Cape Toddler’s Death: Attorney says child services has trouble tracking families

Reporter: Anika Henanger Writer: Jack Lowenstein
Published: Updated:
Ryan O'Leary and Sheila O'Leary. (Credit Lee County Sheriff's Office.)
Ryan O’Leary and Sheila O’Leary. (Credit Lee County Sheriff’s Office.)

The mother and father of an 18-month-old boy were arrested for his untimely death due to starvation in Cape Coral recently. The mother was already on the radar of social services in Virginia. And an attorney we spoke to said it’s hard for child services nationwide to track families who are constantly moving across state lines.

The state attorney’s officer charged Ryan and Sheila O’Leary for the death of their 18-month-old son.

The question neighbors want answered is how no one knew a little boy who lived in their neighborhood was hungry.

Sheila was already under review by child and family services in Virgina, but they left the state. And Florida Department of Children & Families likely was not aware of the case they had for the O’Leary family.

“A family can pick up at any time and move,” said Attorney Kevin Seaver, who has worked many cases involving DCF.

In Seaver’s experience, he said DCF in every state is usually overloaded, and it’s hard for agents to keep track of families who decide to leave the state.

“It’s hard enough for them to take care of all the children they have in their own state,” Seaver said.

We know DCF in Virgina became involved with Sheila when it feared her oldest daughter, who is 11 years old, suffered from malnutrition. Seaver posed questions such as, “How would they know? Did they get notice form Virginia? Was the family forthright?”

“Florida has to do the due diligence,” Seaver said. “But they’ve got enough cases in their own home state, let alone cases coming from another state to figure that out. It’s a tough system.”

Seaver explained, when DCF itself moves children across state lines, the law requires constant communication. But that was not the case with Sheila O’Leary.

Ryan and Sheila have three other children. Their two youngest daughters, 5 years old and 3 years old, were both found malnourished when police responded to their Cape Coral home and found their 18-month-old little boy dead. The girls are both in the care of Florida DCF. Their oldest, the 11-year-old, is not Ryan’s biological child. She is now in the care of his biological father.

Ryan and Sheila both faces charges for Aggravated Manslaughter of a Child (Neglect), Child Neglect Causing Great Bodily Harm and Child Neglect Without Great Bodily Harm.

FGCU’s Abbe Finn told us parents with histories of neglect often move around. That’s why it’s up to neighbors, co-workers and anyone else to report when they see signs of neglect or abuse. Finn said signs to look for include children avoiding eye contact, not speaking with other kids, decaying teeth and appearing weak.

“The authorities or someone starts noticing what’s going on with the family,” Finn said. “So the family moves, and it’s just staying one step ahead of the law.”

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