MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The Child Protection Team in Manatee County had no idea that 11-year-old Janiya Thomas was being home schooled by her abusive mother for as long as two years before the girl disappeared. Janiya turned up dead in a relative’s freezer last week.
Keishanna Thomas, Janiya’s mother, is in jail on abuse charges while the investigation into her daughter’s death continues. Dave Bristow, a spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed Wednesday that investigators didn’t know Janiya was learning at home, due to a medical condition while her four brothers and sisters attended Manatee Public Schools.
Bristow said investigators had no reason to ask about Janiya’s schooling when they conducted an abuse investigation in May and June 2014, the last time they confirmed Janiya was alive.
The Manatee County School District says Keishanna Thomas notified educators in August 2013 that she intended to start homeschooling Janiya. But she failed to file a state-required annual progress report and ignored a letter from the district asking her to account for Janiya’s home school progress. In January of this year, the district sent Thomas an ultimatum: Comply with reporting requirements or face a truancy action. Thomas then told educators Janiya had moved out of state. They accepted her word, closed the case, and made no further inquiries.
CPT investigators broke off contact with Thomas on June 9, 2014 — nearly a year after Janiya reportedly began her homeschooling. Investigators didn’t return to the home until last month when another abuse investigation began, focusing on one of Janiya’s brothers. The case in June 2014 involved hygienic issues of Janiya’s sister. Bristow insists it did not merit further intervention by investigators – despite the mother’s long history of abuse.
It wasn’t until last month when CPT investigators discovered Janiya and a 2-year-old sibling were missing. They made the discovery while conducting a new investigation of abuse involving Janiya’s 12-year-old brother.
Thomas eventually presented the 2-year-old to investigators but insisted Janiya had moved to New Jersey with relatives — a story they didn’t buy. She was, in fact, dead in a family freezer.
Abuse cases involving Thomas date back 15 years. In 2004, records show, Thomas gave daily beatings to her disabled 4-year-old daughter when Janiya was just a newborn. The girl suffered from cerebral palsy. Investigators documented roaches and rats and maggots in the home where they said kids ate just one meal daily. It was enough for them to remove the disabled daughter from Thomas’ care while Thomas got help.
“Clearly the system failed,” said criminal defense lawyer Roger Futerman. Futerman reviewed abuse records involving the family released by DCF Tuesday. “This is beyond sickening to any objective person,” Futerman said.
He believes that investigators had justification for removing children from the home years ago as a dozen abuse reports piled up. “This could have been prevented,” Futerman said. “It is beyond insanity that these children were not removed from the home.”
Futerman placed partial blame on DCF’s mandate to keep families together, sometimes at the expense of children. “Unequivocally, in my opinion, from what I’ve seen, the system failed this child and someone has to be held accountable,” he added.
Bristow insists that accountability begins with Thomas’ own extended family. “I think this child was failed, but I think it was failed by family members,” Bristow said.
DCF says it will release more records in the case Thursday. Thomas remains in the Manatee County Jail facing two abuse charges. Her surviving four children are now in state custody.