Who remembers the ghosts of abused kids?
By Fred Grimm
Nothing’s so ephemeral as the community anger over the cruel life and grisly death of Nubia Barahona.
The ghosts of too many other foster kids can testify that the uproar over mistreated and murdered children is as fleeting as smoke. Reports will be forgotten. Reforms will be inadequate. Budgets for the care of foster children will shrink. Caseworkers will be overwhelmed. Bureaucracies will flounder. And Florida will surely suffer outrage next year. Or the year after.
Little Nubia, 10, will simply fade from public consciousness, just another kid saved by the state from a drug-addled, wreck of a mother only to be deposited into circumstances that led to abuse, misery, neglect and an unspeakable death.
Her burned and decomposing body was found stuffed into the back of a pest-control truck in West Palm Beach Feb. 14. Her twin brother, drugged and doused in toxic chemicals, was barely alive. Their adoptive father, Jorge Barahona, the very man chosen by the state to care for these children, was charged with attempted murder and aggravated child abuse.
The ghosts of Florida’s other forgotten children could have predicted what was coming next. The Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller reported that the Florida Department of Children & Families had received a number of warnings that Nubia had been abused and neglected by Jorge Barahona and his wife, Carmen. Her court-appointed guardian had tried, futilely, to intervene. Teachers, in 2006, 2007 and 2010, warned DCF that they had seen alarming signs. Bruises. Hysterical crying. Chronic absences. A child who came to school unbathed, with a sickening odor. A 2007 call to the DCF hotline said, “Nubia’s hunger has been uncontrollable, she sneaks and steals food, steals money, has hair loss, is very thin... nervous and jittery.”
Four days before her body was found, DCF received a call warning that the twins were kept bound, stashed in a bathtub in the Barahona house.
Yet the agency failed to act. A child is dead. Her twin is in critical care. The community, for the moment, demands action.
The ghosts remember such talk from the past. Who remembers the ghosts?
Maybe a few of us still remember Rilya Wilson, the foster kid who vanished in January, 2001, months before DCF noticed her disappearance. But what about Jasmine Marie Thomas, the one-year-old who starved to death in Key Largo even while DCF was supposedly investigating her circumstances?
Who remembers Ana and Anthony Pérez in 2002? DCF was warned of problems before their father pummeled them to death. So many other names have slipped from the public memory: David Nieves Jr., 22 months; Natalie Gomez-Perez, just two months; Gabriel Golden, five months; Latiana Hamilton, 18 months; Glemus Guyton, age eight; Tony Bragg Jr., nine months; Gregory Love, 23 months; Zachary Bennett, five; and so many others killed despite DCF oversight. When The Herald counted up the Florida children killed while under protective custody back in 2002, the number was over 100.
“We’ve had report after report from grand juries and special commissions. That’s Florida’s reaction to a tragedy,” said Howard Talenfeld, longtime child advocate and president of Florida’s Children First. He said various agencies, in a fragmented effort, try to make incremental changes. “But there was no united legislative response.” Instead, budgets were cut. The guardian program was left underfunded. Contractors and states agencies, each assigned pieces of a child’s life, weren’t coordinated, didn’t communicate. And kids kept dying.
Now comes a recommendation out of the governor’s office for a 15 percent cut in the DCF’s budget.
The ghosts of Florida’s forgotten children know what that will bring.