Group begins review of how system failed Nubia

Date: 2011-02-25

BY DANIEL CHANG

Common sense approaches to suspicious behavior, better pay and training for child welfare investigators, and improved communications with law enforcement were some of the ideas discussed Friday when a panel of experts met to open their investigation into what went wrong with the state’s efforts to protect twins Nubia and Victor Barahona from alleged abuse by their adoptive parents.

The panel of three experts, including two veterans of past high-profile child death cases, is tasked with investigating management of the more than 10 years of circumstances that led to the Feb. 14 discovery of Nubia’s decomposed body in the bed of her father’s pickup truck.

Jorge Barahona, who is jailed in West Palm Beach, has been charged with aggravated abuse and the attempted murder of Victor, who was in the cab of the truck, soaked with unidentified chemicals and suffering from severe burns.

No one has been charged in Nubia’s death.

Panelist David Lawrence Jr., a former Miami Herald publisher and head of the Children’s Movement of Florida, said he hoped the group’s work would lead to a meaningful legacy for Nubia.

“It should be figuring out how we can make sure this doesn’t happen again,’’ said Lawrence, who led a blue-ribbon panel that looked into the disappearance years earlier of Rilya Wilson.

The other panelists are Jim Sewell, a state Department of Children & Families manager who led the 2009 review into the death of Gabriel Myers; and Bobby Martinez, a former top federal prosecutor in Miami.

Lawrence declined to assign blame at the panel’s first meeting. But after hearing testimony from child welfare administrators — such as the fact that Barahona and his wife, Carmen, pulled Nubia and Victor out of public school and began homeschooling them after teachers voiced concerns in 2006, 2007 and 2010 that the twins appeared bruised, unkempt and hungry — Lawrence noted “several points where you see some lack of common sense.’’

Despite these red flags, a number of child-welfare experts — including pediatricians, child protection investigators and social workers — visited the Barahona home and ultimately recommended the twins be adopted by the Barahonas.

“It seems like there were an awful lot of eyes on these kids,’’ said Fran Allegra, executive director of Our Kids of Miami-Dade, a nonprofit that manages and oversees local foster parenting and adoption cases. “This was something that was not rushed.’’

But Paul Neumann, the guardian-ad-litem for the twins, said he warned caseworkers and a Miami judge in 2007 that the children may not be safe with the Barahonas. This week, Neumann was reappointed as Victor’s guardian-ad-litem.

Neumann said he would like an answer as to why he was removed as the children’s guardian-ad-litem, which he said happened shortly before the adoption was finalized in May 2009.

“I’ve asked why,’’ Neumann said, “but I still don’t know why.”

Jacqui Colyer, DCF’s top administrator in Miami, described a detailed, 21-step process that investigators are supposed to follow in the 48 hours after receiving an abuse allegation. Among the necessary steps are face-to-face meetings with the alleged victims — something DCF investigators were unable to do after receiving a tip on Feb. 10 that the twins were being bound hand and foot and forced to stand for hours in a bathtub.

Martinez, the panelist, suggested that such a detailed checklist could have lulled child welfare investigators into a “false sense of security.’’

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