Three weeks before his death, 7-year-old Gabriel Myers made a chilling threat: He said he wanted to kill himself — and another foster child in his Margate home.
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
Gabriel Myers returned home from school one day the last week of March with marks and bruises on his neck. Questioned by foster-care workers, he insisted a classmate had choked him. He later confessed: He had choked himself. And he said he would try to kill himself again, along with a toddler living in his foster home.
Three weeks later, Gabriel, 7 years old, hanged himself from a shower cord in the bathroom of his foster home in Margate. Now, Broward child welfare administrators are asking whether they could have done more to save the brown-haired youngster.
”When any child dies, it’s a horrible, horrible thing,” said Leslie Mann, spokeswoman for the Broward office of the state Department of Children & Families. “When we heard about it, our hearts were in our shoulders with sadness. The death of a 7-year-old boy is unfathomable.
”We are going to work tirelessly until we get to the bottom of this,” Mann said.
In the weeks before his death, Gabriel had been prescribed medications that have been linked to a heightened risk of suicidal behavior in children.
Gabriel’s foster care was overseen by ChildNet, a private agency under contract with DCF.
Said Emilio Benitez, ChildNet’s chief executive officer: “We feel terrible for the family. It’s just a tragedy.”
Benitez declined to discuss details of the boy’s case, citing the confidentiality of foster care, medical and mental health records in Florida.
According to sources with knowledge of the case, ChildNet administrators received a report in late March that Gabriel returned home from school with bruising around his neck. ”However, he tried to blame it on another student,” case notes say.
ChildNet workers called the mobile crisis unit from Henderson Mental Health, a Broward community mental health agency, to the boy’s foster home to evaluate whether he should be committed for psychiatric treatment, sources familiar with the records said.
Gabriel acknowledged to the crisis team that he was thinking about killing himself. What’s more, he said he wanted to kill the toddler who also was living in the foster home, sources said. But when the crisis team asked him how he planned to end his life, the youngster said he hadn’t thought it through that far.
”He told them he does not have a plan, but he would think about it,” said a source who reviewed the records.
The agency decided the boy did not meet the criteria under Florida’s involuntary-commitment law, called the Baker Act, to be placed in a mental hospital for evaluation, according to Jack Moss, DCF’s Broward chief. So the crisis team declined to commit him.
Officials at Henderson did not reply to a request from The Miami Herald to discuss the boy’s death.
Based on Gabriel’s threats involving the young boy who also lived at his foster home, ChildNet moved him to another foster home without young children, a knowledgeable source told The Miami Herald.
Benitez declined to discuss what measures were taken to protect Gabriel from himself.
On April 16, about three weeks after he showed up with the bruises, the boy hanged himself after arguing about lunch with the 19-year-old son of his foster father.
A story in Wednesday’s Miami Herald reported that Gabriel had been prescribed a cocktail of three psychiatric drugs in the weeks before he died. More recently, one or two of the medications had been discontinued, and a third drug prescribed.
Since at least March 11, Gabriel had been taking anti-depressant drugs that the Food and Drug Administration has said have been linked to an increased risk of ”suicidal thoughts or behaviors” in children.
”The department has a concern as to whether the drugs were appropriately prescribed in the first place,” said Moss, the Broward DCF chief. Earlier this week, Moss said child welfare workers still have unanswered questions about the drugs administered to Gabriel because Margate police took the foster home’s medication logs as part of their investigation.
On Wednesday, a Broward judge, acting on DCF’s petition, ordered that Gabriel’s foster-care records be released to The Miami Herald and other media that had requested them.
After the hearing, Moss said there appeared to have been good oversight and care for the child. But DCF was examining what drugs were prescribed to the boy leading up to his death.
Child-welfare experts said Wednesday that the state may have squandered what few opportunities were available to protect the boy from himself.
”We’ve seen children as young as 5 kill themselves,” said Ronald Davidson, director of mental health policy at the department of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Children don’t plan the same way as an adult would. They are impulsive. A child’s idea cannot be compared to an adult’s idea of a plan.”
Davidson said Gabriel should have been committed the first time he told authorities he wanted to kill himself.
Cheleene B. Schembera, a 27-year child welfare administrator and inspector general at DCF, who now works as a consultant, said foster care workers could have placed Gabriel in a home or facility in which he was under constant watch.
”If Henderson had valid reasons to reject him, or not taking him into a crisis stabilization unit, it would have been incumbent on ChildNet to get one-on-one supervision, round-the-clock supervision, and get him access to appropriate treatment as expeditiously as possible,” Schembera said.
”If they took steps to remove the threat to other children,” Schembera said, “it begs the question: why not remove the threat he posed to himself?”
Miami Herald staff writers Michael Vasquez and Diana Moskovitz contributed to this report.