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5-year-old Kayla to remain in foster care


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 1998

TAMPA -- Kayla Bennett, the 5-year-old sister of shooting victim Joey Bennett, will stay in a foster home while the state Department of Children and Families determines which, if any, of her relatives should care for her.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke on Tuesday allowed state officials to shelter Kayla until July 9.

Behnke also gave state officials extra time to decide whether to petition to have Kayla declared dependent, a first step in Florida's lengthy process of determining whether to terminate a parent's rights to raise a child.

Child welfare officials put Kayla in protective custody May 19, the day her 4-year-old brother died when he was shot in the head.

During the police investigation into the shooting, Hank Earl Carr -- the boyfriend of the children's mother -- unlocked his handcuffs with a hidden key, grabbed a gun and killed police detectives Randy Bell and Ricky Childers. Carr then carjacked a pickup truck and fled up Interstate 275. He killed Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James B. Crooks while fleeing and held a woman hostage for several hours before committing suicide in Hernando County.

Under Florida law, officials had to file a dependency petition within seven days of sheltering Kayla. Those seven days ended Tuesday, but Behnke gave them another 10 days.

"We're just trying to find the best place we can for her, and the place where she'll be the most adjusted and happy," said Julie Scott, an attorney with the Florida Attorney General's Office, which represents the Department of Children and Families. "Seven days is not very long to investigate a case of this nature."

During a brief hearing, Scott said Kayla's mother, Bernice Bowen, "failed to protect" her children on the day of the shootings and exposed them to physical abuse at Carr's hands and to a household full of guns.

Scott also outlined allegations that Kayla and Joey were put at risk by their maternal grandmother, Connie Bowen of Marietta, Ohio.

Connie Bowen had legal custody of the children under a 1995 agreement approved by an Ohio judge. Scott said Bernice and Connie Bowen reportedly reached the custody agreement because Bernice had a drug problem. Later, according to Florida officials, Connie Bowen allowed her daughter to bring the children to Florida because she was "doing better" with her problem.

But Scott also said Connie Bowen didn't like Hank Carr and warned her daughter not to leave the children with him. She also said Carr and Bernice Bowen stole a car from Connie Bowen at some point for a trip to Florida.

There was also testimony Tuesday that the 10-year-old son of Connie Bowen's husband, Michael, was taken into foster care in Ohio after allegations of physical abuse were made against Michael Bowen.

During the hearing, attorneys for Connie and Bernice Bowen briefly denied the allegations, but made no comment afterward. Connie Bowen, in a dark dress, sobbed heavily during the hearing, comforted by a man identified as her husband. Both she and the man left without talking to reporters, as did Bernice Bowen.

Andy Steingold, a Tampa lawyer appointed to represent Connie Bowen, said two aunts, Rose Hayes of Ohio and Juanita Thomas of West Virginia, also could take care of Kayla.

Behnke made no ruling regarding the girl's permanent custody, but said only that the state should have time to finish its investigation of the family's background.

"The law and the court favors family placement if it's appropriate," Behnke said. "Sometimes it's not."

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