TAVARES -- Pictures of Kayla Mc-Kean's shy, sweet face were posted all over Clermont shortly after she was reported missing by her father Thanksgiving Day 1998.
Word spread quickly through the semi-rural community about 15 miles west of Orlando, and hundreds of people mobilized into search parties, forgoing their football games and turkey dinners to look for the 6-year-old girl.
The community's concern turned to disgust when police arrested her 26-year-old father and charged him with murder. Outrage and reforms in Florida's child welfare system followed after an investigation revealed child welfare workers repeatedly had missed signs that Kayla was being abused by her father, Richard Adams.
Adams is scheduled to go on trial tomorrow in Tavares for first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse. He faces the death penalty if convicted.
Few cases have done more to focus attention on child abuse in Florida than Kayla's death, said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children, a Tallahassee-based advocacy group.
"There has never been a single case, life or death, that has had a more emotional and substantive impact than the case of Kayla McKean," Levine said. "I don't think we could have written a more compelling argument for reform and for significant investment in a system that was desperate for attention."
Florida lawmakers last year passed the Kayla McKean bill, which imposes tougher provisions for reporting and responding to suspected child abuse and encouraged greater involvement by law enforcement in child abuse cases. Kayla's death also resulted in a shakeup of the local Department of Children & Families district, including the firing of five staffers.
"It goes to the heart of the community, the death of Kayla McKean," said State Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, the bill's sponsor. "The knowledge that she was abused for so long tore at our hearts."
There were multiple signs that Kayla was being abused, but child welfare workers missed them. Children & Families investigators believed Adams' explanations that Kayla's black eyes, fractured bones and bruises were the result of a bicycle accident or the family dog walking on her face while she slept.
Kayla was never examined by a team of Children & Families medical professionals to evaluate if she was being abused. She was once removed from Adams' home but was returned after a Children & Families investigator withheld information on the extent of her injuries during a shelter hearing and recommended that she be reunited with her father. …