Seminole child protection officials missed chances before abused 5-year-old’s death, state says

Hannah Phillips, Orlando Sentinel
·6 min read

Child protection officials in Seminole County missed “multiple” opportunities to intervene in the abuse of Justice Washington in the years before the 5-year-old’s death last July, according to an investigation by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Justice’s aunt, Shantaua Williams, assumed the role of caretaker over the girl and her brother in late 2018. Over the span of two years, the family was the subject of five investigations by child protection workers, four of them stemming from reports of physical abuse, according to DCF records. All were dismissed.

“The children are assessed as safe under [Williams’ 3/8 care,” an investigator wrote in 2019. “Impending danger was not identified.”

Less than a year later, police said a security camera at Oak Glen Apartments recorded Williams as she pulled Justice from the swimming pool and plunged her back in at least 13 times over half an hour. She offered Justice her hand once, only to yank it back out of reach when the girl tried to take it, DCF said.

An autopsy determined Justice died of blunt head trauma and drowning early the next morning, and examiners found evidence of ongoing abuse on her body: bruises, scrapes, cuts and bite marks, in various stages of healing. Williams was arrested in January on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.

A state review of the incidents leading up to Justice’s death, which the Orlando Sentinel obtained through public record requests, along with reports from prior interactions between child-protection agents and the family, revealed cracks in Seminole County’s child welfare system that the Sheriff’s Office Child Protection Team says it is working to address.

Beginning in December, the CPT said it had improved its communication and documentation practices to ensure that all necessary steps have been taken before a case is closed, according to the records. The agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for additional comment Tuesday.

Still, the Sheriff’s Office pushed back against DCF’s findings, maintaining it found no evidence of abuse during any of its previous investigations of the family, the last of which took place just four months before Justice died. Justice’s abuse and death were “justifiably unforeseen,” SCSO wrote in response to the state’s findings.

DCF’s review suggests the abuse allegations against Williams weren’t taken seriously enough from the beginning. Justice and her brother were deemed safe and low-risk in the first of the investigations after they began living with Williams — an incorrect assessment that would serve as “the foundation of the inaccurate assessments” in all the children’s cases going forward, DCF said.

In August 2018, one month after the children moved in with Williams, a complainant whose name was redacted from the documents said Justice’s brother, 9, had painful red welts covering his arms and legs. “She beat him so bad he was having difficulty moving his arms and it was very painful,” they reported. The case was closed after 15 days with no findings of abuse.

In November 2018, someone reported that Justice’s brother had abused her. The case was closed after five days with no findings of abuse, after both children denied the allegation.

In October 2019, Williams’ ex-partner told investigators Williams gave her nephew a black eye and threw Justice into a wall. “Justice is small and fragile,” the reporter said. The case was closed after six days with no findings of abuse.

In December 2019, Justice’s brother reportedly tried to hurt himself with a razor he found. The case was closed after three days with no findings of inadequate supervision.

In March 2020, a teacher said Williams’ nephew had been hit on his hands with a ruler until they were swollen and discolored. “[He] is a handful, but he didn’t deserve this,” the teacher said. The case was closed after 22 days with no evidence of abuse found.

In each case, Williams assured the caseworker that any injuries were accidents and she had no intention of hurting the children. Neighbors, friends and relatives also vouched for her, records show.

The children varied in their accounts of how each injury came about. In the first case, Justice’s brother said his aunt hit him with a belt and he was afraid of her finding out he’d spoken with investigators, records show. He said Williams would hurt 3-year-old Justice, too.

In later cases, he denied ever being hurt by Williams and said she never hurt Justice, either. His injuries were accidents, he said. Justice said once that an injury to her lip was an accident, before she changed her mind and said her aunt caused it, according to a report. She told investigators she was afraid of Williams because of “how she is.”

Despite those allegations, Justice didn’t show any evidence of physical abuse, the caseworker noted, and the investigation was closed. The reports are peppered with alternate explanations for why Justice or her brother may have claimed abuse: The boy tends to exaggerate things, a teacher said. Justice gets scared when Williams raises her voice, her aunt said.

“There is no evidence that the aunt is being physically abusive with the children,” the reports concluded.

In retrospect, DCF found that SCSO investigations were completed “rather quickly.” And because Justice and her brother were mistakenly considered low-risk, the family wasn’t provided the level of services and follow-up they would have if they were considered high-risk.

“Present danger existed, and immediate safety actions were warranted,” the DCF report said.

The SCSO refuted the state’s findings and said each investigation was exhaustive, and each risk assessment was based on sufficient information. Justice and her brother, SCSO said, “did not meet the criteria for unsafe children.”

Both children were “highly visible in the community” and determined to be safe through multiple background checks and interviews, the county agency said. Additionally, SCSO maintained that assessing the children as low-risk did not affect the family’s access to services. The family was referred for parenting courses, counseling, medical management and food pantries.

Williams, 28, is being held without bond at the Orange County Jail. She pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, and her next court appearance is set for May 18.

Ebony Russell, Williams’ girlfriend who was described by authorities as “live-in caregiver” to Justice and her sibling, was arrested by Sanford police in September and pleaded not guilty to charges of child neglect with great bodily harm. Her next court appearance is set for March 17.

hphillips@orlandosentinel.com