Brayden Howard was alive Sept. 20 when a caseworker, alarmed by drug paraphernalia found in his family’s Jupiter Farms home, strapped the 5-month-old in her car and headed south to the home of an “aunt.”
By March, he was dead — about eight days after he was found whimpering in his crib, a blanket wrapped around his neck. Fort Lauderdale police have opened a criminal investigation, but autopsy results are not final, and there is no determination of whether his death involved wrongdoing. No one has been charged in the 11-month-old’s death.
Regardless, it has raised questions about how state and Broward County Sheriff’s Office caseworkers failed to protect him. A Florida Department of Children and Families review of the case found caseworkers violated even basic policies.
They placed him in the home of a woman with 11 abuse allegations and a misdemeanor drug conviction. They mistakenly believed she was a relative. She wasn’t. Brayden’s great uncle, a convicted drug trafficker, did live in the home but had made it clear to caseworkers that he would not take care of the infant.
The caseworker’s assessment of the home “contained inaccurate information, was incomplete and did not provide a thorough assessment of the home environment,” DCF concluded in its review that sharply criticized child welfare workers involved in the case.
“This is an incredibly tragic case that weighs heavily on our hearts,” Department Secretary Mike Carroll said in a statement to The Palm Beach Post. “We are even more saddened to learn of the shortcomings by DCF and the Broward Sheriff’s Office child protective investigators that were brought to light by this report.”
Brayden’s mother, Savannah Howard, puts the loss of her son in plainer language.
“We had our whole life together, and now I have nothing but a teddy bear,” she said.
Brayden’s 11-month life
Three times in the first months of his life, Palm Beach County deputies were called to the Jupiter Farms home where Brayden lived with his mother, grandmother and great-grandparents. Each time, they found Brayden healthy and unharmed.
Even during deputies’ final visit to the home, when they found drug paraphernalia under a bathroom sink and decided to remove Brayden, the little boy looked like any other happy, healthy infant, sheriff’s records indicate.
Brayden Lee William Howard was born March 30, 2016, into a family whose history was intermittently rocked by drugs and alleged involvement in high-profile crimes.
He spent his first days of life in St. Mary’s Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit with drug withdrawal symptoms, records show. The newborn tested positive for benzodiazepines, opiates, marijuana and buprenorphine, which is used to treat opioid addiction. There wasn’t enough of a sample, though, to confirm those results, sheriff’s records state.
First-time mother Savannah Howard, 22, didn’t learn she was pregnant until she was five months and two weeks along, she told The Post. She explained to sheriff’s authorities in April 2016 that she’d tried to kick a drug habit, but rehabilitation centers turned her away because she was pregnant.
Local drug treatment options for pregnant women are limited. The cost of caring for their drug-addicted infants, though, is high. In 2015, Florida’s Medicaid program was billed nearly $1 billion for the care of drug-addicted newborns.
Brayden’s mother managed to stay clean for the last month of her pregnancy, though, and was allowed to take home her newborn.
In May, sheriff’s deputies were at the Jupiter Farms home Howard shared with her mother and grandparents. Her grandmother had called deputies after an argument with Howard over whether she should take the baby out for a walk. The older woman told deputies: “I’m sorry. I’m old and I worry. I shouldn’t have called you guys.”
Brayden, the deputy wrote, was fine.
Two weeks later Howard was caught stealing Pampers diapers and wipes, as well as food and baby formula, from the Jupiter Walmart. She told Jupiter police she was short on cash and suffering from postpartum depression. She got pre-trial diversion for the retail theft charge.
In June, Howard’s grandfather called deputies to their home after Howard reportedly threatened to harm herself.
Howard told deputies who took her to Jupiter Medical Center,“I really appreciate you guys helping me out. I’m going to clean myself up and do this for my little baby.”
DCF’s investigation after Brayden’s death concluded the baby should have been taken from his mother then. But sheriff’s records again found that the baby, who was being fed a bottle by his grandmother, appeared fine.
Three months later, while Howard fed her nearly 6-month-old son lunch, a DCF investigator and Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door. They were acting on a tip that Howard was using drugs, according to the police report. They headed toward a bathroom sink connected to the room Savannah shared with her son. There they found pieces of aluminum foil, cut-up pen and razor, and a Brillo pad, which could be taken as signs of crack cocaine use, sheriff’s records state.
The condition of the cluttered home and drug paraphernalia prompted the DCF investigator to take Brayden immediately.
A tearful Howard offered to move out of the house if Brayden could be left in the home with his relatives. But DCF’s concerns that someone else in the home could possibly be using drugs meant Brayden couldn’t stay.
No one faces criminal charges in that case, according to sheriff’s records.
The investigator drove the baby to Safe Place, an emergency intake and assessment center, while authorities investigated whether a relative’s Fort Lauderdale home would be a good temporary placement.
Howard suggested her young son stay with an “aunt” in Fort Lauderdale. Tatrisha Williams, who was dating Savannah’s uncle, was familiar with the child welfare system, as she’d recently gained custody of her grandson. Savannah figured Williams’ would be a good temporary home for the baby.
The Palm Beach County child protective investigator who took Brayden from his Jupiter Farms home ran Williams’ name through the state’s abuse information system. But the investigator had the wrong identifying information for Williams.
Consequently crucial information was not found: The 39-year-old woman who would take care of Brayden had 11 abuse allegations from 1999 to 2014.
DCF declined to comment on those allegations, citing a state statute that keeps abuse allegations from public view. Williams told The Post the allegations were unfounded. Some, she said, stemmed from a messy break-up. And there is no record of any criminal case being filed in any abuse allegation.
“Any caretaker history in the child welfare system is an important factor to consider in determining appropriate child placement,” DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims said.
DCF did not realize the allegations against Williams, though. As a result, that information was not included in a required safety assessment of Brayden’s new temporary home.
Because Williams lived in Broward County, the Palm Beach investigator requested a Broward County Sheriff’s Office child protective investigator complete the study.
Broward County child welfare investigators are part of the county sheriff’s office. Though they are subject to the same training, laws and procedures as state investigators, DCF does not have authority to govern or oversee their operations.
State guidelines, which Broward County investigators follow, recommend a child welfare investigator juggle no more than 15 cases at once.
Brayden’s, however, was the third case the Broward County investigator was assigned that day.
She had 37 open cases at the start of September and picked up 20 more, including Brayden’s, throughout the month.
The number of open cases investigators handle fluctuates day-to-day. Broward County Sheriff’s authorities emphasized in an emailed statement to The Post that the 15 open cases at one time suggestion is just that, a recommendation.
“The (investigator’s) workload may have impacted her ability to complete a thorough home study,” DCF’s review concluded.
That study had major flaws. For one thing, the relationship of Williams to Brayden “was completely inaccurate,” the agency found. She was the girlfriend of Brayden’s great uncle, not enough to be considered a relative by DCF standards.
State records show that in 2004 Williams pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and was sentenced to one year probation. The next year she pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended license.
Williams’ brushes with the law “could have implications for child safety,” DCF concluded in its report. None, though, disqualified her from caring for Brayden, and the child welfare investigator assigned to Brayden’s case wrote that, “there were no concerns with the caregiver’s ability to care for the child.”
Brayden’s great-uncle also lived in the home. However, he declined to be Brayden’s primary caregiver, DCF records state.
As a result, any concerns over his more serious criminal convictions, which included federal drug crimes, were not a factor in placing Brayden. Regardless, state law only considers drug convictions from within the last five years as disqualifications for a potential caregiver.
John Timothy Armstrong’s first stint in federal prison came in the 1980s for his role in a marijuana smuggling operation and for possessing cocaine.
Armstrong’s stepfather, Brayden’s great-grandfather, was a third generation Palm Beach police officer who allegedly tipped off his stepson to the federal investigation into the younger man’s drug activity, authorities said at the time. By the early 1980s George Drowne had risen to the rank of lieutenant, which Armstrong reportedly bragged about.
Drowne and his wife Joan — Brayden’s great-grandparents — watched with Armstrong as the U.S. Coast Guard towed Armstrong’s fishing boat to shore, laughing, a confidential information told federal authorities, “because the Coast Guard did not realize they were towing bales of marijuana.”
Drowne was fired from the island’s police force after a July 1981 SWAT team raid of his Jupiter-area home turned up dozens of guns, including Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifles, as well as marijuana and hashish. Weapon and drugs charges against Drowne and his wife, however, were thrown out.
In the 1990s, Armstrong would be back in federal court for his role in cocaine smuggling operations in South Florida that had ties to the Medellin cartel. Armstrong was among a group of men accused of bringing drugs into South Florida on water scooters.
He served 11 years in federal prison on a dozen cocaine-related convictions.
Armstrong would have another run-in with the law in 2010 when he was picked up by Fort Lauderdale police on grand theft and burglary charges. He was found guilty and sentenced to 2 1/2 years probation. He was arrested again in 2014 for violating probation by failing to pay restitution to his probation officer.
It took roughly six weeks and repeated emails sent by Palm Beach County child welfare authorities before the Broward County investigator sent the signed home study and completed background checks. Brayden had already lived in the home a month by the time the investigator requested fingerprint scans for each of the adults in the home.
When an investigator checked in on Williams and Brayden in December, the woman appeared overwhelmed, though DCF records don’t specify exactly how.
But no one discussed whether Brayden should continue to live in the Fort Lauderdale home or move back in with his mother.
“There was a lack of attempts to engage the mother and to reconcile self-reported information such as her participation in substance abuse treatment,” the DCF review found.
A completed home study wasn’t filed with the courts until Feb. 23 — two days after Williams found Brayden whimpering in his crib, a blanket around his neck.
Machines kept Brayden alive for eight days. On March 1, a month shy of his first birthday, he died.
Williams declined to talk about Brayden’s death while the Fort Lauderdale police investigate.
As of late May, the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office hasn’t determined a cause of death. But Brayden had symptoms of bronchitis before he was found in his crib, his mother told The Post.
Marsha Guthrie, an officer in Palm Beach County Children’s Services Council, said respiratory illnesses in particular can cause complications for children as they sleep, and that even children who can roll over and stand up in their cribs can become tangled in loose items, such as blankets.
Sleep-related circumstances were the most common cause of children’s deaths last year in Florida, DCF’s child fatality database shows.
DCF’s internal review into Brayden’s case concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to link the child welfare investigators’ involvement with Brayden directly to the circumstances of his death.
And any inaccuracies in the home study were not made intentionally, Broward County sheriff’s authorities said Friday morning in a statement to The Post. Neither the investigator nor her supervisor was disciplined regarding the case. The sheriff’s office did not respond to The Post’s request for the employees’ names and personnel files by press time.
Records indicate that caseworkers wanted to keep Brayden out of “licensed care,” meaning a foster home or shelter. Caseworkers first look to relatives to house children as part of the state’s emphasis on “engaging families in constructive, supportive and non-adversarial relationships.”
John Walsh, supervising attorney for Palm Beach County’s Juvenile Advocacy Project, called it a money-driven policy that doesn’t always put children’s best interests first.
“I can say with almost certainty that if the child had an attorney, we would have objected to the placement,” Walsh said.
Emergency home studies, like the one conducted on the Fort Lauderdale home, often aren’t thorough enough to ensure a child’s safety, Walsh said.
Baby’s death brings changes
Brayden’s death and the shortcomings pointed out in the review prompted change in the Broward Sheriff’s Office Child Protective Investigations Section. Six investigators and one supervisor now handle Broward County’s “out of town inquiries,” with the idea of funneling all out-of-county requests through one unit.
Brayden’s mother said she looks at pictures of her baby every day. Some days, she said, they make her smile. Other days all she can do is cry.
Change in child welfare needs to occur, Howard said, “for other little babies like Brayden.”
Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.