The parents of three children — who burned to death in a North Jacksonville mobile home when their mother and father were incarcerated in Duval County lock-up facilities — filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against the state Department of Children and Families and two of its employees.
Killed in the June 2014 fire was an infant, Janet Fowler, who was just days shy of turning 10 months old; Rachel Fowler, 2; Richard “Bubba” Fowler, 4, along with the children’s maternal grandmother, Sheila Swearingen, 53.
Swearingen is at the heart of the wrongful-death case that says she was not competent to care for the children. The lawsuit says the state and caseworkers knew Swearingen was a sex offender and if they had done a sufficient investigation they could have found that she also suffered from “significant mental-health issues and was incapable of caring for the children.”
According the lawsuit, a case worker and supervisor met June 17, 2014, to discuss Swearingen taking the children back to their mobile home. At the meeting, the lawsuit contends, there was a discussion as to if Swearingen was suitable because of her sex-offender status.
Four hours after the meeting, Swearingen and three of the four children were dead.
Six-year-old Hattie Fowler was the lone survivor, pulled from the home by neighbors who heard her screams and saw flames in the bedroom where she was rescued.
Those who died were in another area of the mobile home and unable to get to safety.
Hattie later told her parents and investigators that children had been playing with a lighter.
The mobile home had yet to be inspected by any case workers when Swearingen took the children there. Another house where Swearingen and the children stayed since the parents’ incarceration did pass inspection.
“This is just a heart-breaking case,” said Joshua Woolsey, the attorney who filed the lawsuit. “DCF’s job is to protect children, especially children in this type of scenario, and it is unacceptable for them to approve — or allow — a woman like [Swearingen] to supervise the kids.”
“It was obviously a mistake and within 12 hours it resulted in the death of three kids and now Hattie will be emotionally scarred the rest of her life,” Woolsey said.
Swearingen supervised the children before, though the extent of the child-welfare agency’s knowledge of that is unknown at this time.
Swearingen — who for the many years had been on medication for mental-health issues — was designated a sex offender in 1997 when she had sex with one of her other daughter’s then-high school boyfriends.
She had been jailed 16 times over the years, but the pace of her criminal past tapered as her daughter’s arrest history began to take off.
The children’s parents, Jennifer Fowler, 32, and Rickey Fowler, 56, have been arrested 48 times in Florida since they were adults. On at least five occasions, their jail stays overlapped.
With Rickey and Jennifer Fowler bouncing in and out of jail so often, Swearingen, in spite of her history of mental illness, and Jennifer Fowler’s father, Clayton Woods, provided care for the children.
Woods, who fathered Jennifer with Swearingen and never married her, lived a few blocks from the mobile home. He had always been a mainstay in his grandchildren’s lives. Swearingen and her boyfriend had recently moved into Woods’ home and were living there when the children were initially sent to stay with Woods after Rickey Fowler was incarcerated.
Police arrested Rickey Fowler just three days before the fatal fire when he attended the Florida Super Country Fest at EverBank Field with his baby daughter and appeared incapable of caring for her, according to witnesses and police.
Police said he had a pocket full of pills, resisted arrest and neglected his baby who was covered in vomit. Prior to going to the concert, Fowler had boarded a bus with the child and taken her to visit his wife who was finishing out a sentence to the Community Transition Center.
Just as jail and police were no strangers to the Fowlers, neither was the Department of Children and Families.
Rickey and Jennifer Fowler told the Times-Union last year the child-welfare agency had opened many investigations though none lasted more than a few weeks.
One investigation, according to the lawsuit, opened in May, stated that Rickey Fowler was low-functioning and not capable of caring for his children. He and his wife now are suing, saying the department should have done more to determine that Swearingen was not able to care for the children.
Last year in a story headlined, “How did they get to keep the kids?” the Florida Times-Union exposed how police, the Department of Children and Families and several others had plenty of opportunities to intervene when it was apparent that the Fowlers’ life of drugs and booze would one day lead to death.
“We try and keep busy,” Jennifer Fowler said Tuesday of the 14 months since three of her four children died. Hattie, the eldest child was taken from the Fowlers after the fire and has been living with family in Starke ever since. Rickey and Jennifer are trying to gain custody back. Their dependency case is tentatively set for next month.