Tampa Bay lawmakers: “Tackle mental illness to prevent child deaths”

Janiya Thomas (Bradenton Police Department)

TAMPA, FL (WFLA) – As Florida’s Department of Children and Families looks into why investigators made the decisions they did in the Janiya Thomas case, Governor Rick Scott is calling for more case managers.  Two bay area lawmakers say it’s going to take a lot more than boots on the ground to turn DCF around.

Keishanna Thomas, Janiya’s mother, was on DCF’S radar as far back as 2000. Records show in 2003 she physically abused a daughter.

Documents released Thursday show in March 2014, she was investigated for spanking her son with an extenson cord, “leaving welts on the child’s arms and buttocks.”

Investigators with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office chose to leave the child at home, because as they wrote, there was no place for him to go.  A month later Keishanna Thomas became angry when Child Protective Services recommended she “complete a domestic violence perpetrator and anger management program.”

Thomas sits in the Manatee county jail.  Her other daughter Janiya, missing since 2014, was found dead in a freezer earlier this month.

“As a mother, I look at this and I’m horrified.  we’ve got to stop child abuse, it is an epidemic in our state,” Representative Dana Young, (R) Tampa, said.   Young, the legislature’s House Majority leader and Representative Kathleen Peters(R) St. Petersburg, the Vice-Chair of the house Children, Families and Seniors subcommittee, believe tackling mental illness is key

Rep. Dana Young/R Tampa
Rep. Dana Young/R Tampa

“I think mental illness plays a huge role, I know substance abuse plays a huge role,” Peters added.  According to Peters, 43 million Americans suffer mental illness, and 60 percent do not seek treatment.  “Because, I believe, there’s a stigma that deters people from getting treatment,” Peters said.  “Instead many self medicate with alcohol and drugs. “And that only compounds the problems within the family.  And that illness, and it is an illness, is tearing families apart,” Peters explained.

Rep. Kathleen Peters/R St. Petersburg
Rep. Kathleen Peters/R St. Petersburg

Mental illness is at the root of many child abuse and criminal cases. “It is truly at the heart of so many problems that we have,” Young said.  Representative Peters hopes during the next legislative session to expand a program, into Pinellas County, that provides care for the entire family if someone enters the system due to mental illness or substance abuse.

“Substance abuse is taking hold and if we can not handle, if we can not address that, I think that the outcome for our children and our families is going to have a lot more heartbreak,” Peters said.

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