For the children of Tiffany Berry over the last five years, it has been a long and unending odyssey between homelessness, shabby housing, filth, sickness and fear. And Berry, 31, brought two more children into that world in the last three years, for a total of five.
The Department of Children and Families has been making report after report about the family, the Flagler County school district has been providing ceaseless help–and alerting DCF to the older children’s deplorable conditions on many occasions, as they’d show up at Bunnell Elementary at times with roaches in their backpacks, smelling of urine, being covered in bug bites and reporting being left alone and in fear at night while their parents worked. They’d even hide from DCF officials who’d knock at the door when the parents weren’t home. There’d be times when drunkards would knock at the door, looking for Carter.
But despite a series of offers of assistance, most recently in December, through the Northeast Florida Community Action Agency, conditions haven’t changed.
Saturday morning a Flagler County school district official requested that deputies make the latest “welfare check” on the several children at the house at 72 Espanola Road, where the district had gotten a report of sewage backing up into the home.
Five children were at the house, ages 12, 11, 7, 3 and 2. Nicholas Carter is the 34-year-old father of two of the five children. Berry showed a deputy around the property, showing a collapsed and no longer functioning septic tank where waste had accumulated and continued to receive waste from the house. Inside, the deputy was confronted with “a strong smell of mold” in a house where the front portion of the ceiling, near the entrance, was missing. In the kitchen, “the floor was giving way to the bare ground below where the sewage was being discharged,” a sheriff’s report states.
The only bathroom in the house was also missing its roof, exposing rotten wet wood “covered in mold.” The tub had settled below the flooring of the house. “The flooring was gaping in some areas, allowing the smell of the waste dumped below to be inhaled,” the report states. There was “general filth” and live and dead bugs in the parents’ bedroom, shared by the two youngest children.
The children’s mother conceded that the conditions in the house were potentially harmful to the children, who she said had several times stepped in holes in the flooring. She said the children were often sick. At least one of the children has mental health issues. She blamed the landlord, who was taking the $650-a-month rent but was refusing to make any repairs while the Department of Children and Families had allegedly told her to move.
The family was poor, but not destitute–neither of social services nor of money or social assistance: Carter reported income of $2,600 a month between his and Berry’s salary, plus $900 in food stamps. The federal poverty line for a family of seven is $39,640. The family was below the poverty line monetarily, but not when food stamps are calculated.
Deputies called in health department officials to assess the unsanitary conditions of the house. A social worker deputies contacted said she’d been helping the family for years, but that it was the parents’ responsibility to follow through on suggestions.
A school district social worker told deputies she’d been working with the family since 2016, when the family was essentially rescued out of homelessness. They were living in a tent, where at least one of the children was scared to step out and use the bathroom at night. Berry turned down the offer of 12 months’ transitional housing to go live with a boyfriend in South Florida, only to be rejected from there. The family eventually ended up at the house in Espanola, which drew an abuse report to DCF as far back as 2018 over sanitary issues–and a dog and eight puppies living in the house. The school district was clothing the family then and still clothes the children now, after they show up at Bunnell Elementary in filth. Additional reports went to DCF.
On Saturday, the children’s parents–Berry, 34, and Nicholas Carter, 34, who’d provided for the family by working at McDonald’s–were both arrested and charged with felony child neglect. A Flagler County building inspector assessed the house and today was to deem it unlivable, and condemn it. Animal Control was contacted to take control of two dogs and a cat. And the Department of Children and Families took custody of the children.
“I am so happy that we were able to get these kids out of this house before someone was injured or became seriously ill as a result of the deplorable conditions inside the home,” Sheriff Rick Staly said. “Between the mold, the unstable foundation, and the fact that these kids were being left unsupervised, this situation could have had a tragic ending. These two ‘parents’ have been given every opportunity to make improvements to not just their kids’ lives but their own lives that they have completely ignored.” (The quote marks around “parents” were in the agency’s release.)
“Hopefully, DCF and other agencies will help these parents and children get the help they need,” the sheriff continued. “It is unfortunate these conditions and the parent’s lack of actions deteriorated to a criminal case. Just because you may be poor you must still take care of your children.”
Both parents had bonded out by Sunday morning.