Clarissa Johnson says she never found the perfect home for the ashes of her first child, Michael, who was born three months premature and died from complications of a bowel obstruction.
Now after four years, the 20-year-old Lakeland woman must deal with the ashes of another son, Zachary, who police say was violently shaken to death while in the temporary care of his maternal aunt and her husband, Mysti and Matthew Wyrosdick.
Prosecutors on Thursday upgraded charges against Matthew Wyrosdick to aggravated manslaughter of a child, a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. He is being held in the Polk County jail in lieu of $100,000 bail.
Johnson was at a loss for words Thursday to describe her emotions over the death of her youngest son, Zachary, a precocious toddler taken from her eight months ago after she and her husband, Gene, were jailed on July 26 and were charged with stealing a car and money from an elderly relative.
Zachary's death on March 13 from injuries suffered a day earlier has been the focus of an investigation by law enforcement and the Department of Children & Families, whose errors in the case are outlined in a 14-page summary included with some 500 pages of DCF documents
released Tuesday to the public.
Among those errors - DCF took too long to reunite Zachary and his brother, Austin, 2, with the Johnsons.
DCF also faults staff members at Educare Early Learning Center in South Lakeland who photographed numerous marks and bruises on Zachary while the boy was in temporary custody but never alerted authorities of their concerns.
A decision by DCF whether to suspend or revoke the day care's license, or to fine the facility, was still pending late Thursday afternoon.
Johnson said Thursday that after she and her husband were released from jail Sept. 12, they worked hard to hasten the return of their children, who were scheduled to come home sometime in April, roughly nine months after they were separated.
"We had already finished our case plan," she said. "We had stable housing and income."
The children were placed in the care of Clarissa Johnson's sister and brother-in-law in Lakeland shortly after the Johnsons were jailed last summer. The placement was made by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in an unusual arrangement.
Hillsborough is one of only about seven Florida counties in which a law enforcement agency, rather than DCF, provides child protective investigations (CPIs), said DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner.
"It's a unique system of care," she said.
Ultimately, Circuit Judge Rex Barbas of Hillsborough County approved a plan giving temporary custody of Zachary and Austin to the Wyrosdicks, despite objections of a DCF CPI in Polk, Hoeppner said.
The Polk CPI's concerns of inadequate income and Matthew Wyrosdick's 2002 charge for soliciting a prostitute were overruled, according to a DCF review.
Because the Johnsons were arrested in Hillsborough, the case was handled in that county.
One of the more egregious missteps in the case, according to DCF's review, was for workers at Zachary's day care to ignore a state law mandating child care personnel to immediately report suspicions of child abuse and neglect to the Florida Abuse Hotline System.
Between Jan. 9 and Feb. 18, workers at Educare Early Learning Center took 17 photographs of Zachary showing bruises and scratches on his face and head.
Those pictures didn't surface until after the boy was severely injured March 12 at the Wyrosdicks' home, Hoeppner said. That same day, Clarissa Johnson notified a child protective services manager of her son's injuries, initiating an investigation that led to the discovery of the pictures.
Without admitting wrongdoing, Ryan Hamaker, owner of Educare Early Learning Center, told The Ledger he's cooperating with the ongoing investigation into Zachary's death.
"We're not prepared to say too much now (but) we have nothing to hide," he said. "We are going to reach out to the media at some point. Safety is our primary concern."
Clarissa Johnson said Thursday that she noticed marks and bruises on Zachary during her visitations at her sister's home. "I asked my sister, 'How did he get bruises?' But Zachary was clumsy," she said. "He always walked around, falling and stuff," so concerns were dismissed.
Johnson said she's been urged by DCF to get counseling to deal with her son's death, but she'd rather not. "We have to do what they say, even though we don't want counseling," she said.
The loss hurts most at home, Johnson said, "because we have his pictures all over."
A memorial service for Zachary will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. at Willow Oak Baptist Church in Mulberry. His ashes will be placed in a double urn along with those of his brother Michael. Clarissa Johnson said she hasn't yet decided where the remains will be kept.