Pinellas Sheriff calls for changes to procedures after 5 year-old dies in foster care

Internal investigation

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is reviewing procedures after a 5-year-old died while under care by a foster family.  Deputies had removed the child from her mother's care earlier this month, but failed to get a health screening.


On January 11, deputies arrested Stephanie Judah on charges of child neglect.  Deputies say they got a call about a child wandering unsupervised around the Gulf to Bay Mobile Home Park.


Kristine Hart has known Judah for a couple months and says she's always been concerned about her neighbor's children.  She called 911 that day, fearing the kids were in danger.  Hart said, "She was outside yelling and screaming, and we heard her inside with the kids."


Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says Judah was under the influence of prescription medication. He says her house was dirty and unfit for kids. Deputies eventually placed her child, Elizabeth Holder, in foster care.


Under the law, a child is supposed to have a health screening within 72 hours after being removed from their family. He says for unknown reasons, Elizabeth did not.


On January 18, she was taken to a babysitter, and started to feel pain.  Sheriff Gualtieri said, "She grabbed her head and as she grabbed her head, she began to scream that it hurts! It hurts! It hurts! Somebody stop! Somebody stop! And the next thing that happened is Elizabeth went limp. Then she went into cardiac arrest."


The child was taken to a hospital, where she died. Sheriff Gualtieri says there were no signs of trauma or abuse. But, he says, the fact that Elizabeth didn't have a medical screening is his responsibility.  "This falls squarely on me. This falls squarely on us at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and again, there's absolutely no indication of any wrongdoing whatsoever by the foster parent or by the baby sitter."


The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office will work with contracted pediatric medical providers to make sure children receive their screenings.


Sheriff Gualtieri says the ultimate question is if the screening would have made a difference. The autopsy could take 60 to 90 days.

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