Florida Department Of Children And Families Consider yourself Warned

April 11, 2014
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The profound Urgency Of DCF Reform

Carl Hiaasen:

By Carl Hiaasen

chiaasen@MiamiHerald.com

With much chest-thumping, Gov. Rick Scott last week signed a law clipping auto-tag fees by about $25 per vehicle in Florida. He used the opportunity to blast former Gov. Charlie Crist for raising those fees five years ago.

What Scott cynically failed to mention during the bill-signing charade was that all the top Republicans standing at his side had also supported the auto-tag hikes. It was the depth of the recession, and the state desperately needed revenue.

Scott himself is desperate to appear gubernatorial because Crist, running as a Democrat, will likely be his opponent in the November election. The auto-tag fee cut was the centerpiece of a tax-relief agenda being pushed by the governor, who trails Crist in the early polls.

Two of the GOP lawmakers who were crowing about this grand windfall for motor-vehicle owners have an infinitely more important job in the days ahead. House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have a chance to do something truly crucial and good.

They can shape a law that saves actual lives — the lives of endangered children.

Bills that would strengthen Florida’s child welfare laws are winding through both houses of the Legislature following publication of the Herald’s shocking investigative series, Innocents Lost.

The newspaper documented the deaths of at least 477 children whose parents or caregivers had a history with the state’s Department of Children & Families. During the six-year period studied by reporters, DCF consistently under-reported the number of victims in its files who died because of violence or negligence by parents and caregivers.

In 2008, for example, the state said the death toll was 79. Using DCF’s own records, Herald reporters found 103 fatal cases that year.

Then, in 2009, the state reported that 69 children whose families had prior contact with DCF had died. Reporters counted 107.

The uncounted die just as wretchedly — and as unnecessarily — as the counted.

One of the most awful, notorious cases involved Nubia Barahona, a 10-year-old Miami girl who’d been tortured and starved by her adoptive parents. Soaked in poisonous chemicals, her decomposing body was found inside a black garbage bag on a pest-control truck.

Three years after the murder, the DCF still hasn’t sent her case to the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee. Incredibly, Nubia’s death remains officially uncounted.

The child-welfare system has been overwhelmed and broken for a long time, but that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from hacking millions in DCF funding. But this year Florida has accumulated an extra $1.3 billion in revenues, so there’s no excuse not to take action to stop the killings.

Scott has proposed $40 million to hire more DCF investigators and improve their training. That’s a start, but drug-treatment and counseling programs are also needed for those who’ve been allowed to keep custody of their children while under supervision.

The sad truth is that there aren’t enough good foster homes to let the state move all the kids now living with reckless parents in high-risk situations. In recent years the DCF has bent over backwards to hold dysfunctional families intact, too often with lethal consequences.

In 83 cases found by the Herald, a little boy or girl died after one or more parents had signed a so-called “safety plan” pledging to take better care of the child. The Senate version of the reform bill aims to make these safety plans more than just a piece of paper.

The measure would also require prompt and complete reporting of certain child deaths, and offer tuition-aid incentives for social workers who want to become child-abuse investigators.

Still, the Senate bill provides only $31 million in extra funding for child protection. The House version calls for $44.5 million.

“It’s tragic where Florida finds itself,” said House Speaker Weatherford last week.

He and Sen. President Gaetz have the clout — and a moral obligation — to make other lawmakers understand the profound urgency of DCF reform. Children who are known to be in danger are dying anyway, and the state can’t even properly count how many.

With $1.3 billion in unanticipated revenue lying around, the governor and Legislature can afford to invest more than a drop in the bucket to help Florida’s most helpless children.

Lowering auto-tag fees by 25 bucks might be cause for giddy back-slapping in Tallahassee, but saving even one child from a tortuous death would be a more noble accomplishment.

And one you can’t put a price on.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/04/05/4039855/the-profound-urgency-of-dcf-reform.html#storylink=cpy

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Florida: 3-Way Sex Cop busted

http://drrichswier.com/2014/03/30/florida-3-way-sex-cop-busted/

62298-article-0-1c814bf900000578-392_634x433
jim bulcher vice may north portMayor Jim Blucher, North Port City Commission Seat # 4

The message of North Port Chief of Police Kevin Vespia states, “Our citizens expect and deserve that their police officers will act with honor and integrity at all times.” Well it seems they are not, not by any stretch of the imagination. The City of North Port, Florida and the North Port Police Department (NPPD) have a major and growing scandal on their collective hands.

WWSB ABC Channel 7 reports, “Since we first reported the ongoing scandal involving sexual assault at a party attended by on- and off-duty North Port police officers, multiple people have come forward with stories about previous wild parties involving members of the department. One of these people is a former law enforcement officer here on the Suncoast, and while he wasn’t at the party the night of the alleged assault, he says he has been to several other similar parties hosted and attended by North Port cops where things got out of hand.”

Bill Warner, a Sarasota private investigator, posted a column on his blog titled “Told You So Sarasota: NPPD Swinger Parties With Drugs Headed Up By 3 Way Sex Cop Melanie Turner.” North Port resident Sherry Smart, after reading Warner’s article, sent an email to the City Commissioners. Smart states, “3 Way Sex Cop…. what a great tag line for North Port. Perhaps we would get more visitors to our ‘esteemed’ city with that for our city motto instead of ‘the city where you can achieve anything’… but then again perhaps those are interchangeable like our police officers at sex parties?”

Smart notes, “The article does not elude [sic] to a ONE time event. Good officers (those who don’t do 3 ways with their peers) would be fearful to expose this behavior. They would be fearful of repercussions from those who do not wish to be exposed… or rather, found out. (Exposure doesn’t seem to bother them). Because we now have an officer who has committed suicide rather than go to court and eventually jail, this leads one to question…. what else was there that he didn’t want to come to light and with this dire action, he thought would die with him? So what’s the percentage of exposure — 10%? with another 90% hidden within the department?”

police chief kevin vespia north portNorth Port Chief of Police Kevin Vespia

rhonda difranco vice mayor city of north portNorth Port Vice-Mayor Rhonda Y. DiFranco

It has been reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that North Port Vice-Mayor Rhonda Y. DiFranco’s female domestic partner is Jennifer S. Cohen. DiFranco, Cohen and former Sarasota City Commissioner Ken Sheilan (who is a homosexual) were the force and faces behind the effort to approve a domestic partner registry in North Port. Vice Mayor DiFranco is the City Commission’s liaison to the North Port Police Department. DiFranco is also a retired Sarasota County Deputy Sheriff.

Smart concludes with, “Houston we have a problem. (Stating the obvious here) So now what are you going to do about it? I do have some thoughts on how to go about routing [sic] out the rotten roots. Am waiting expectantly to hear your thoughts.”

If Smart receives a reply we will post an update to this column. The following questions have been sent to all of the City Commissioners:

1. Who hired Officer Melanie Turner and when?
2. Did the department do a background check on Officer Turner?
3. Did the department know Officer Turner was a lesbian?
4. If so, was this not a red flag to the department?

j-cohen-193x300Jennifer S. Cohen.

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DCF In Denial Over Its Failed Policy

By

Tricky Ricky

“Innocents Lost,” a stunning Miami Herald series, recently described how 477 children died from abuse or neglect even though the Florida Department of Children and Families had already been warned they were in danger.

The response by Gov. Rick Scott and DCF interim Secretary Esther Jacobo has been disappointing, according to The Palm Beach Post. Neither plans to change DCF’s priority, which has been keeping families intact rather than keeping children safe, the Post says.

In an op-ed in the Florida Times-Union and other state newspapers, Jacobo says federal and state laws require that children be kept with their families whenever it can be safely done. She says the agency welcomes the increased attention and scrutiny, because it will prod legislators to provide more money for the agency and for other services it relies on, such as mental-health treatment and drug rehabilitation.

“We stand firmly in the belief that the system is not broken. It is challenged,” Jacobo writes. What DCF needs, in addition to money,is more citizen volunteers as foster parents and guardians ad litem, she said.

But the Post supports an effort by State Sen. Eleanor to rewrite state law to make the welfare of the child the first priority.

http://health.wusf.usf.edu/post/dcf-denial-over-its-failed-policy

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Getting the story

 

It is encouraging that a special Senate panel investigating the death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon is taking an aggressive approach to its duties.

Dezirae was the Poultney girl who died last month from injuries allegedly inflicted by her stepfather. Her death set off a cry of outrage from people who thought that the state Department for Children and Families was wrong in returning Dezirae to the custody of her mother, Sandra Eastman, after Eastman had been convicted of physically abusing the girl. Now it appears that the story may be more complicated than simple incompetence by DCF, and the Senate committee plans to issue subpoenas to try to discover the full story.

The panel received new information last weekend on Eastman’s earlier criminal conviction. In 2008, when she was 24 years old, she was charged with sexual assault for having sexual relations with a 15-year-old boy. It was the disposition of that case, and the records of the case, that may have created a trail of misinformation that led to ill-advised decisions by social workers six years later, leading to Dezirae’s death.

Back in 2008 Eastman pleaded guilty to lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, a charge of less severity than the original charge of sexual assault. It was a typical sort of plea agreement; more than 90 percent of criminal cases are settled in a similar manner.

But there were problems with what followed. Eastman received a sentence of 18 months to seven years, all of it suspended, which did not meet the statutory minimum. More seriously, the wrong code was applied to the papers documenting the plea agreement, making it appear to anyone checking the record that she had been convicted of a lesser crime. In addition, documents from her case indicate she should have been entered on the state’s sexual offender registry, but she never was.

Sen. Richard Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-chairman of the special investigative panel, was concerned enough by these revelations that he thought the committee should look more deeply into the matter. Thus, he believes the panel should be ready to issue subpoenas in order to obtain the information needed to explore the issue further.

Of immediate concern is the question of how often court documents contain erroneous information. If a social worker in 2013 is trying to make a determination about the fitness of a parent, the parent’s full criminal history must be evident. It was already clear from her abuse conviction that Sandra Eastman was not a model parent. What would DCF personnel have concluded if they had known she had also previously been charged with sexual assault on a teenager and that the charges had been reduced? For that matter, how much did DCF workers know in the Eastman case?

One of the fears of anyone facing the prospect of intervention by DCF is that the family will be entangled in the state bureaucracy. In fact, DCF is a bureaucracy, and it has to be. It deals with hundreds of complaints, and it tries to do so fairly and compassionately. Further, the complaints it handles often involve serious crime and pathology. A state office dealing with hundreds of complex cases can’t improvise on the fly. It needs procedures.

But those procedures have to be carried out with exactitude. Sears and the special panel are charged with determining where things went wrong in the Dezirae Sheldon case, and that means looking at the trail of information that allowed a little girl to remain in a household where she had already been abused and where, in the end, her stepfather now stands charged with her murder.

An aggressive and thorough examination of this case could help reveal flaws in the system, allowing for changes that could make the bureaucracy work more smoothly and with greater accuracy. That is the hope. The senators should not allow rules of confidentiality to create walls of stone preventing them from getting the full story.

http://www.timesargus.com/article/20140328/OPINION01/703289983/0/FEATURES12

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Audit Details DCF Management Issues

BOSTON Describing a foster care system rife with problems that could lead “risks to become realities,” Auditor Suzanne Bump released a critical review of the state’s foster care agency on Wednesday, stating that “significant management deficiencies” led to undocumented background checks on foster parents and poor oversight of medical treatment for children in state custody.

The audit produced by Bump’s office covered a period from July 2010 through September 2012, before the disappearance of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy, who is presumed dead, that touched off a series of inquiries exposing deep problems at the Department of Children and Families with caseloads and oversight of children in its care.

“DCF does indeed work miracles on a daily basis. It is, however, an agency whose frontline workers and managers need better guidance and better tools in order to effectively protect children entrusted to their care,” Bump said at a press conference in her office where she described the report and said auditors began their work more than a year ago.

The report was released as lawmakers consider spending increases to address social worker caseloads and needs and while they await a full report on the agency by the Child Welfare League of America.

The audit found that DCF had not updated its department-wide risk assessment since 2008 which may be preventing the agency from identifying significant risks to foster children. Bump also said DCF workers did not have access to critical information in order to ensure that children receive the required seven-day medical screenings and 30-day medical examinations once they have been placed in state custody, and managers aware of the problems failed to react to the situation.

Additionally, DCF maintained incomplete records of background checks performed on adults living in foster homes and had not been conducting checks for the proximity of Level 2 and Level 3 registered sex offenders before placing children in foster homes.

“The findings in our audit today constitute more than record keeping problems at the agency. It’s inability to ensure that medical screenings of children and background checks of foster placements are taking place is symptomatic of an agency whose employees are without ready access to the information, technology and guidance they need in order to protect the children and the families that they serves,” Bump said. “DCF needs help to do its job.”

Bump said she has initiated a follow-up audit to examine the process for granting background check waivers to foster homes with adults who may have a criminal record because DCF was unable to provide auditors with a complete list of placements in homes where waivers had been issued.

Bump reported that some of her recommendations for improvements at the agency are already being implemented, and the department responded to the release of the her audit by detailing the new practices in place to ensure children in foster care receive timely medical screening and background checks on employees and foster homes.

The agency said that a separate Medicaid review showed that 90 percent of children received medical care within 30 days before or after placement in foster care, and that the department has started sharing information between Medicaid and improving documentation of medical visits.

DCF also said it is now conducting background checks and sex-offender registry checks on all applicants for foster care and adoption, and verified that no children in foster care are living with sex offenders, though the auditor’s report found that some children are living in the same building as Level 3 offenders.

“We are working day-in and day-out to enhance our ability to protect children and strengthen families, “DCF Commissioner Olga Roche said in a statement. “Working with our partners to improve services and providing field staff with the resources they need is central to achieving our agency’s mission.”

Gov. Deval Patrick

Gov. Deval Patrick had a reserved response to the auditor’s findings, many of which have also been identified by the Child Welfare League of America who Patrick hired to review the agency.

“I don’t think there really is really anything new there. It’s mostly technical and about record-keeping, for example the issues of children getting their initial medical screenings, or those records being kept at DCF or over at MassHealth,” Patrick told reporters, when asked about the report. “The larger issues at DCF remain. The auditor’s report didn’t really get into that — and those are around staffing and technology and we’re working on that.”Patrick also said some news accounts of a Cape Cod runaway and a Mattapan murder victim, both of whom were involved to an extent with DCF, were examples of the agency working well yet unable to prevent difficult situations.“I’m sorry to say that is part of what happens in child welfare. It’s not that it’s acceptable, but like I’ve said many, many times before, the folks at DCF and in child welfare agencies all over the country work with some of the most troubling children and some of the most troubling situations, and not every outcome is a happy one,” Patrick said.

Though Bump sidestepped questions about Roche’s ability to lead the agency and said her audit was about correcting systematic issues within the entire agency, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker said the audit showed why “putting new leadership in place is the first step in fixing this broken agency.”

Patrick has stood behind Roche’s ability to continue to lead and improve DCF.

Bruce Tarr

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said Bump’s audit “reconfirms the risks posed to vulnerable children” because of problems with the management of the Department of Children and Families.

“Now, more than ever, it is clear that reforming this agency needs to be a priority for the Legislature and the Administration, and the job needs to be done in a timely and effective way,” Tarr said.

The union representing social workers, who recently began circulating a letter questioning the efficacy of communications and directives from senior managers in the agency, said it wished Bump had consulted with them in the course of her audit. Bump said she is restricted by auditing practices about who she can share information with, but assured reporters that problems uncovered were brought immediately to management for action.

“Had the State Auditor formally engaged front-line workers in the audit process, this report would have identified today’s real barriers to successful child protection — from the worsening caseload crisis to disjointed implementation of key directives and policies. We hope that future audits will incorporate this experience and expertise to better reflect the realities of on-the-ground child protection work,” SEIU Local 509 spokesman Jason Stephany said.

http://www.itemlive.com/news/audit-details-dcf-management-issues/article_dd6d5836-b536-11e3-8233-001a4bcf887a.html

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Florida’s Undercount Of Child Abuse Deaths

The state says abuse and neglect deaths are receding after a spike. But are they? And, if so, by how much? A closer look at the numbers.

By Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burchcmarbin@miamiherald.comPublished March 22, 2014


Nubia Barahona was found on Valentine’s Day in the flatbed of a pest-control truck. She had been imprisoned and starved, beaten and tortured, then doused in toxic chemicals before her corpse was disposed of in a black garbage bag.

Nubia Barahona

Nubia Barahona

Read her story →

The 10-year-old’s death in 2011 was so gruesome — and the Department of Children & Families’ role leading up to it so inept — that it sparked firings and resignations, a series of angry public hearings, new state laws and a public street that bears her name. To this day, the name Nubia is a rallying cry to some, symbolizing everything that is wrong with DCF.

It turns out she also personifies something else: DCF’s penchant for minimizing the number of deaths of children it was supposed to protect. Last month, Florida marked the three-year anniversary of Nubia’s passing and the state has yet to send her case to the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee, which catalogs child deaths.

The death review committee has a somber but important role: Besides keeping a count, it studies such tragedies in hopes of learning lessons that will avert similar deaths in the future.

“This is an insult to her memory,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, a 15-year veteran of child welfare court who chairs Miami’s foster care oversight board.

How is it that Nubia didn’t count?

Emily Michot / Miami Herald StaffMiami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, a 15-year veteran of child welfare court who chairs Miami’s foster care oversight board, said DCF’s failure to count Nubia Barahona’s death as child abuse is “an insult to her memory.”The committee operates under the umbrella of the Florida Department of Health with data provided by DCF. Its annual report, submitted to the governor and the Legislature, is the official word on how many children die of abuse and neglect in Florida. That information should arm lawmakers with the information they need to make decisions on funding and improving DCF.

Since the beginning, the report had a category stating how many abuse or neglect deaths involved victims from families with a prior DCF history. That number — “deaths with priors” — is a key benchmark for evaluating DCF’s effectiveness.

The Miami Herald’s yearlong investigation of six years of Florida child deaths revealed that the governor and Legislature were being supplied incomplete, artificially low numbers in this category.

For instance: In 2008, Florida’s total number of “deaths with priors” was 79 in the official report. The Herald counted 103, using DCF’s own records. In 2009, the report cited 69 deaths. The Herald counted 107.

After 2010, the report no longer separated out “deaths with priors.”

1996-2010

What the state reported to the Legislature

Since at least 1996, Florida has issued an annual report that tracked the number of child deaths involving abuse and neglect. Traditionally, the report to the Legislature and governor included the category “deaths with priors.” A “death with priors” is one involving a family that had previously come to the attention of DCF. It is a gauge for determining whether the agency is protecting children in vulnerable situations. The state stopped reporting “deaths with priors” after 2010, issuing only an overall number of child deaths. DCF also narrowed the criteria for what constitutes abuse and neglect in 2010, which is the year deaths dramatically drop off in the chart below.NO CONSPIRACY

Prev. Next

2008-2010

Miami Herald’s count
vs. DCF’s count

The Herald requested death reviews going back six years. From Jan. 1, 2008, through the end of 2010, the Herald counted 96 more deaths than the state had put in its annual reports.

Deaths with priors

41
69
79
75
107
103
120
100
80
60
40
20
0

2010 2009 2008

Miami Herald found:

34 more
deaths 38 more
deaths 24 more
deaths

Because it takes time for DCF to “verify” that a death resulted from abuse or neglect, it isn’t surprising that some last-minute deaths wouldn’t make the annual report. Some, however, sit on the shelf, still “open” in the parlance of the state, for months — and, in Nubia’s case, years.

“They are not willing to admit how bad things were or how bad things still are. But that’s the first step in improving. You have to admit you have a problem before you can make an attempt to fix it,” said Paul Neumann, who was Nubia’s court-appointed guardian.

“They don’t want the numbers because they make the state look bad,” said Manatee County Sheriff’s Maj. Connie Shingledecker, who oversees that county’s child protection program for DCF and served 10 years on the statewide Child Abuse Death Review Committee, four of them as chairwoman.

Not counting child fatalities, Dr. Bruce McIntosh wrote in a June 2013 email to other public health officials, “will have the effect of causing these preventable deaths to disappear from public awareness.”

McIntosh, medical director of the Child Protection Team in Jacksonville, added that DCF “will not change this policy of its own will. Thus, while DCF statistics will appear to show a decrease in infant and child deaths, those deaths will continue, and efforts at public education to prevent them will not be supported.”

 

SANDY STRICKLAND / Florida Times-UnionDr. Bruce McIntosh told public health officials that not counting child fatalities “will have the effect of causing these preventable deaths to disappear from public awareness.”DCF’s interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, said there is no conspiracy.

“I am aware of the critics, and I know the death review folks have long wanted us to verify more [child deaths] so they could see more,” Jacobo said. “I can’t imagine that we are quite that organized to have that kind of large conspiracy where we are cooking the numbers. There are too many people involved with it.”

She acknowledged that what is seen as verified child abuse in one part of the state might be viewed differently elsewhere. Each region has its own staff of investigators and administrators who review child deaths before they are sent to the state committee, and they often interpret the agency’s policies differently.

The disparities have been marked: Since 2008, the Herald counted 51 child deaths with a DCF history in Broward County, compared to 25 for Miami-Dade, which has 30 percent more children.

Broward, where DCF outsources the investigation and verification of child deaths to the Broward Sheriff’s Office, had at least 14 more fatalities with a prior agency history than any other county in the state.

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Former BSO Cmdr. James Harn, who supervised protective investigators before retiring when a new sheriff was installed last year, said disputes over verification of child deaths usually involve cases in which a parent’s drug use or inattentiveness resulted in the death. “They certainly didn’t want the child to die,” Harn said, “but neglect led to the death, so we’re going to verify it.”

Administrators at BSO reported 23 abuse or neglect deaths to the statewide Child Abuse Death Review Committee in 2012. DCF leaders in Miami reported three that year. Miami’s three deaths verified as abuse or neglect emerged from a pool of 285 overall child fatalities; Broward investigated 181 that year.

About nine other 2012 Miami-Dade deaths remained “open,” or pending, by the fall of 2013, meaning they aren’t accounted for in the yearly tally.

PRECIOUS RESOURCE

The backlog of death investigations became so acute that members of Miami’s Local Child Abuse Death Review Team, which studies such deaths in concert with the state team, complained in a series of September 2013 emails that they had nothing to study.

“This is a waste of a precious resource in our community,” said one email, from a member of the team to DCF.

In late January 2014, the Herald asked Jacobo about the status of one case, the Nov. 13, 2012, killings of sisters Daniela and Julia Christina Padrino. Police say the girls’ estranged stepfather, Alberto Sierra, suffocated mother Gladys Machado with a plastic bag, and then asphyxiated the girls. Sierra confessed.

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Machado had been the subject of four reports to DCF in 2010 and 2011, mostly involving allegations of domestic violence among Machado and at least two men — one of them Sierra. He had been arrested 15 times since 2000.

Sierra had bitten Julia on her arm in October 2011, according to a report to DCF, leaving a visible wound. Although DCF verified that October allegation as child abuse at the time, the agency took no action to protect the girls, concluding the sisters were safe while Sierra was in jail on a probation violation. Machado promised to divorce Sierra and keep him away from her daughters. She changed her mind after he was released from jail.

The day after Daniela’s fourth birthday in November 2012, Sierra killed the three in a fit of rage after Machado took a phone call from another man, Sierra told police. All three were found stuffed in the closet of an abandoned home. DCF verified the two girls’ deaths as abuse or neglect — so they could be studied and included, finally, in the yearly tally — a week after the Herald inquired about them, and more than a year after they occurred. Sierra is awaiting trial.

Ezra Raphael

Ezra Raphael

Read his story →

Also pending in Miami-Dade, according to the local death review team: the Feb. 20, 2013, shooting death of 11-year-old Stefan Zuniga, allegedly by his father; and the May 16, 2013, hypothermia death of Bryan Osceola — police say he baked in his mother’s sealed vehicle two months after she had been charged with driving under the influence with Bryan unrestrained on her lap.

Still others pending: the June 20, 2013, death of Ezra Raphael, allegedly beaten by his mother’s boyfriend; and the July 17, 2013, death of Jayden Villegas-Morales, whose father is awaiting trial on manslaughter charges. After a sibling suffered a broken leg while in the care of his mother, DCF placed Jayden in his father’s one-bedroom efficiency, joining eight other children, two adults and a puppy.

Based on these circumstances and their families’ prior contact with DCF, the Herald included Bryan, Ezra and Jayden in its count of 477 neglect and abuse deaths.

A DCF spokeswoman, Alexis A. Lambert, said that such cases remain open while the agency awaits “additional information” on them.

An email to Lambert and Jacobo on Friday afternoon asking the status of the Nubia Barahona file went unanswered.

AT RISK, WITH INTENT

Another reason to question DCF’s oft-stated assertion that child deaths are declining: In September 2010, DCF’s top death review coordinator, Keith Perlman, wrote new guidelines for investigating child deaths that redefined neglect.

The new protocol states that DCF should only verify drowning and accidental suffocation deaths if a parent deliberately placed his or her child in danger. A child’s drowning is considered the result of neglect if the caregiver understood the child was “at risk, and, with intent, allowed the child to be placed at risk,” Perlman wrote.

Perlman also said that a child smothered by his or her parents while “co-sleeping” in an adult bed did not necessarily die of neglect if the parents’ behavior met a “socially acceptable threshold.” If other parents sleep with their small children in an adult bed, he wrote in the September 2010 memo, then such behavior — while dangerous — is not neglectful.

The policy shifts came at a time when the agency was under fire for failing to prevent child deaths.

Former DCF Secretary David Wilkins.Peter Andrew Bosch / Miami Herald StaffFormer DCF Secretary David Wilkins.A DCF employee, who had written several emails criticizing the agency’s policies, said the decision to exclude some drowning and unsafe-sleep deaths was explicitly designed to improve DCF’s image.

“Secretary [David] Wilkins asked how would we look if we did not include unsafe sleep and drowning deaths,” Ron Hardcastle, a then-DCF public assistance employee, wrote in an April 2011 email to DCF’s then-child welfare chief documenting a meeting with the secretary. “The Secretary indicated we ought to consider excluding these deaths.”

Wilkins said he recalls discussing child protection with Hardcastle, but denies ever suggesting his agency suppress numbers. “That, of course, is not true,” said Wilkins, who resigned last summer amid an uproar over child deaths.

Records obtained by the Herald show that in June 2010 DCF codified the new definitions of neglect into the written procedures that govern how child deaths are classified. For example, for an in-bed smothering to be verified, the new rules state, the death must result from “a willful act of the caregiver.” Florida’s child abuse criminal statute, on the other hand, requires no such willful act to charge a parent with a felony.

In the ensuing months, the number of child deaths reported by DCF declined.

One 2-year-old drowned in her uncle’s pool in August 2011 when his mother wasn’t paying attention. A half-year earlier, the mother had been the subject of a report that her drug use and improper supervision endangered the child.

“The death did not appear to occur as a result of a direct willful act of the caregiver,” a DCF investigation of the drowning concluded. “It was a result of not providing essential supervision for her.” The death was not verified as neglect.

UNSAFE SLEEP

In another uncounted death, the mother of a 1-month-old Pinellas County girl had signed a “Safe Sleep Notification Form” twice, affirming that she had been warned of the dangers of sleeping in the same bed as her newborn. It was especially unsafe because the 23-year-old was taking methadone every day to wean her off a years-long pain pill addiction.

The mother had a lengthy DCF history, including allegations that she abused marijuana, ecstasy, and painkillers “on a daily basis in the presence of her children,” injected drugs into her veins, had left one of her children unsupervised at a Walgreen’s, and breastfed another infant while abusing drugs. The woman, a report said, “had criminal charges that involved violent and drug-related” offenses. A report that the mother had locked one of her children in a dark attic so she could do “grown-up stuff” was still pending when DCF received its next report, the household’s sixth, about a death.

Drowning and overlay deaths

Over the past six years, drownings and overlay (unsafe sleeping) accounted for 69 percent of the 250 accidental abuse/neglect deaths examined by the Herald.Miami Herald ResearchOn March 31, 2011, the mother went to bed — with her newborn beside her and a 1-year-old sleeping on a tiled floor. When the mother awoke, her infant was “unresponsive and turning purple in color,” a report said. The cause of the newborn’s death was accidental asphyxia, precisely the tragedy the safe-sleeping pledge was intended to prevent.

When the case was closed unverified, an investigator asked the woman to sign another safe-sleeping pledge — her third.

During Memorial Day weekend in 2011, the mother of a 1-year-old boy was texting at poolside during a holiday cookout at a community pool. Her toddler went under the surface and didn’t come up. A 10-year-old boy discovered him at the bottom of the pool, jumped in and retrieved him.

“Law enforcement officials indicated that there were approximately 20 adults present at the party, including [the boy’s] mother, who was reportedly sitting in a chair away from the pool texting on her cell phone,” DCF reports on the incident stated.

Medical personnel told DCF the boy had been in the pool “for quite some time” before his limp body was found, judging from his body temperature.

DCF declined to verify the boy’s death as stemming from neglect, reasoning that the behavior of his 24-year-old mother was no more neglectful than other parents visiting the public pool.

“Along with [the boy],” a report said, “there were several other children in attendance that were likely not supervised properly.”

McIntosh, the medical director from Jacksonville, believes the agency’s reasoning is flawed.

“Just because a lot of people leave children unattended by swimming pools does not make it right,” he wrote in a memo to child death reviewers.

“There was a time when parents did not have to buckle their children into car seats, during which time thousands died annually in car accidents,” McIntosh wrote. “These deaths are now prevented. We are tasked with identifying avoidable death hazards that need to be corrected, not simply accepting the way they are.”

JUST AN ACCIDENT

DCF declined to count one suffocation fatality as neglect because investigators could not determine which parent was responsible.

Changing the rules

In 2010, DCF changed its criteria for what makes a drowning or unsafe sleeping incident a death by neglect. Under the new rules, which were put in writing, such deaths would count in the yearly abuse/neglect tally only if they resulted from a “willful act” of the caregiver. Immediately, abuse and neglect numbers dropped.Miami Herald ResearchOn Feb. 22, 2013, a 35-day-old boy was smothered after his parents placed him in an adult bed between them, a report said. The newborn’s mother awoke to find him not breathing and “white in color.” Official cause of death: accidental suffocation and strangulation. Both parents tested positive for drugs: the mother, for marijuana, the anxiety drug benzodiazepine and methadone; the father, for marijuana and benzodiazepine.

“Case is being closed with not substantiated findings of death, due to not being able to determine which caregiver was responsible for the rollover onto the child,” a report said.

Even after a case has been verified, it can be unverified by high-level DCF administrators.

Harn, the former BSO commander, said DCF death reviewers in Fort Lauderdale sometimes took issue with his unit’s findings, determining that some drowning or co-sleeping deaths were not neglectful, and should not count.

“They gave the rhetoric that it was truly just an accident,” Harn said. “We refused to change them.”

Nevertheless, they were changed. Harn said that in at least two cases, DCF administrators entered the agency’s computer system and shifted child deaths from verified abuse or neglect to unverified. Lambert, the DCF spokeswoman, said she was “not aware of any policy” that addressed whether an agency employee could reverse a verified death finding after a case was formally closed.

Shingledecker, the sheriff’s major who supervises child protection in Manatee, openly criticized DCF’s then-top child welfare administrator, Alan Abramowitz, in a death review committee meeting around the fall of 2010 when he allowed his agency to remove one drowning death from the list of cases her committee had already analyzed. “We reviewed it. We agreed it met our criteria,” Shingledecker said. Discarding the case “didn’t seem appropriate at the time.”

Abramowitz, who is now the statewide director of the Guardian-ad-Litem Program, which provides lay advocates for children in court, remembers the dustup. “It was the only case ever where I said this does not make sense,” Abramowitz said. “It was the only case I ever made a big deal about.”

NOT COUNTED

Although Broward County leads the state in verified abuse and neglect deaths, Kim Burgess, the Department of Health’s drowning prevention coordinator in Fort Lauderdale, said that dubious distinction derives from BSO investigators counting most drownings as neglect, while counties in which DCF investigates deaths often do not.

“They’re not counting them. They don’t want to count them,” said Burgess, who also chairs the Broward child fatality team. “To them, drowning is not an issue.”

The result, Burgess said, is that health and child welfare administrators in many parts of the state have done little to sound the alarm about the potential dangers of unsupervised children around pools and canals. “Every child death, especially drowning, needs to be investigated,” Burgess said. “A child has died. We need to know how that happened, why that happened, and whether it was preventable.”

She said the agency also needs to present a full tally to the governor and lawmakers to justify adequate child welfare funding.

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Reviewing child deaths, “allows us to do educational activities, and to, hopefully, prevent some of the deaths — which is, ultimately, our goal,” said Dr. Mary Stockett, who was medical director of Brevard County’s Child Protection Team until last year.

“If there is any justice for the deceased child and what he experienced in his life,” she said, “it is that, maybe, it will allow some other child to survive and not succumb to the same fate he did.”

After Florida cut protections for children from troubled homes, more children died, often in cruel and preventable ways. To understand the magnitude of the problem — and possible solutions — the Herald studied every death over a six-year period involving families with child welfare histories. This series is the result of a year’s worth of reporting by the Herald’s Investigation Team, and multiple lawsuits to obtain state death records.

http://www.miamiherald.com/projects/2014/innocents-lost/stories/undercount/

 

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Former DCF worker fights to keep girl she allegedly paid woman for 3 years ago

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. —

A Brevard County girl’s future is uncertain after the Department of Children and Families worker who was supposed to be protecting her took her home instead.

There’s a battle brewing between the employee and the little girl’s family over who gets to keep her.

DCF child protection investigator, Nicole Kemp, is off the job while the young girl is caught up in a custody battle.

Channel 9 learned Wednesday Kemp has hired a lawyer who told her not to talk with anyone about the case.

Court records show Kemp admitted she and her husband took the unidentified child home with them three years ago when she was born.

A Brevard County Sheriff’s Office report shows Kemp gave money to the little girl’s mother, Susan Jordan, who has a drug problem, according to DCF.

DCF said it found out last year that Kemp had the child, so they forced her to resign or be fired and placed the child with her great aunt.

“She took the little girl. How she took her was wrong, but she got her and they have an attachment,” said the girl’s aunt, Anita Gibson.

The aunt told Channel 9 she sympathizes with Kemp emotionally but wants the little girl to grow up with her brothers to stay together as a family.

“I actually feel for her right now. It wasn’t me who put you in this situation, you put yourself in this situation,” said Gibson.

Gibson wants to keep her niece, where she’ll be raised with her brothers.

“This is an absolutely heartbreaking scenario. It’s a complicated scenario. It comes down to an innocent child who’s now a victim,” Carrie Proudfit, with DCF, said.

Kemp is fighting to get the girl back and swore in court documents that she’s been raising the little girl since the day she was born.

Kemp is claiming in court paperwork that she’s actually related to the child through her grandfather, but the girl’s family is challenging that claim.

DCF said the state inspector general is investigating whether Kemp possibly falsified documents to keep the situation hidden from DCF.

http://www.wftv.com/news/news/local/former-dcf-worker-fights-custody-child/nfGDK/

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Series Of Child Deaths Spur Legislation

Senate proposal does not change investigation limit

Mar. 17, 2014

After a series of highly publicized child deaths last year, the House and Senate are taking different approaches to fixing the state child-welfare system — but both are considering ambitious measures that cover a lot of ground.

Both chambers would require more professionalism — with an emphasis on social-work skills — for child protective investigators. Both would keep siblings together in the state system and help families care for medically complex children. Both would require the Department of Children and Families to publish the basic facts of all deaths of children reported to the state abuse hotline. And both would create critical incident response teams to conduct immediate investigations of those deaths and other serious episodes of child abuse and neglect.

“These are our kids — we have got to make sure that they are safe,” said Rep. Gayle Harrell, the Stuart Republican who chairs the House Healthy Families Subcommittee. “We are not done. We are going to work at this and work at this until we get it right.”

On Wednesday, Harrell led her panel through a workshop on the House’s omnibus child welfare reform bill (PCB HFS 14-03). The day before, the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee unanimously passed three bills (SB 1666, SB 1668 and SB 1670) that contain many of the same provisions.

The sweeping legislation is the result of a wave of child deaths last year that sparked outrage and contributed to the resignation of the secretary of the Department of Children and Families last July.

Since then, legislative hearings have shown that turnover at the top of the department — which has had seven secretaries and interim secretaries since 1999 — is contributing to a system-wide instability that lawmakers want to address.

For instance, both chambers are proposing a new position, assistant DCF secretary for child welfare, because the secretary is responsible for too many areas.

Both chambers are also proposing a consortium of state university social-work programs called the Florida Institute for Child Welfare, which would conduct research and policy analysis to advise the state and improve the education and training of the child-welfare workforce.

The biggest difference between the chambers involves safety planning for children who could be in danger of maltreatment. The Senate plan doesn’t change the current system, which limits DCF investigations to 60 days, within which the child protective investigator must verify the abuse.

“But what the investigator can’t do is ensure that there’s any kind of safety for the child after that 60-day period of time,” said Howard Talenfeld, president of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. “Because there’s no jurisdiction, you can’t ensure safety no matter how good your investigators are.”

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman

Talenfeld urged the Senate panel to adopt a House provision that would not rely on promises by a parent, caregiver or legal custodian when developing a plan to ensure the child’s safety as the result of an investigation.

“We want to make sure safety plans are followed,” Harrell said.

So does Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, a national expert on child welfare.

“The scope of the investigations must be expanded to include family functioning and family history,” Lederman said. “Without that, these children are still in danger.”

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DCF Investigators Stymied By Their Own Lawyers

By AUDRA D.S. BURCH and CAROL MARBIN MILLER

Miami Herald March 16, 2014

Cindy Bizier in the house where her grandson Aidan died in a fire on March 13, 2009.

Cindy Bizier fretted incessantly about her grandson’s care, worried the boy would chase his yellow dump truck into the street or burn himself with his mother’s lighter or wander too close to the canal while his mother, Autumn, who struggled with drugs, wasn’t watching.

So the anguished grandmother did something extraordinary: She called child welfare authorities on her own daughter. More than once. And when a child abuse investigator visited the Sunrise home where the three generations lived, Bizier stepped outside and quietly pleaded with him to take Aidan into foster care. It was the

only way, she believed, to protect the boy she lovingly called Charlie Brown.

Five calls to the Department of Children & Family’s hotline prompted five investigations that resulted in parenting classes and failed drug treatment for Autumn Bizier.

Aidan would die in a house fire ignited while Cindy was at work and Autumn was asleep, a state death report said. Firefighters found the boy on the garage floor near the door, his teddy bear tucked under his left arm, his lifeless dog, Missy, by his side. Vincent Lee “Aidan” Bizier was just 3.

“I should have done something. I should have been stronger. Tougher,” said Cindy Bizier, 56, her eyes welling with tears. “He needed to be in a safe space. I figured God took him because we weren’t good.”

If a blazing fire was the cause of death, puzzling decisions by state lawyers played a role.

Twice in the months before Aidan’s death, investigators with the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which handles the county’s child abuse investigations, had asked their lawyers to petition a judge to order Autumn to accept help from the state or to remove the boy from her care. Both times the lawyers refused, saying they did not have cause.

The Miami Herald studied six years of records detailing the deaths of children whose families were known to DCF and found that when investigators or doctors paid to recognize abuse want a child to be removed, or for a judge to order other forms of protection, agency lawyers often stand in the way. They cite a lack of “legal sufficiency.”

“Nobody more than me wants to go forward with cases, but you have to make sure you have the right evidence,” said Grainne O’Sullivan, DCF’s top child welfare lawyer since January.

Aidan was among at least 49 Florida children who died after child welfare lawyers said the state lacked authority to act either on their behalf, or on behalf of a sibling.

In Florida, the state must file a court petition before a judge can either place a child in state care or order the parents to accept services and oversight. Otherwise, everything is voluntary. DCF lawyers and their proxies at the attorney general’s office in several counties are the gatekeepers, deciding whether and when to file.

Under federal laws that govern most of Florida’s child welfare dollars, investigators and their attorneys must make “reasonable efforts” — such as parenting classes or drug treatment — to keep children with their families when the youngsters are at risk of harm.

But the rules are different when children have already been seriously hurt. Florida law does not require “reasonable efforts” when a child has experienced “aggravated child abuse” or when their parents’ “extensive, abusive, and chronic use of alcohol or a controlled substance,” mental illness or other serious dysfunction renders them unfit.

In those cases, Sullivan said, “You remove the child and then you make decisions on how to proceed legally.”

However, some children’s advocates say administrators in Florida have defined “reasonable efforts” so broadly that it leaves children in danger.

“Reasonable efforts should never mean that you leave a child in a dangerous situation and cross your fingers,” said Jess McDonald, who led the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services from 1994 to 2003, and now is helping oversee reforms in Washington state.

Seven months after Aidan’s March 2009 death, the top administrator of Miami’s private child welfare agency, Fran Allegra, complained in an email broadside at agency lawyers that investigators feel they “do not have the freedom and autonomy to make professional decisions.”

Two of DCF’s top administrators — then-Children’s Legal Services Director Mary Cagle and Assistant Secretary Pete Digre — wrote in a 2010 memo that “legal sufficiency” should not be the sole standard, and that front-line workers should also use “common sense.”

Even when parents repeatedly violated court orders intended to protect children, DCF lawyers sometimes stymied efforts to intervene. In February 2009, for example, DCF removed newborn Lucas Daniel Machin-Torres and his two siblings from their mother’s custody in Homestead; Jocelynn Torres-Machin’s untreated bipolar disorder and “violent outbursts” had rendered her unfit, DCF argued.

In one reported incident leading up to the removal, Torres-Machin absconded with three children unrestrained in a two-seat rented Ferrari. Her mother-in-law, trying to stop Torres-Machin from speeding off, broke her wrist when Torres-Machin allegedly grabbed her by the hair, threw her to the ground, punched and kicked her. She was later arrested driving 112 miles per hour on Biscayne Boulevard.

Under the judge’s order, Torres-Machin could see her children only under the supervision of her husband, Gregorio Machin, with whom she and the children lived. The abuse reports continued.

December 2009: The family was violating the court order and leaving the children with their “very violent” mom.

May 2010: Torres-Machin allegedly punched one of her children in the eye.

March 2011: The father again violated the court order, and left the children with their mother, who then left them home alone.

Following the March 2011 report, investigators consulted their lawyer, who told them only to “reiterate the conditions of the custody order” to the father.

On April 15, 2012, Torres-Machin took her children to a swimming pool. One of her sons told investigators she had spent the day going back and forth to a bathroom, he believed, to snort cocaine. Lucas, left unsupervised, nearly drowned. He was disconnected from life support seven days later, on April 22.

In a December 2012 email, court-appointed psychologist Vanessa Archer lamented that “Lucas’ death should never have happened.”

Some reviews are more critical, including one involving the Tampa-area death of Ezekiel Mathis. In May 2011, lawyers approved moving to shelter Ezekiel’s 2-year-old sister, believing she had been abused by her mother’s boyfriend, but forbade the agency from seeking to shelter Ezekiel. The sister had unexplained bruises over much of her body. Because Ezekiel showed no obvious signs of abuse, he was left in the home.

His mother signed a safety plan banning the boyfriend, Damarcus Kirkland-Williams, from contact with the boy. The couple would renege on the promise.

Twice, DCF investigators wiould ask for the go-ahead to petition to shelter Ezekiel. Twice, they were turned down by the Florida attorney general’s office, which said they lacked cause to intervene. Citing “serious concern,” Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan tried to step in on Ezekiel’s behalf, ordering that Kirkland-Williams have no contact with the boy. But she had no authority to do that, DCF’s subsequent review of the case acknowledged, because the agency had not filed a petition.

A caseworker visited the home May 18, 2011, and found Kirkland-Williams present. Ezekiel’s mother acknowledged he had been there on several occasions, safety plan or no. Hours after the caseworker left, Kirkland-Williams attacked Ezekiel, police said, slinging him into a dresser because he was upset with the boy’s mother. When Ezekiel began to cry, Kirkland-Williams escalated the abuse, allegedly placing him on his stomach and striking him twice in the back. He died of his injuries, just 13 months old. Kirkland-Williams is charged with first-degree murder and child abuse.

Attorney General Pam Bondi

After Ezekiel’s death, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi ordered an internal review, which found flaws in the way lawyers handled the case. What the lawyers lacked, the 15-page report said, was the “whole picture.” It said the lawyers did not give “sufficient deference” to the opinions of investigators who had actually seen Ezekiel and his mother.

Esther Jacobo, DCF’s interim secretary, said her agency’s lawyers are now being trained to look at the entire family dynamic, and that child protection investigators should feel empowered to push back. She said the agency has a conflict-resolution procedure for use when lawyers and child protection professionals are at odds. But in many cases, lawyers still hold sway. Aidan’s case is an example.

Over a two-year stretch, BSO concluded that Aidan’s safety was at risk as long as his mother was in charge and still using drugs. Cindy Bizier shared the same fears, even threatening in early 2009, two months before the boy’s death, to shut off her own electricity and stop buying food to force DCF to shelter the boy. Among the allegations:

March 12, 2008: Then-2-year-old Aidan was found wandering alone on the bank of a canal. Both Autumn and her then-boyfriend, Shane Howard — not Aidan’s birth father — acknowledged using marijuana; Howard tested positive for marijuana, the anxiety drug benzodiazepine and cocaine.

Though a BSO investigator wanted to go to court to force Autumn and Howard to better protect the child, DCF lawyers declined. “There is limited neglect to the children documented thus far,” a report said.

December 4, 2008: DCF was told Autumn and Howard abused drugs “regularly” — which the couple acknowledged. The investigator tried to file a court petition to force Autumn to accept help from the state, but DCF lawyers said there wasn’t enough evidence.

Jan. 8, 2009: Autumn denied an allegation that she took Aidan with her to shoplift. An investigator was “concerned about the safety of the child due to the mother’s drug habit seemingly becoming worse” and suspected Aidan was being brought along by Autumn during her drug purchases. DCF lawyers again blocked BSO from filing a court petition.

Autumn Bizier insists her actions never endangered her son. “DCF did come to the house a couple of times and they looked at Aidan and said he was healthy and looked fine and there was food in the house,” she said. “I was a young mom, but that did not stop me from doing what I needed to do to take care of my son.”

On the morning of March 13, 2009, Cindy Bizier received a panicked phone call from Autumn. The grandmother rushed home. As she got closer, she saw a helicopter hovering overhead. She knew.

Firefighters believe Aidan was playing with a Zippo lighter when the fire started. The death was ruled an accident.

Though Autumn tested positive for marijuana and said she had smoked pot the night before, the Broward state attorney’s office determined Aidan’s death was an accident and declined to press charges.

The flames left an eerie, heart-shaped scorch mark on the wall of the garage, precisely where Aidan was found, alone except for Missy, the faithful pet who died beside him.

Haunted by the loss of her grandson, Cindy Bizier couldn’t bring herself to paint it over.

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