Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Kaylee Rice died despite 18 state investigations - Florida


Editor’s note: This story is based on interviews with friends and family of Kaylee Rice, people involved in the juvenile dependency system, and hundreds of pages of records from the Department of Children and Families, Big Bend Community Based Care, criminal and civil court files, and law enforcement.

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Even as her life descended into a spiral of abuse and addiction, Courtney Coughlin was determined to keep her daughter, Kaylee Ann Rice.

Coughlin gave up two other kids for adoption, an older girl and a younger boy, and Kaylee was removed from her care by the state on more than one occasion. Still, Coughlin fought to keep Kaylee.

Once she succeeded, said one woman who knew Kaylee, the child never stood a chance.

Kaylee was airlifted to Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in the hours after a July 11, 2011, car accident in Lynn Haven. She and mother Courtney Coughlin, a drug addict and ex-convict with a long criminal history, were not wearing seat belts. Coughlin’s facial muscles were pulled from her crushed skull, and she had missing teeth and limited vision in one eye.

Kaylee fared worse.

Twelve hours after the crash, an investigator with the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) filed a preliminary report of the findings of an investigation. The investigator interviewed only doctors; Kaylee was unconscious, father Ray Rice was in prison and her mother was in the hospital on her way to jail, where she would remain until she was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The investigator was there to assess the risk to Kaylee.

“The overall safety assessment at this time is low as it pertains to the parent/caregiver not having access for further abuse/neglect to the child. However, risk is increased due to the injuries Kaylee has sustained and her current condition may potentially be fatal.”

The report documented the 18th and final time DCF had investigated allegations Kaylee had been abused or neglected.

Coughlin and Rice met in the late ’90s when they were kicking around the beach, hanging out in clubs, partying and getting into drugs. Back then it was pot and valium; later it was meth and painkillers. They had dated about a month when Coughlin showed up with a small child, Rice remembered during an interview with The News Herald.

Both were more interested in partying than parenthood, and Coughlin decided to give her daughter up for adoption. The adoption was a strain on the relationship. Rice said he started thinking, “This chick might be crazy.”

She knew how to push his buttons, and “sometimes I would try to control her,” said Rice, who was arrested several times for domestic violence. “I’m not an angel by any means.”

Coughlin was pregnant again in December 1998 when she applied for a restraining order the day after one incident. She withdrew the request a week later.

“I lost one child, kind of, you know — that’s how I felt about it — and I was giving her something better,” Coughlin said in an interview. “… I wanted Kaylee to have both of her parents there, you know, just a normal upbringing. I wanted to give her everything I didn’t have.”

Six months later, on July 10, 1999, Kaylee Rice was born in a Bay County hospital to 21-year-old Rice and 23-year-old Coughlin. It was only a matter of months before the complaints to the police and the DCF began pouring in.

Both Rice and Coughlin were involved in a major meth manufacturing case in 2004 after Rice’s mother, Yurdanur “Sunny” Rice, took a trunk with a meth lab and more than 1,000 grams of meth oil to the dump at her son’s request. The meth had belonged to one of Ray Rice’s roommates. He had allowed the roommate to cook meth at his place, but he said he never cooked meth himself and court records support him.

He ended up in a federal prison. Coughlin, who was jittery and had fresh needle marks on her arms when police came, was not charged, but DCF again took custody of Kaylee, who began the least documented period of her short life.

Coughlin was arrested in December 2004 for aggravated assault for a road rage incident in which she allegedly pointed a gun at another driver. She entered a court-ordered rehab program, but quickly failed and ended up in prison.

Kaylee moved in with Charlene Hodge for the first time. The Hodges are a large Bonifay family made larger by the many children they have fostered over the years, but not too large to take Kaylee in 2004.

With the exception of a few months spent with another relative in Michigan, Kaylee spent the next year-and-a half with the Hodges.

“My family just considered her a part of our family,” Hodge said. “She just felt at home at our house.”

When she left the Hodges’ home, Kaylee moved in with Sunny Rice, who was appointed Kaylee’s caretaker in February 2007, about six months before Coughlin’s release from prison.

In December 2008, DCF received the first report regarding Kaylee in more than four years. Rice, then 71 years old, had fallen and broken her hip. She had been hospitalized and wouldn’t be capable of caring for herself, let alone a 9-year-old girl, for at least six months. Kaylee had been staying with various friends, mainly Sean and Melinda Hall.

The Halls didn’t mind looking after Kaylee, and Judge Elijah Smiley ordered Kaylee be placed with the family. Coughlin was allowed supervised visitation.

Coughlin was released from prison in August 2007. She was off drugs and determined to resume her life with the only child she had left.

She completed parenting courses, a mental health assessment, domestic violence awareness courses and substance abuse treatment. She paid child support. Her visits required supervision.

In May 2009, DCF developed a case plan with the stated goal of reuniting Coughlin and Kaylee. The law says that a child removed by the state cannot be returned until “the circumstances which caused the creation of the case plan have been significantly remedied to the extent that the well-being and safety of the child will not be endangered upon the child’s remaining with or being returned to the child’s parent.”

Big Bend Community Based Care, a private company that contracts with the state to monitor cases like Kaylee’s, cited federal and state laws when it refused to provide documents of Coughlin’s drug tests, but logs of in-home visits show Coughlin passed at least nine random drug tests before and after the reunion.

During an in-home visit at Sunny Rice’s by the case worker in July 2009, just before the reunion, the case worker noted in her report that Kaylee was “chippery and happy.” Kaylee said she wanted to live with her mother.

On Aug. 13, 2009, Judge James Fensom held a hearing to get an update on Coughlin’s progress. All drug tests were clean, and DCF recommended Kaylee’s reunification with her mother. Fensom called a brief recess and went into the hall to speak privately with Kaylee. When he returned, he ordered the reunification.

Rosemary Ring was Kaylee’s Sunday school teacher and a friend of Sunny Rice, who had hired a lawyer and tried to fight the reunification. She said she went to court with Sunny that day, and she was disappointed Fensom chose to put Kaylee with Coughlin instead of Sunny, who had taken the child to church, dance lessons and tennis lessons.

“Sunny was a good and moral person and she would have seen to K.K.’s care,” Ring said. “Courts don’t look at the moral aspect of it.”

Kaylee had been more or less born into the system. By her first birthday, Kaylee had been removed from home by child protection teams and returned. DCF had investigated allegations that Kaylee had been exposed to drugs or family violence five times before her second birthday, and investigators often found at least some indication the allegations were true.

Of course, just as often there was no evidence to support the allegations, the DCF is required to conduct investigations in any case, said Courtney Peel, operations manager for DCF in Bay County.

DCF has goals that at times seem to be in conflict. One is to protect children, and the other is to keep families together.

“It is, and I guess it should be, difficult to terminate a parent’s rights,” Fensom said.

A child must be in immediate danger for the DCF to take steps toward taking the child from the parents. Even then, DCF doesn’t have the authority to remove them; that decision must be made by a judge in a shelter hearing.

“Some judges are hesitant to work as a dependency judge because of the reality: some cases go bad,” said Fensom, who said Kaylee’s case isn’t the only one where a child has died as a result of abuse or neglect. It’s not even the most egregious — just the most public.

The work of a dependency court judge is difficult and emotional, Fensom said, because “everyone’s doing their best, then the case goes bad.”

After she won her daughter back, Coughlin remained under supervision of Big Bend Community Based Care. Case agents performed in-home visits for six months after the reunification to see Kaylee and ensure Coughlin was seeing to her needs. They also administered drug tests.

“She was doing extremely well, I thought,” Ray Rice said. “I was actually proud of her.”

Coughlin remembers exactly the day she relapsed. After seven years drug-free, four of which she spent in prison, she started taking painkillers May 14, 2010. It had been about three months since she had passed her final drug test and her case was closed. DCF no longer had the authority to compel a drug test.

She was despondent. Her girlfriend kicked her out of their apartment and Coughlin, who was almost immediately shooting up powerful narcotic painkillers, stole her checkbook on her way out the door. Within a month, she had attempted suicide and been committed.

“That’s what I want, for the suffering to stop,” Coughlin wrote in a suicide note to her ex-girlfriend. “I know that everyone will be better off with me out of their lives. I’m sorry for the pain I caused you. … I will never forgive myself for it coming to this.”

The day before she had allegedly stolen some painkillers from Sunny, and six months later the criminal charges were starting to stack up. She was arrested in February for grand theft and uttering a forged instrument for allegedly writing bad checks from her ex’s checkbook.

In March, Coughlin was arrested after she sold four oxycodone pills to a confidential police informant. Bob and Jacqui Coughlin, the grandparents who had raised Coughlin since childhood while her mother drank herself to death, let her sit in jail for two weeks, hoping she might sober up again.

During this period, Bob Coughlin and Charlene Hodge had several discussions about moving Kaylee back in with the Hodges. They both agreed it was best for Kaylee, and it was best to do it over the summer so she wouldn’t have to change schools mid-year, but Courtney Coughlin wouldn’t go for it.

“I had talked to Courtney several times in recent months about giving K.K. up, but she refused to consider it,” Bob Coughlin said. “We still knew we had to do something with her before too long.”

Hodge remembers a long conversation with the Coughlins just before Kaylee finished sixth grade. She didn’t go into details but she said she felt very strongly that Kaylee needed to come live with her again.

“Let’s just say that I kept talking to Kaylee and she was not a happy little girl. Her life was upside down,” Hodge said. “If they needed us, we would be there for them. A child’s security means everything.”

Everyone around Coughlin could tell she was falling apart. From his prison cell, Rice would call Kaylee and ask her if Coughlin was using. Kaylee said she wasn’t, but he felt she was either covering for her mother or didn’t know. He considered reporting Coughlin to DCF, but he didn’t.

“I knew Courtney was messing up. I knew she was on drugs,” he said. “I didn’t want Kaylee to be mad at me for taking her away.”

On July 11, Coughlin was trying to cash a check that wasn’t hers. Police came to the Lynn Haven bank and pinned her in, but she stomped the accelerator and took off. She made it less than a mile.

From the wreckage of the car, investigators recovered purses and checkbooks that belonged to other women. They also found needles and a blackened spoon that tested positive for narcotics.

Two days later at Sacred Heart, staff busied themselves making arrangements with Coughlin and Rice for permission to allow their daughter’s organs to be donated. Knowing Kaylee’s heart still beats in the chest of another child is a comfort to Rice.

“I know Kaylee would’ve wanted that because she was such a sweet girl,” he said.

He’s torn up that he wasn’t there for his little girl. He used to apologize to her over the phone from the prison until she’d forgive him.

“ ‘Daddy stop already; stop that. I forgive you,’ ” he remembered her as saying. “That meant a lot, especially now; I’m so glad that she said that.”

Momma Hodge, as Kaylee referred to her, went in to be with Kaylee while the rest of her family waited in the lobby.

“I just wanted to get to her and hold her hand and let her know that I was there,” Hodge said. “I was the only one with her.”

Doctors and nurses watched with tears in their eyes. For hours after the machines that had kept Kaylee alive were turned off, Hodge was there.


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