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Foster Mom Fights To Change System After Abuse Death

August 18, 1989

LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) _ Through tears, a grieving foster mother said she’s determined to keep alive the memory of a 2-year-old she raised most of his short life so she can prove his death is worth more than 30 days’ pay.

The parents of Bradley McGee are charged with murder. Authorities said the child was repeatedly plunged headfirst into a toilet bowl during potty training. His July 28 death set off controversy throughout Florida about handling of abuse cases.

The boy might be alive today if social workers had followed their policy for protecting abused children, a state investigator concluded.

Four state child care workers knew Brad was subjected to physical abuse and ″bizarre punishment″ at home, didn’t report it and recommended the child be returned to his parents, the investigator said.

The Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services called it an error in judgment and disciplined the workers, ranging from a written reprimand to 30 days’ suspension.

″A child is dead,″ said Pam Kirkland, who wanted to adopt Brad. ″A judgment call results in a preventable death and disciplinary action is no more than 30 days without pay? Is that all a child’s life is worth today?″

Mrs. Kirkland spent 14 months caring for Brad while he was under the protection of HRS.

The boy died with multiple bruises on his face, abdomen, buttocks and groin. But that’s not what killed the blond, blue-eyed toddler.

Shoving him untold times headfirst into a toilet bowl did, the medical examiner’s office said. His brain hemorrhaged.

Brad’s mother, Sheryl McGee Coe, 20, and stepfather, Tom Coe, 22, are accused of killing the boy for soiling his pants. They told police they were potty-training him. Mrs. Coe is expecting her third child later this month. Her second child, a 13-month-old girl, was placed in foster care after Bradley’s death.

No trial has been scheduled.

Brad had been under the care of HRS since his mother abandoned him malnourished and congested when he was 4 months old. She left him with a stranger, a pretzel vendor, at a mall.

Two months before his death he was returned to his parents.

Pam Kirkland and her husband, Jim, had warned HRS against it. A child protection team, a group of medical and social work professionals that weigh cases for the state, had advised against it in a psychological evaluation of the parents. And on July 3, HRS received a report of abuse. The reports were not brought to the attention of a judge who approved the reunification.

Others say they reported problems, but the agency says it only has record of one call to its abuse hot line.

Following an investigation by the HRS inspector general, the agency suspended the caseworker without pay for 30 days, suspended an administrator without pay for three weeks, reprimanded a program director and demoted a supervisor.

Since March 1988, five Tampa Bay area children have died from child abuse while under HRS supervision.

″How many more children will die if nothing is done, and right away?″ Mrs. Kirkland asked. She is urging the governor to call a special legislative session. The state attorney is investigating handling of the case.

Signatures are being collected on 20,000 petitions that ask the governor to make it tougher for parents to get their kids back.

Inspector General Jerry Slavens agrees with Mrs. Kirkland and says the law should be changed ″so that the safety of the child comes first as opposed to family reunification.″

The first six months Brad was in HRS custody, his parents never contacted the agency, according to state reports.

He called the Kirklands ″mommy″ and ″daddy.″ They called him ″Brabbee.″

″He was happy, bright, and a clown. He loved to dance. He’d hear music and turn himself around,″ said Mrs. Kirkland, sitting at her dining room table surrounded by pictures of Brad. In every pose, he was smiling.

″He was also very sensitive,″ she said. Even a gentle scolding would bring tears.

At the Kirklands, Brad rode around in a fenced yard on his favorite dump truck. When he was wet, he’d bring a clean diaper to Pam to change him. When Kirkland, a teacher, came home from work, he’d race to the door giggling ″daddy home.″

″He had so much love to give and wanted so much to be loved,″ said Mrs. Kirkland, fighting back tears. ″He would cling with his arms around me.″

On May 24, HRS workers took Brabbee back to the Coes. The Kirklands said they were told they could not see him again because he had bonded to them and wasn’t bonding to his parents.

Two months later he was dead.

″What went through that child’s mind,″ Mrs. Kirkland wondered. ″Was he thinking, ‘What did I do? Why don’t they come get me?’ ... And when he was unplugged from that respirator, was there anyone that loved him there to hug him?″

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