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R.F.J. v. Florida Department of Children and Families

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

July 16, 2019

R. F. J., Estate of deceased minor child, R. F., Estate of deceased minor child, J. F., Estate of deceased minor child, BRIAN CABREY, attorney ad litem and next friend of H.F., a minor child, and JENNIFER SMITH, individually, Plaintiffs,
FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES, a governmental agency of the State of Florida, REGINALD BRADY, individually, and BRUCE PERRY, individually, Defendants.

          Brian Cabrey, Esq.


          TIMOTHY J. CORRIGAN United States District Judge.

         This is a tragic case. Three young children perished in a house fire along with their grandmother, and a fourth child narrowly escaped with serious injuries. Earlier that morning, Florida Department of Children and Families' (“DCF”) employees directed the children's grandmother, who had a known history of serious mental illness, to take custody of the children. The surviving child, the estates of the three deceased children, and the children's mother filed this suit against DCF, Reginald Brady (a DCF child protective investigator), and Bruce Perry (Brady's supervisor). Now, the Court must decide whether Brady and Perry's placement of the children with their grandmother was deliberately indifferent to the children's clearly established constitutional rights.

         I. BACKGROUND [1]

         On June 14, 2014, Richard Fowler, the father of the four children, was arrested while he was with his youngest child, J.F. (Doc. 106 ¶¶ 25-26). The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office determined that Fowler's neighbor, Rebecca Peoples, should take custody of J.F., and reported the situation to DCF. (Id. ¶¶ 26-29). A DCF employee directed Peoples to take J.F. to the home of the children's grandfather, Clayton Woods. (Id. ¶ 31). “By directing Peoples to take J.F. to Woods, the Defendants assumed the responsibility of finding and keeping J.F. in a safe environment and ensuring the continuing safety of that environment.” (Id. ¶ 32). DCF then “directed or approved the placement” of R.F.J., R.F., and H.F.-Fowler's other three children who were all under the age of seven-with Woods. (Id. ¶¶ 33, 53-54).

         The next day, “Brady began making the decisions regarding the care, safety and placement of the Children . . . .” (Id. ¶ 34). On June 16, 2014, Brady visited Woods's home to evaluate the living condition and supervision of the children. (Id. ¶ 36). During this visit, “Brady made it apparent to all involved that he was in control of the Children's placement, and that he had the authority to control the custodial environment of the Children.” (Id. ¶ 38). After inspecting Woods's home to confirm that it was safe, and confirming that Woods could provide adequate supervision, Brady told Woods that he would inform him of the next steps the following day. (Id. ¶¶ 36-37).

During a telephone call around 8:13 AM the following day (June 17, 2014), CPI Brady, in exercising his control of the Children's placement and custodial environment, approved, allowed, or instructed [Sheila Swearingen, the Children's grandmother, ] to remove the Children from Woods' care at the New Berlin Road Residence, and to relocate . . . with the Children to 12719 Palmetto Street, Jacksonville, Duval County, Florida (“Palmetto Street Residence”).

(Id. ¶ 40). “Such placement was involuntary because due to their age, the Children were subject to Brady's direction, and were unable to seek alternative living arrangements on their own.” (Id. ¶ 44). Brady did not inspect the home prior to authorizing Swearingen to take them there, and the home had been unoccupied for several days. (Id. ¶ 42).

54. On the morning of June 17, 2014, Brady was in possession of and had reviewed records which document at least ten incidents where Swearingen was specifically Baker Acted[2] or confronted by law enforcement for mental health issues, as well as additional criminal information supporting mental health concerns (the “Swearingen Records”). The Swearingen Records were in Brady's possession no later than the morning of June 17, 2014 (the morning of the Fire).
55. At the time of the [June 17, 2014] Meeting [of DCF employees to discuss the Children's situation], Brady was aware of the risks associated with allowing the Children to be placed in Swearingen's care and the risks associated with allowing the Children to stay at the Palmetto Street Residence without first conducting a home visit.
56. Brady reviewed the Swearingen Records prior to approving the placement of the Children in Swearingen's care and before the Meeting where he re-approved such placement.
57. The Swearingen Records contain over twenty-five encounters with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, including:
a. At least eight entries that specifically indicate she was contacted for “MENTAL HEALTH” reasons.
b. Multiple misdemeanor arrests, including arrests for trespassing, breach of peace, battery and trespassing in an occupied dwelling.
c. Multiple felonies, including arrests for burglary, unlisted felonies and “Forcible Fondling / Indecent Liberties / Child Molesting”.
d. Multiple trespass warnings.
e. Multiple entries indicated she is transient or homeless.
f. Approximately eight entries documenting reports where Swearingen was Baker Acted.

(Doc. 106).

         Thus, at the time of the DCF meeting, Brady knew Swearingen's suitability as a caretaker “was a concern” and that he “wanted to remove [the children, ]” but believed “there were adequate caregivers who were meeting their needs.” (Id. ¶¶ 70-71). And by the end of the meeting, Perry also had “actual knowledge” of Swearingen's mental health problems, but decided “that removal was not necessary” at that time. (Id. ¶ 72). “Brady admits that after the staffing meeting, there was an urgency in getting out to the home where [Swearingen] had the Children. Despite such ‘urgency', Brady waited several hours before going to the property and failed to call Swearingen, despite having her cell phone number.” (Id. ¶ 73-74).

         At approximately 5:40 p.m. the same day, “R.F.J., who was four years old and was not properly being supervised, was playing with a lighter and started a house fire.” (Id. ¶ 91). R.F.J., R.F., J.F., and Swearingen all died in the fire. (Id. ¶ 93). H.F. survived the fire and was taken to the hospital. (Id. ¶ 95-98). At 7:25 p.m., Brady arrived at the house, which was already on fire and being attended to by fire and rescue personnel. (Id. ¶ 92). Later that evening at the hospital, Brady told the children's aunt that it was his decision to place the children in Swearingen's care. (Id. ¶ 98).

         II. ...

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