Published: Saturday, March 8, 2014 at 18:37 PM.
PANAMA CITY — Worry set in when the boys were 10 minutes late.
“I looked at the clock: ‘Where are the kids,’ ” said Jeanette Best, caregiver for two boys who were removed from their mother’s care almost two years ago. “They normally get here by 5:45 p.m. and they had not shown up.”
At about 6 p.m. that same day, Jan. 13, the phone rang.
“It wasn’t until I answered the phone … and I knew they were safe at the Boys & Girls Club that I could actually exhale,” Best said. Officials at the Department of Children and Families (DCF) had never taken the kids to the club.
Finally home and getting ready for bed, 8-year-old Nathan and 7-year-old David described pain from blows they had sustained during the supervised visit earlier.
Abuse and neglect are reasons the state removes children from their homes. After their removal, children must face their former abusers at weekly visitations supervised by DCF. However, visits can lead to more problems, as in the case of the two boys in Best’s care. DCF officials say it doesn’t happen often, but admit they have no system to track how many visits have led to new allegations of abuse.
According to Best, the boys said their older 10-year-old brother had “beat” them. The sides of their torsos were bruised and tender. Even the slightest touch caused grimacing.
Best, concerned, took them to the emergency room at Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center, where doctors examined them and prescribed pain medicines and ice packs. The hospital notified authorities through the Florida Abuse hotline.
According to emergency room reports, both boys had contusions — tenderness and swelling in soft tissues, which result from trauma and bleeding in the injured area. They missed several days of school while recovering at home.
A police report was filed at Panama City Police Department by Jeanette and her husband Ulyssee Best.
“When that happened … these children were yet traumatized again,” Best said. “And what made me so outraged was that they were in the hands of people that have been committed to protecting them.”
The visit was held in a secured room at the DCF 14th Judicial Circuit office, 910 Harrison Ave.
At the visit, according to Best, two DCF case workers, the boys’ siblings, mother and grandmother were present. The grandmother was considered a third party supervisor — someone approved by DCF to help facilitate visitations.
However, after the incident, she was removed and Best became a third party supervisor. The case has been since closed and neither case worker was penalized, Best said; the boys continue to do visitations.
DCF officials refused to respond to questions about this specific case, due to privacy concerns.
Are visitations effective?
After the alleged beating incident, Best emailed DCF officials a list of requests. The requests were geared toward making a safe environment for Nathan and David.
She requested DCF file a motion for an emergency modification to the boys’ visitation agreement, the two DCF case managers present at the alleged incident be removed from the case, the boys’ grandmother to be prohibited to serve as a third party supervisor and a psychological review of the boys’ brother, who allegedly had been the attacker. She also wanted DCF to ask the judge over the case to explain why goals of reunification remain.
According to Best, DCF responded to her requests by removing the grandmother as a third party supervisor and removing the case managers from the case. Best became a third party supervisor; however, after several inquiries, a case manager informed her that the investigation is closed and reunification still is a goal.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Judges, magistrates, DCF, anybody else, maybe they have the luxury of forgetting because they see them happy, they see them thriving. But we can’t forget because anything can trigger a traumatic experience they’ve been through.”
However, reunification is not the only aim for DCF, said Katie Zimpfer, operations manager at Big Bend Community Based Care. In some cases, family separation is a better solution to ongoing child neglect and abuse.
“Usually, (reunification) is the best for the child,” Zimpfer said. “But we certainly look at those by an individual basis because it’s not always best for the child.”
Last year, with 221 children removed, Bay County saw the sixth highest rate of children removed from their homes in the state, according to DCF data. Okaloosa County was eighth highest having removed 239 children.
And, since mid-2011, 261 child removal cases have resulted in reunification in Bay. Only 26 of those cases resulted in re-removal.
“The truth is the federal government, our state laws require that we be as least intrusive in families’ lives as possible,” Thomas said. “But with that said, we look at every case and determine the safety of the children.”
What’s best for the child?
According to DCF officials, the state agency doesn’t have a system to track the number of incidents that occur at visitations, so Florida’s child protective services is unaware how often abuse or neglect happens at supervised visits.
Incidents are addressed on a case-by-case basis, according to DCF director of Family and Community Services Janice Thomas.
“If a child is injured or harmed in a visit,” Thomas said, “we have a process where we can immediately stop visitation by going through an emergency process” through the court. “And we would take that very seriously.”
A windowed room provided by Life Management of Northwest Florida is available for visitations that require increased levels of supervision. The highly-secured room is staged to be comfortable and homelike in order to provide a natural setting.
Nathan and David were allegedly beaten in a similar type room while two case workers and a state-approved supervisor were present, according to Jeanette Best’s story.
Thomas said sometimes caregivers’ and foster parents’ emotions blur details of what actually happened.
“Sometimes people may observe or interpret things because of their own emotional involvement in a situation,” Thomas said. “But let me assure you that if a caregiver has a complaint about a visit, both the Big Bend Community Based Care and, if the complaint rises to the level of the department, (DCF) definitely investigates that situation.”
Jeanette Best, who is a former parent liaison at Lucille Moore Elementary where she first met Nathan, feels she has the smallest voice in determining what’s best for the two boys she took in.
“I don’t take care of them as a caregiver; I take care of them as a parent,” Best said. “And I think that’s the heart of most caregivers — you go in it because you have a heart for the children and you know there’s a need.”
As Guardian ad Litem at the 14th Judicial Circuit, Nancy Bishop is assigned to be another set of eyes and ears for the court on the behalf of children.
And the caregivers’ “vital” role is to support the state’s initiatives and objectives, she said.
Caregivers “don’t come to court with an attorney; that’s not their role in the system,” Bishop added. “Their role in the system … is to help give the child stability and safety until the system reaches its primary goal — keep a family together or to put it back together.”
All too aware of the former living conditions in which the boys once lived, Best continues to pursue answers and accountability from the state.
“I will keep speaking until somebody hears and makes some changes, not just for Nathan and David, but for all the other Nathans and Davids out there,” Best said.
Feb. 28 was Nathan’s two-year anniversary with the Bests; his brother David joined him May 31 that same year. Since then, Jeanette and Ulyssee Best have fed, tucked in, transported to school, celebrated holidays and embraced Nathan and David. As nonrelative caregivers, they receive no funding from the state.
“They are not voiceless anymore,” Best said of the boys. “They are not victims anymore.”
Become a foster parent
Potential foster parents must be at least 21 years old, single or married for at least a year, and willing to undergo a 30-hour Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting training session.
A stay of a child with a foster family can range from a day to more than a year. The state provides financial assistance to foster families.
Big Bend has established an initiative to generate interest in foster care parenting, an obvious need in Bay County. In January, Big Bend reported in Bay County 79 children were currently transported outside of the county after being removed from their homes.
Only 47 foster homes were available at the time and 320 children in total were removed.