Recently I filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the parents of Elizabeth Holder against Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. Elizabeth Holder was taken into involuntary custody by the Pinellas County Sherriff’s office on January 11, 2013, and died eight days.
Elizabeth Holder died from a case of untreated tonsillitis. The Medical Examiners office lists the official cause of death as a heart ailment that was aggravated by her tonsillitis. But in the suit we dispute the Medical Exminer’s findings. I have seen the additional results of a cardiovascular pathologist who examined tissue samples from Elizabeth’s heart for the Medical Examiner’s Office and he found there was no clinically significant indication the girl died of a heart ailment.
Elizabeth Holder died from lack of oxygen to her brain because her throat was swollen and she couldn’t breathe. What is not in dispute is that after she was taken into custody, Elizabeth never received a medical screening, which is required by Florida law, and must be performed within 72 hours. Even a cursory medical evaluation would have detected her tonsillitis. When I asked a doctor how simple it is to check patients for the illness he told me “have them open their mouth and say ‘Ahhhhh.’”
Pinellas Sherriff Bob Gualtieri has acknowledged that his office violated the state requirement by not providing a medical screening. An inquiry after Elizabeth’s death revealed that it isn’t the first time the sheriff’s Child Protection Investigation Division has ignored this law. In 2012, 884 children and198 did not receive medical screenings within the required 72-hour period. The Sherriff’s office has offered no explanation of why they disregarded the law, but Elizabeth’s caseworker, Pamela Wilson, was fired when it was discovered she had intentionally omitted and misrepresented the facts of what happened during the investigation and failed to enter notes regarding Elizabeth’s removal from her home.
A little girl has died because the system broke down and neglected her, yet the Sherriff’s department is apparently still not willing to accept responsibility for her death. Elizabeth’s constitutionally guaranteed due process rights were violated. Had this child been given the proper medical care required by law when she was taken into custody, she would still be alive today.