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'Horrific sight': Polk County toddler died from starvation, weighed only 9 pounds

Child gained 1 ounce of weight in 2 years and 4 months, Judd said
Davenport child death investigation WFTS.png
Posted at 11:55 AM, May 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-13 05:49:00-04

DAVENPORT, Fla. — Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said two Davenport parents face charges after their nearly 3-year-old daughter died from starvation, weighing only nine pounds.

Judd said Arhonda Tillman, 35, and Regis Johnson, 57, are charged with aggravated child abuse. Judd said the little girl was born on July 25, 2019, and died on May 10.

Additionally, 61-year-old Frank Robinson is facing negligent child abuse and failure to report child abuse. Authorities said Robinson, Johnson's brother, was aware of the abuse taking place.

"Basically it was just bone and skin," Judd said of the little girl's condition, which he called a "horrific sight."

Judd said the victim was taken to a doctor for the last time on January 2, 2020, and, at that time, had gained three pounds since her birth.

"[She] was thriving," Judd said. "Between January the second in 2020, when the baby went to the doctor for the last time, and May the tenth 2022 — which was two years and four months — that sweet baby gained one ounce."

Judd said Johnson called 911 on Tuesday to report that the toddler wasn't breathing. First responders found her unresponsive in an inflatable pool that was being used as a makeshift playpen.

He added that Tillman told authorities she called 911 before but claimed they were busy.

The sheriff's office said Johnson and Tillman both claimed they tried to feed the toddler recently, but said she didn't want to eat. Johnson also claimed that the child had last seen a doctor in August 2021.

"That's just a bald-faced lie," Judd said, adding that a medical exam showed that the girl had "zero" food in her stomach.

Judd said the victim lay in a playpen made from an inflatable swimming pool and, "starved absolutely to death."

"When this baby died," Judd said. "She couldn't stand, she couldn't talk, she couldn't walk."

According to the sheriff's office, the toddler's pediatrician told detectives her last visit was in January 2020, which was her six-month check-up. The office said it attempted to make contact with the parents numerous times after that because there was a concern the little girl had Cystic Fibrosis.

The sheriff's office said its investigation revealed that DCF began a medical neglect investigation into Johnson and Tillman on December 10, 2019. DCF's investigation revealed the victim was consistently losing weight, and that Johnson and Tillman were not following up with appointments, the sheriff's office said.

Authorities said Johnson and Tillman complied with DCF instructions at the time and after several positive weight checks Johnson was told to follow up with the pediatrician and the DCF investigation was closed.

Judd said the pediatrician did the "thing he should have" and said there are investigations underway but said some information can't be released because it's protected by DCF regulations. Judd said authorities plan to charge the parents with the "appropriate murder charges" when the investigation allows.

"We've got to do medical investigations, the medical examiner has got to complete some work before we file those charges," Judd said. "But we got them into jail just as soon as we could."

He said the sheriff's office will lodge all the charges that the law allows for at the conclusion of the investigation.

"Our goal is she's never out of prison again. She won't get another chance to starve a child to death," Judd said. Tillman claimed to authorities that she is currently four months pregnant.

“This is egregious and should never have occurred," Judd said. "Because of the actions of these parents, this little girl will never have the opportunity to grow up. If parents don’t want their child, there are resources like Safe Place locations — fire stations, social service facilities, etc."

To learn more about Safe Place, click here.

Child advocacy experts told ABC Action News that there are some tools to prevent child abuse or neglect from happening in the first place.

Nikki Daniels, the Associate Director for Champions For Children in Tampa, said neglect and abuse often happen when parents are isolated and struggling to bond with their children.

She added that the stigma surrounding asking for help can keep people from reaching out.

"Our belief is and the research shows that if you are attached and bonded with your child, if you have love for your child you're not going to hurt your child and you're not going to let anyone else hurt your child," she said.

The organization offers a variety of services that range from things like parenting classes to child development classes and bonding activities.

Polk County toddler died from starvation, weighed only 9 pounds: Sheriff