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DCF defends handling child abuse case

Authorities say that twice in one day neighbors returned a woman's wandering children. The third time, one boy drowned.

Published October 1, 2005

RIDGE MANOR - It would seem the worst circumstance a mother could imagine: Her 2-year-old son was missing, last seen in a nearby pond.

Melissa Williams watched that Friday afternoon as a sheriff's deputy pulled Preston Quillen's tiny, lifeless body from the water.

Just then, she surprised the deputy with an odd question:

Did he need anything else from her, or could she leave to change her other son's diaper?

Williams has been charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child by culpable negligence, a first-degree felony, after her son's Sept. 16 drowning. She also was charged with child abuse for her alleged neglect that day of another son, 3-year-old Thomas Quillen.

The boys had slipped out of the mobile home twice earlier on the day Preston drowned. Both times, neighbors found the boys playing near U.S. Highway 301 and returned them. Williams told investigators she went to sleep on a couch before the third time, which is when Preston drowned.

Hernando County sheriff's Deputy Scott Reak recalled Williams' comment in a state Department of Children and Families report.

It's one of several revelations that emerged from an internal review released Friday by the DCF, the state's child welfare agency.

The DCF states the case "was handled appropriately by DCF Child Protective Investigators" who had visited the home as recently as Sept. 12 and Sept. 14, days before Preston drowned.

Agency officials said they had been planning to file a dependency petition on all children in the household when Preston drowned. The petition would have allowed the court to make mandatory decisions on the children's welfare, including removing them from the home.

The report notes "an effort was made to improve the family's quality of life and ensure a safe environment for the children living in the home" on Johnny B Road, just north of the Hernando-Pasco county line.

"Smoke detectors (and) locks were installed ... to keep the children from wandering away unsupervised. ... Unfortunately, none of the intensive services and precautions was able to prevent the tragic death (of Preston)."

A DCF investigator toured the home once detectives released it as a crime scene after Preston's drowning. She noted that the front door would not stay latched, and the boys could have slipped out even without unchaining it. The back door had no additional locks other than the one on the doorknob.

The DCF has removed Thomas from the home. The landlord has served Williams and John Quillen with an eviction notice.

In November 2004, the agency began investigating how Williams and the boys' father, John Presley Quillen, were caring for Preston.

The report includes numerous statements from neighbors and others who visited the home and reported inappropriate activities and an unclean environment.

Among those statements:

--John Quillen said that he would drink about 40 beers each weekend, and he often would give 3-year-old Thomas "half a bottle of beer to drink because he thinks it is cute and because (Thomas) likes it."

--Dirty dishes crawling with maggots often were piled on the kitchen table and in the sink. Williams would place the maggot-covered dishes in the oven when she knew the DCF planned to visit.

--Williams and John Quillen were seen outside their home at 3 a.m. with Thomas and Preston, who wore nothing but diapers.

"As soon as we got those complaints, we responded to them immediately and an investigation had begun; the system was working," DCF District 13 spokesman Al Zimmerman said.

"The last thing you want to do is separate a child from their parents. It appears that a lot of these problems or alleged problems were resolved."

According to the report, two sheriff's detectives interviewed Williams about four hours after Preston drowned. Before they entered the room where she was sitting, they noted, "it appeared the mother finally was ... crying over her deceased child. It appeared also that she was talking to herself."

In the interview, she told the detectives about falling asleep a few times that day and not putting the chain lock on the door.

The last time she did, she recalled, she awoke to Thomas standing over her, saying "Mommy, mommy, Preston is going for a swim."

A neighbor who said she had repeatedly reported concerns about the children to the DCF questioned whether enough had been done to protect them.

"If DCF did everything it could, I would like to know why Preston Quillen is dead," neighbor Christina Carpenter said.

She said that while the DCF investigators visited the house numerous times, "coming out and doing something are two separate things."

"If you make a mistake, the best thing to do is own up to it," Carpenter said. "Sweeping it under the rug is not making the system better."

--Staff writer Jamal Thalji and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Rick Gershman can be reached at Mary Spicuzza can be reached at or 352 848-1432.

[Last modified October 1, 2005, 01:45:17]

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