Review of Boy's Death Overlooks Abuse Warnings; Grandmother Called State Repeatedly

By Pinkham, Paul | The Florida Times Union, October 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Review of Boy's Death Overlooks Abuse Warnings; Grandmother Called State Repeatedly


Pinkham, Paul, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Paul Pinkham, Times-Union staff writer

The grandmother of a Jacksonville 2-year-old who prosecutors say was beaten to death in his mother's apartment called state child abuse workers repeatedly to warn them of abuse in the weeks before he died, records show.

Her complaints included four calls to the state's child abuse hot line, including one when she and Shawn Sumner's father took the boy to the emergency room with finger bruises on his face and a rash on his scalp less than a month before his 2001 slaying.

A caseworker with the state Department of Children and Families visited the home once and concluded the boy wasn't at risk because his mother and her boyfriend, who moved in after she and Shawn's father broke up, denied mistreating him and had medication to treat his infection.

DCF family safety investigators seemed unaware of that report and visit -- or the grandmother's other calls -- when they completed a state-mandated review of the death last month, according to a copy of the review obtained by the Times-Union. The review is supposed to include an examination of how prior abuse reports were handled.

"We do our best to make sure that all records are accurate and complete," agency spokeswoman Beverly Keneagy said.

Shawn Sumner died May 11, 2001, from blunt trauma to the head. His mother's boyfriend, Travis Yoder, was arrested 14 months later and charged with first-degree murder. Yoder, who had a history of domestic violence and alcohol and drug charges, told police he tried to resuscitate the boy after he fell off a couch.

"We fought for him [Shawn] . . . and just always in the back of our mind knew that something was going to happen to him," said his grandmother, Cathy Sumner. "It all comes down to a failure to protect him. The system failed or he would be alive."

Sumner made her first call to the child abuse hot line in January 2001. She wanted to know what she could do about suspected drug use by the mother, according to records.

Sumner said she didn't give any information about herself or Shawn's whereabouts because she only wanted information. At that time, she feared alienating Shawn's mother, Christy Smith, and risking not seeing her grandson at all. With no information to go on, DCF closed the file.

Things changed in April of that year after Shawn's father, Christopher Sumner, picked his son up for a weekend visit. He and his mother took Shawn to Orange Park Medical Center after noticing bruising on Shawn's cheeks and a rash on the back of his head.

Medical records show a doctor noted yellowing bruises on Shawn's cheeks and diagnosed the rash as impetigo, a skin infection that can be caused by poor hygiene. But the records also show the doctor didn't suspect abuse or neglect, even though the Sumners said they expressed their fears.

"Between that day and May 10, when this happened to Shawn, I called DCF 22 times," Cathy Sumner said.

Sumner said a DCF investigator didn't show up to visit Shawn for three days, and by then the bruises were no longer visible. The investigator's notes of the visit are dated two days after the hospital visit.

"Shawn . . . appeared fine and well taken care of," a child protective services report says. The caseworker noted a circular mark on the boy's jaw but said Smith told her he fell on the coffee table. Smith and Yoder denied abusing Shawn.

"Risk [to the child] is low due to child having meds and mother and paramour denying allegations," the caseworker's notes say.

Child abuse caseworkers walk a fine line when deciding whether to remove a child from his parents, said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children in Tallahassee. …

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