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Sheriff Shoulders Blame in Death of Girl, 5, While in Foster Care

Authorities failed to ensure the girl underwent a required medical exam after she was taken from her Clearwater home, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says his department is responsible for an ommission in the care of a 5-year-old Clearwater girl who died while in foster care, and his department is conducting an internal investigation.

The girl failed to undergo a required health screening within 72 hours of being taken from her home earlier this month, Gualtieri said in a news conference Thursday in Largo. She died eight days after being placed in foster care, without ever having undergone the exam, Gualtieri said.

"We are going to be candid, forthright, and transparent," he said. "An omission occurred where we should have acted and didn't."

The sad story of Elizabeth Holder begins on Jan. 11, when neighbors called about a child wandering unsupervised in the Gulf to Bay Mobile Home Park in Clearwater.

Pinellas County Sheriff's deputies found the child and returned her home, where they found her mom, Stephanie Judah, and 2-year-old sister. Judah was found under the influence of prescription medications that were not prescribed to her, Gualtieri said.

The children's father, Corey Holder, returned home, reportedly intoxicated and under the influence of prescription medications. The deputies determined he could not care for the children either, Gualtieri said.

Judah was arrested and charged with child neglect, and the two children were placed by the community-based Eckerd agency in a Clearwater home around 9 p.m. that same day.

The next day a judge determined there was sufficient cause to remove the children from their home, Gualtieri said.

When children are placed in foster care, state law requires them to undergo a health screen within 72 hours of the time when they are removed from their home, Gualtieri said.

But on Jan. 14, a family support worker was unable to contact anyone at the Pinellas Health Department. Subsequently, the worker contacted another pediatric center, and an appointment was made for Elizabeth on Jan. 22. The family support worker did not receive the form until the day the exam was supposed to happen, Gualtieri said.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth and her sister were placed in foster care in Clearwater. On Jan. 18, the foster parent had another obligation and delivered the girls to a babysitter in Dunedin.

A day later, the children were watching TV and Elizabeth was sitting on the couch. The little girl grabbed her head and cried out, "It hurts, it hurts, it hurts," Gualtieri said.

The Dunedin babysitter called EMS, and the child died at 5 p.m. at Mease Hospital, Gualtieri said.

The sheriff's office is waiting for the results of the autopsy.

"There was absolutely no sign of trauma, no physical abuse or injury. It appears to be a medical event of some sort," Gualtieri said.

The sheriff's office is conducting an ongoing internal investigation and has determined it has not complied with all of the requirements for the child's care, which included having a medical checkup within 72 hours of being placed in foster care, Gualtieri said. 

Gualtieri said in the contract with Eckerd, the sheriff's office assumes the responsibility of initiating the health screen.

"I accept responsibility, we own it. If falls squarely on us. There's no wrong-doing by the foster parent or babysitter," Gualtieri said.

It's unclear if the medical screen within the 72-hour period would have made a difference, Gualtieri said.

"We immediately enacted procedures from this never happening again," Gualtieri said.

There may have been some confusion about who was responsible for the completion of the health screen, but there was no malicious intent in any way, the sheriff said.

The department is instituting further training to ensure that required times are met, Gualtieri said. It is also expanding the options of places where health screens can take place.

Elizabeth's sister is still in foster care in Clearwater. She has had a medical screen, although her original appointment was not until today (Jan. 24), Gualtieri said.

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