now see, through hindsight, how manipulative and misleading this family was, including the grandmother,” Mike Carroll, regional DCF head, said.

He said that the use of different names and outright lies kept investigators from finding out, for example, if Trainor was actually living at the home or just a helping hand to Watkins.

Additionally, according to the report. Trainor had told child protective investigators that she was only visiting from Michigan for a short time and would be returning home.

Findings in the report said there was no documentation that a recommendation was ever carried out to do a background check on Trainor since a follow-up found she had not returned to Michigan.

“She was allegedly an in-home helper to the grandmothers,” Nadereh Salim, CEO of The Children’s Network, said. Watkins and Trainor had been family friends for more than 20 years, the officials said.

Click here to view the complete report.

11:17 a.m. update

Officials from the state Department of Children and Families, Lutheran Services Florida and the Children's Network of Southwest Florida today said that in the case of three-year-old Michael McMullen, who died Oct. 19, after being wrapped and smothered to death in a blanket, there were several opportunities to do a better job at gathering information and connecting the dots on several key pieces of information before the boy’s death.

Had that further information been acquired, it may have been able to prevent the boy’s death, officials said.

“That would have given us the information to better assess the risks associated with that person and her interactions with the family,” Mike Carroll, regional DCF head, said today.

A more complete report on the case is due out today, the officials said.

Carroll told The News-Press this morning that there was a failure to get background checks on one of the parties in the case, 45-year-old Donella Trainor, both on the child protective side and the case management side. That failure led to the firings Thursday of a child welfare case manager and supervisor involved in the McMullen case.

Three of Michael McMullen's caregivers ¬ – maternal grandmother, 56-year-old Gale Watkins; stepfather, 21-year-old Douglas Garrigus; and family friend Trainor – were arrested Wednesday on manslaughter charges.

Investigators say the boy spent four hours tightly wrapped in a blanket in a bizarre form of punishment.

Trainor also faces an aggravated child abuse charge linked to malicious punishment. In the 1990s, she was found guilty of child abuse in Michigan, according to a state prosecutor. All three remain in jail, Trainor under two $300,000 bonds and Watkins and Garrigus each under $250,000 bond.

The two Lutheran Services Florida employees – Karleen Halfmann, the case management supervisor, and Racquel Pinnock, the case manager – were fired for policy violations, said Sam Sipes, CEO of Lutheran Services Florida, which is subcontracted by the Children's Network of Southwest Florida to handle case management. The network is contracted by the state Department of Children and Families to provide services after the close of a child abuse investigation. By the time of Michael's death, DCF had closed its investigation.

Sipes said that after a review of the case it was clear that protocols on background checks were not followed. “We take our policies seriously and we fell that was the appropriate action to take, to terminate their Employment,” Sipes said. There was indication in the files that a background check was required or needed for Trainor as a frequent visitor in the home and that was not completed, he said.

“Let me make it clear that the people responsible for the death of Michael are three individuals who are currently in jail charged with the criminal acts they allegedly took to cause that death,” Sipes said.

“I don’t know if getting that information would have ultimately protected these children because we now see, through hindsight, how manipulative and misleading this family was, including the grandmother,” Carroll added.

“In hindsight, as we review this case, we are looking at this case for lessons we can learn,” Sipes said. “Things that we can perhaps train staff on or figure out that we can do differently in the future with cases.”

He added that Lutheran Services is now involved in reviewing 300 relative and non-relative cases in the greater Fort Myers area to look for signs or signals that we might have missed. “And to pay attention to the whole background check issue,” he said.

Nadereh Salim, CEO of The Children’s Network, said that going forward there are certain to be changes.

“Obviously we are going to look at our policies and procedures to ensure that they are thorough enough to capture any potential issues that might be going on in the family,” she said and added that training would be looked at to see if additional training is warranted for staff.

“Basically making sure our staff has the skills and the abilities and the knowledge and whatever resources they need available to them to do a great job of keeping out children safe,” she said.

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