Soon after Debbie and Jorge adopted three boys who had been raped and beaten in Palm Beach County foster care, they bought the children miniature horses.
They hoped the pets would help teach the brothers to care for living things. And a few months ago, when the youngest boy called from out of state to ask how the horses were eating, Debbie thought she may have succeeded. He seemed to miss them.
But not long afterward, Debbie came home to find some of the horses convulsing, and most already dead. Her son, now 13, had slipped rat poison into their food.
That has been Debbie and Jorge's life since 1998, when they adopted the boys without knowing they had been abused for years in state foster care. Both gave up their chosen careers to raise their severely troubled sons, who have set fires in their home and have hidden knives outside their bedroom windows.
But it will be at least another year before they get their promised compensation from the state.
The Department of Children and Families settled with the parents for $10 million in October and is now paying for the boys' therapy at specialized residential treatment programs outside of Florida. But any payment of more than $100,000 requires approval from lawmakers. And a claims bill for the full amount (SB 66) died in the legislature this session.
Debbie and Jorge say they understand the state's budget crisis, but the money is critical to help boys who have already killed animals and threatened to kill Debbie.
Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, sponsored the family's claims bill and is in line to take over as Senate president next year if he is reelected. This session, he pushed legislators to approve payments for Marissa Amora, another Palm Beach County child, who won a $26.8 million jury verdict after DCF failed her too.
Atwater said Friday that he will work to win relief for the three brothers.
"We will get it done," Atwater said. "I can tell you that, regrettably, it will not be this year. But the day will come."
Debbie and Jorge were a school principal and youth minister living in Boynton Beach when they approached DCF about adopting from foster care more than a decade ago. The couple already had one adopted son, and they said they were open to children with learning disabilities or other problems.
The only thing they said they couldn't handle was a child who had been sexually abused.
DCF's adoption workers didn't know that the three boys were being molested in their foster home when they introduced them to the couple. The department failed to provide other records that showed the boys had reported abuse in another foster home, where they said they were caged when they misbehaved.
Former foster father Hector Rosa was sentenced to life in prison for molesting the three boys and an 11-year-old girl.
Debbie and Jorge closed on the adoption in 1998, when the boys were 3, 5 and 6 years old.
Soon after the adoption, the couple discovered how severe the boys' abuse had been.
The couple said they had looked forward to a jury trial in their suit against DCF, but they agreed to settle because the state promised immediate treatment for the boys. Though relieved that the boys are now in treatment programs, they say the family is still under enormous financial and emotional strain.
Jorge said he is optimistic that Atwater and other state leaders will come through with the money next year.
"I believe he cares for our family, and it's encouraging for us," Jorge said.