Inhospitable and in Denial

The parents of two little girls placed them in the Broward Children's Center hoping their daughters would be cured. Something went wrong.

The Frisbee soared over Eric Rebenkoff's head in the crowded park, landing some 30 yards behind him, in the shallow outfield of a nearby softball diamond. Frank McDonough Park in Lighthouse Point was teeming with children and adults on that Tuesday evening in May 1995. The plastic platter happened to land next to a little girl named Jenna Bernardo, who scooped it up happily.

Jenna, seven years old and standing little more than three feet tall, was wearing a baseball glove and waiting for softballs to come her way. The balls hit to her were few and far between. It was a little boring for Jenna, a natural athlete who always seemed to be doing something -- swimming, playing tennis, doing cartwheels, just about anything so long as she was in motion.

Looming beyond home plate, a storm was brewing in the northwest sky. Clouds black like an industrial fire hovered there, but play wasn't affected. The dark clouds, by contrast, only seemed to make brighter the sun shining on the park. When the Frisbee landed, Jenna smiled broadly and leapt at the chance to hurl it back. She made it fly some 30 yards right into Rebenkoff's hands. He was amazed by the strength and accuracy of the throw coming from a girl he judged to be only four or five.

"Whoa!" he said, as he turned back to his friends. "Did you just see that?"
Then came a white flash of light and a tremendous, crackling boom of thunder. People heard the thunder's report and felt its percussion more than a mile away. Rebenkoff saw everyone fall -- or jump, he's not sure which -- to the ground. He's still not sure why he was left standing but suspects it was because the lightning's flash was to his back, near where the little girl had just thrown the Frisbee.

Rebenkoff turned and, in the pandemonium of panicking people screaming and running every which way, saw a little girl facedown on the charred ground. Jenna was burned, the soles of her sneakers scorched. The lightning struck her in the shoulder, went through her body, and came out her ankles. The electrical surge short-circuited her heart and her lungs stopped instantly. She was in cardiac arrest.

"She looked like a rag doll that got tossed out of the window of a car," recalls Rebenkoff, who was 30 at the time. "It's the only way I can explain it. She was all twisted up."

The storm front now blocked the sun and rain drizzled on the darkening field. Jenna's mom, Michelle Bernardo, ran to her daughter, screaming, "My baby! My baby!" Rebenkoff ran to his car to call 911 on his cell phone and then ran back to Jenna. He and a friend, who was medically trained, performed CPR on Jenna until medics and police arrived.

"It felt like an eternity," Rebenkoff says.
His precipitous actions helped save Jenna from death, but the lightning had already done irreversible damage. From that point forward, she never smiled again, let alone did another cartwheel, hit another softball, or astonished anyone with a Frisbee throw.

Doctors were able to heal her seared internal organs, but the lightning gave a near-fatal shock to her nervous system and caused extreme damage to her brain. She was left catatonic, in a comalike trance. She could still cry, though, and sometimes she'd cry for days at a time, rhythmically and nonstop. It horrified family members, who wondered if anything was going on behind her inscrutable, chestnut-colored eyes.

After nearly three years caring for her at home, her parents, devastated by the strain, separated, making it all but impossible for Jenna to remain at home. This past April they placed Jenna in a group home for developmentally disabled children run by Broward Children's Center in Pompano Beach, a nonprofit agency funded primarily with government dollars. At the group home, Jenna would be surrounded by other children, and, her parents thought, cared for by well-trained professionals.

Jenna died there on a Friday morning, June 5, seven weeks after she was admitted and six days after her 11th birthday. The cause of death was listed as a lack of oxygen to the brain caused by the lightning strike. Nobody had any reason to think otherwise.

Except her mother. Michelle Bernardo contacted the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office and dropped a bombshell: "She thought they may have overdosed [Jenna]," an assistant medical examiner wrote in a report.

The mother told an assistant medical examiner that a drug called thioridazine -- a prescription antipsychotic -- was disappearing from the group home at an alarming rate. A subsequent toxicology test revealed what the medical examiner's office considered dangerously high levels of thioridazine in Jenna's blood. A criminal investigation ensued. The group home's staffers, two students and several nursing assistants, couldn't explain the disappearance of the drug or the high levels of it found in Jenna's bloodstream.

Police and medical examiner's investigators tried to check Jenna's dosage records but that, too, proved to be a dead end. The records, which are required by law to be kept, were somehow lost at the group home.

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