SARASOTA — The image of an 8-year-old Manatee County boy who was beaten and starved before being taken into custody was shown side by side with a photo of the boy seven months later, smiling and looking healthier.
An image of a mother changing her baby’s diaper on an ironing board just before she walked away leaving the baby unattended.
The desperate screams and cries of a 6-year-old girl named Lisa, as her stepfather attacked her mother, recorded during the 911 call she made, echoed in a Sarasota ballroom.
“These are powerful reminders of the important work we do every day and the important work that we have been doing in the more than 6,000 hotline reports investigated in Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties this past year,” said Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Connie Shingledecker during a keynote speech Thursday at the Children’s Guardian Fund Fall Luncheon.
More than 300 people sat in silence as they watched the images of the victims of child abuse. Some grew teary-eyed as they listened to the 911 call.
The Children’s Guardian Fund provides resources to the Guardian Ad Litem program in the 12th Judicial Circuit — which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties — and whose goal is to advocate and enrich the lives of children in foster care or the care of the court.
Family violence threatening a child is the second-highest category for allegations received of maltreatment of children, according to Shingledecker.
“Just imagine living through that every day,” she urged everyone after playing Lisa’s call. “Domestic violence affects the ability to learn and develop emotionally.”
Substance misuse is the No. 1 allegation of maltreatment reported, Shingledecker said.
Shingledecker, a passionate advocate for children, is the major at the Investigative Bureau at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, which includes the Child Protective Investigative Division.
The CPID is under scrutiny after 11-year-old Janiya Thomas was found dead in a freezer last month — two days after she was officially reported missing. The department had an extensive history of investigating allegations of abuse against her mother, Keishanna Thomas.
Thomas, who is in the Manatee County jail, has been charged with aggravated child abuse and abuse of a dead body. Autopsy results are pending, and Janiya’s death remains under investigation.
There are 1,064 children now in the care of the 12th Judicial Circuit, Shingledecker said. More than 500 children have been sheltered this year.
“The Children’s Guardian Fund supports the Guardian Ad Litem Program with the goal that every child sheltered shall have a volunteer child advocate to speak for them,” Shingledecker said.
Due to the increase in children being sheltered, the program needs more volunteers, she added.
“Substance abuse is at the heart of most of our child maltreatments that result in children sheltered in both Manatee and Sarasota counties,” Shingledecker said. “How did we get here?”
Shingledecker reminded the crowd of the height of the pill mill epidemic with Florida as its epicenter.
“So what took the place of the pain pills? Heroin,” Shingledecker said. “Not just any heroin will do. It’s heroin laced with fentanyl.”
The consequence in Manatee County has been a spike in overdoses, she said. As of Oct. 31, Manatee County has recorded 536 overdoses this year, she said.
Shingledecker cited the tragedies during home invasions when parents are drug dealers as one of many examples of how substance abuse affects children. She referred specifically to the slayings in July of Esther Deneus and her boyfriend, Kantral Markeith Brooks, in their Bradenton home in front of their children.
“The faces of child abuse and neglect we saw here today are reminders of how critical our work in child protection is,” Shingledecker said. “These faces of joy and hope for the future are a testament to how much your support means to the children and families we serve.”
Shingledecker concluded by quoting scholar Forest Witcraft, becoming emotional in the process.
“One hundred years from now, it will not matter what your bank account was, the sort of house you lived in or the kind of car your drove,” Shingledecker said as she choked back tears. “But the world may be different because you were important in the life of a child.”
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter@JDeLeon1012.