The unexpected death of a 5-year old girl while in protective custody has launched an internal affairs investigation by the Pinellas County Sheriffs Office. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri admitted Thursday that neither the girl, identified as Elizabeth Holder, nor her 2-year old sister received health screenings within 72 hours of being removed from their home, as required by state law.
"Make no mistake about it, this is our failure, we own it, and I can only hope that that failure did not contribute to her death," Gualtieri said.
Neighbors told FOX 13 News they became concerned after seeing 34-year-old Stephanie Judah leave their Clearwater mobile home park with the younger girl, leaving Elizabeth unattended. They looked after the 5 year old and confronted Judah when she returned.
"We're all mothers, we're all parents, so we were very concerned that this little girl could have gotten taken, she could have got ran over, she could have got really hurt and the mother seemed completely not interested," Maria Galvan said.
Another neighbor called child protective investigators, and Judah was charged with child neglect. Gualtieri said Judah and the girls' father both appeared to be under the influence of prescription medications.
That was on January 11th. Under Florida law, both girls should have received medical examinations within 72 hours, or by January 14th. The sheriff said doctors appointments were made that day, but not completed.
On January 19th, while in protective custody, Elizabeth began to scream.
"About 4 o'clock in the afternoon, Elizabeth was watching TV in the family room of the residence and she grabbed her head, and as she grabbed her head she began to scream, ‘it hurts it hurts it hurts, somebody stop somebody stop.' And the next thing that happened is Elizabeth went limp and then she went into cardiac arrest," Gualtieri said.
He stressed her death appears to be a medical event, and there were no signs of foul play.
"There is absolutely no sign of trauma to Elizabeth, there's no sign of physical injury, there's no sign of abuse, there's no sign of mistreatment, there's no sign of anything," Gualtieri said.
Would getting the medical exam have prevented her death?
"[It] should have been done sooner and then of course the question that I don't know the answer to is, would it have made a difference and prevented her death?" Gualtieri said, adding "I don't know and we may never know the answer to that."
The cause of Elizabeth Holder's death may be revealed in a final autopsy report, which is not expected to be complete for several more weeks. In the meantime, an internal affairs investigation will determine how sheriff's personnel and procedures failed to comply with Florida law, what if any disciplinary actions are warranted, and what changes can prevent similar lapses in the future.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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