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First Case Worker Faces Trial in Potty-Training Death

February 25, 1990

BARTOW, Fla. (AP) _ The first of three social workers goes on trial Monday on charges of failing to report suspected child abuse before the death of a toddler who allegedly was dunked in the toilet for soiling his pants.

Until the death July 28 of 2-year-old Bradley McGee, state child-protection workers in Florida had never been criminally charged for their handling of a case.

Kenneth Houk, 39, is the first of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services workers set for trial in the case, which focused attention on abuse and its reporting and prompted more spending on child welfare.

The blond, blue-eyed Lakeland boy came into state custody as a newborn when his mother abandoned him to a woman she barely knew who sold pretzels at a mall.

HRS eventually gave the boy back to his mother. Two months later, he suffered fatal head injuries from being repeatedly shoved headfirst into a toilet and beaten with pillows for soiling his pants, authorities say.

His mother and stepfather, Sheryl McGee Coe, 21, and Thomas Coe, 22, are charged with murder and aggravated child abuse and face trial this summer.

HRS program administrator Houk, case worker Margaret Barber, case worker Shirley DuBoise and supervisor Judy Ross were charged with failing to report child abuse, an offense punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

Prosecutors two weeks ago dropped the charges against Ms. Ross, saying she was incorrectly identified as having received a report of suspected abuse on the boy.

Ms. Barber, who directly supervised the McGee case, was also charged with child abuse, which carries up to five years in prison.

″The bottom line is that the tools, rules and procedures were in place to save Bradley’s life, and they were not used,″ said the HRS report on which the charges were based.

Weeks before Bradley’s death, Houk and Barber received calls that his mother had forced him to eat feces for soiling his diapers, but they did not call HRS’ abuse hot line to report the incident as required, investigators said.

In December 1988, according to the HRS probe, Houk received a call contending the mother was unfit because she was drinking and using cocaine. Houk did not call the hotline, the investigation found.

In both instances, Houk contended he acted in good faith by telling the caller to notify the toddler’s case worker.

Further trials could bring out other allegations, among them that Ms. Barber knew a psychological evaluation concluded the Coes were incapable of ever being good parents - yet never told the judge who gave the toddler back to his family.

Attorneys for the indicted HRS workers have maintained that they performed their jobs in good faith and were under tremendous stress. The HRS inspector noted that Ms. Barber was handling 47 cases when 20 was considered a full load.

In November, all the defendants except Ms. Barber were offered a plea bargain to dispose of the case for a $100 fine. They refused, opting instead for trials to clear their name.

″These charges were brought for pure grandstanding purposes,″ HRS spokesman Steve Konicki said recently.

Houk, Ms. Barber, 61, and Ms. Ross, 46, returned to HRS after suspensions. Ms. Duboise, 43, resigned and faces trial next month. No date is set for Ms. Barber’s trial.

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