JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Since Lonzie Barton's blue eyes and blonde hair captured the hearts of the Jacksonville community more than six months ago, several other children have met or almost met similar tragic ends around the area.
According to his mother's boyfriend, Lonzie, 21 months old, drowned in a bathtub after the couple locked him in a bathroom. The boyfriend, Ruben Ebron, pleaded guilty Friday to aggravated manslaughter in the boy's death and will serve 20 years in prison.
David Dingler, 3, was found unresponsive in a Westside home Tuesday night, almost beaten to death.
Aiden McClendon, 22 months old, was killed last week in a drive-by shooting on the city’s Eastside.
Charli Lee, 9 months old, was found unresponsive at an Orange Park hotel Thursday in the care of her mother’s boyfriend. She died later at the hospital. No one has been arrested, and an exact cause of death is still undetermined, police said.
Each child's beautiful face remains a haunting reminder of the dangers of violence or even negligence.
“We look at how we deal with our children as a barometer for how we view life,” said Pastor Nathaniel McClain of Julington Baptist Church.
After Ebron pleaded guilty Friday, the face of the police search and investigation into the Lonzie's disappearance had strong words for parents.
In addition to giving details of the long search for Lonzie and details of the night Ebron led police to the boy's body, Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Chief of Investigations Tom Hackney made pointed comments to other parents:
"Things I shouldn't have to say: Don't hit your kids or shake your kids. If you find yourself in the means where you feel like you have to do that, count to 10, take a deep breath and don't. Cut them some slack; they're little. They make mistakes. Give them a break. If you don't want your kid(s) or can't care for them, find somebody who does. Don't leave your kids unattended anywhere. Not with a tub of water, not in the car, don't leave them unattended. Don't do drugs, first of all. But if you do them, don't do them around your kids. If you have kids and you leave them with somebody, know who you're leaving them with, know their criminal history, know what their background is. Don't just blindly accept people watching your kids."
Parenting experts said children aren't the only ones who need time outs. Sometimes parents or caregivers need to step away when emotions get charged before they do something they'll later regret.
Lynnea Maystrick, with Family Support Services, who is a mother of four, said parenting is tough, and even she needs help sometimes.
“If a person feels like they’re being attacked or manipulated into something, they’re not going to be as willing to look at the entire situation going on in their family," Maystrick said.
The Florida Department of Children and Families said it had no contact with Lonzie prior to his disappearance, but they are now conducting an independent death investigation.
"We share the community's heartbreak and mourn alongside everyone who cared for Lonzie," wrote Michelle Glady, DCF press secretary.
A local DCF spokesman released the following statement:
"Parents need to make smart choices about who they trust to be around their children and to watch their children. We would strongly recommend that all parents do background checks and online searches to find out more information about who they are bringing around their children. In many abuse and neglect cases, the perpetrator is someone other than the parent, such as the significant other, such as the boyfriend or girlfriend. More than 25 percent of child protective investigations in Florida involved a non-relative care-giver as the alleged perpetrator."
Checking someone's background is not difficult for anyone with Internet access. In the judicial circuit that includes Clay, Duval and Nassau counties, visit core.duvalclerk.com and click on a button at the bottom of the screen that says Public Access. You'll get a pop-up that allows you to search someone by name and any offense, from serious crimes to traffic tickets, will show up.
Hackney and other authorities encourage single parents to research a potential partner before allowing them into their lives, and especially before allowing them to watch their children.