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Fla. in Spotlight in 2nd Abuse Case

July 13, 2002

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LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) _ The first call to the abuse hot line came Aug. 28, 2000.

The caller said 2 1/2-year-old Rheyna and 10-month-old Alfredo Montez didn’t have enough to eat and that their mother, Jeanna Lynn Swallows, constantly had parties and did drugs.

The investigator assigned to the case at the time, Shannon Kersey, wrote that she was unable to locate the family.

The pattern of abuse calls and visits from child protection workers _ sometimes successful, other times not _ continued until Alfredo, now 2, was killed by a baby sitter July 1, allegedly for soiling his pants.

The boy’s death has again put Florida’s child welfare agency on the defensive, after months of criticism for its handling of the case of a missing 5-year-old. Murder charges have been filed against the baby sitter, and on Friday, a child welfare investigator became the first person charged with falsifying records under a new state law.

According to Department of Children and Families documents, five calls were made to the agency’s abuse hot line about Alfredo and his sister in the 23 months before July.

Department investigator Erica Jones was fired Friday and charged with falsifying records about the last abuse call logged at the hot line, the day of the boy’s death.

``Mother is always high on methamphetamine and acid,″ the caller told the hot line. ``She hits the children when she is high. Last week Alfredo had bruising on the top of his forehead and knots on his head. The children are chronically dirty.″

Jones reported that she visited Alfredo and 4-year-old Rheyna on July 1 at the home.

In a handwritten note, one of hundreds of pages of documents released by the DCF Friday, Jones wrote Alfredo had ``no marks or bruises. Child was clean and appeared happy.″

But police say there was no way Jones could have seen Swallows or the children that day. Swallows dropped her children at Richard Chouquer and Amandy Lawrence’s mobile home in Auburndale on June 28.

The boy wasn’t reported missing by a family friend until Monday. The mother, Swallows, was arrested Tuesday on a violation of probation warrant for writing bad checks and avoiding police, said Polk County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Scott Wilder.

Alfredo’s body, wrapped in a bedspread with figures of Disney’s ``101 Dalmatians″ on it, was spotted late Thursday by a passing motorist 30 feet off the edge of Interstate 275 in west-central Florida.

Chouquer, 23, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the boy’s death. Lawrence, 22, has been charged as an accessory after the fact.

Police said Chouquer told investigators in Utah he was disciplining Alfredo after the boy soiled his pants, hitting him at least five times in the face. Police said he told them the boy never got discipline.

``I was trying to help,″ he said, according to the arrest affidavit.

After Alfredo lost consciousness and died, the couple put his body in the trunk of their car and drove until they found a place to drop him, police said. Their two young children were in the car, as was Rheyna, police said.

According to Lawrence’s arrest affidavit, before Chouquer dumped Alfredo’s body she told him ``to wrap him up tight″ so he would not get cold.

Authorities were awaiting the extradition of the couple from Hurricane, Utah, where they were arrested this week.

Rheyna is now in the custody of her paternal grandmother in Lake Wales.

Gov. Jeb Bush called Alfredo’s case ``heartbreaking.″

DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney said Jones was being charged with a third-degree felony under a new state law prompted by another department debacle, the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson in Miami.

``We do not believe this is widespread,″ Kearney said at a news conference Friday.

Those comments were to similar to those Kearney made when it became public that state workers lost track of Rilya, who hadn’t been seen for 15 months before she was reported missing in April.

But DCF and police officials both say that even if Jones had actually visited the home, the outcome for little Alfredo would have likely remained the same, since the family wouldn’t have been there.

``The reality is this mother chose to give her children to two very inappropriate caregivers,″ Kearney said.

Jones’ first handling of the case came Dec. 26. Previous abuse allegations against Swallows were handled by three other case workers. All of them reported either that they couldn’t locate the family or that the mother, neighbors and relatives denied the abuse.

Kearney said Jones admitted to state police that she falsified the records on July 9, after she learned Alfredo’s disappearance resulted from a possible homicide.

Jones, who is 8 1/2 months pregnant and had been at the agency for less than a year, turned herself in Friday and was released on $1,000 bond. Kearney said the department is reviewing every file Jones has handled.

Under the law prompted by Rilya’s case, those convicted of falsifying documents related to children, the elderly or disabled in state care could be sentenced to up to five years in prison. If the person is seriously hurt or dies because of the fraud, it could be a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Tampa attorney Anthony LaSpada, who is representing Jones, said he could not comment about the charges.

No one answered the phone Friday at Jones’ home in Land O’ Lakes, about 30 miles northeast of Tampa.

Alfredo’s mother remained jailed Friday on a violation of probation warrant. The boy’s father, Alfredo Montez, is in federal prison in Jessup, Ga., for trafficking in methamphetamines, police said.

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On the Net:

Polk County Sheriff’s Office: http://www.polksheriff.org

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