Days before body was found, abuse hotline caller warned kids were in danger

Date: 2011-03-02

BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER AND DIANA MOSKOVITZ

Two days before Nubia Barahona’s decomposed body was found in the flatbed of her adoptive father’s pickup, a man called Florida child welfare workers expressing alarm that the girl seemed to have vanished.
When the father was asked about Nubia’s whereabouts, he said she was with her mother. But when the mother was asked where Nubia was, she replied with the father.

It was the second call to the abuse hotline about Nubia in 48 hours, and the 10th abuse report over Nubia’s 10-year lifespan.

Like the other pleas, this one was met with little urgency.

The hotline counselor, named Brian, said the Department of Children & Families would look into the matter – “but it won’t be today.’’ He said the agency would “go ahead and get someone in the next 24 hours or so.”

DCF, under fire for its inability to protect Nubia and her twin brother Victor despite numerous complaints to the abuse hotline, released the audio and transcript of the Feb. 12 call on Wednesday.

In the audio, Brian challenges the caller about why he’s so sure the children are being abused.

The caller said not only was Nubia missing, but Victor had a split lip that appeared to need stitches but was treated only with a Band-Aid. The caller said Jorge Barahona, the twins’ adoptive father, claimed the boy had fallen, “But I don’t believe — believe that is the story.’’

Brian responds: “And why don’t you believe that he fell?’’

Two days earlier, on Thursday Feb. 10, a children’s therapist called the hotline and said the twins were being bound hand and foot and made to spend most of the day in the bathtub of the family’s home. The therapist heard this from the Barahonas’ 6-year-old granddaughter.
From that point on, DCF has said, the agency had been looking for the twins.

The agency didn’t find them, but a road ranger did. On Valentine’s Day, Victor was found in Barahona’s red pest control pickup truck parked on the side of Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County. The boy had sustained burns from unknown chemicals and was convulsing. His father was passed out nearby.

Nubia’s decomposed body was discovered hours later in the back of the truck, soaked in chemicals and stuffed in a trash bag. Authorities believe she may have died weeks earlier and been buried in a septic tank behind the Barahonas’ house.

The caller from two days earlier had seemed particularly fearful: The man said his sister had asked Jorge Barahona where Nubia was. “He doesn’t come out with a straight answer, which is worrying me so much that something might have happened to that little girl.’’

The caller also was concerned about her twin.

Victor, the caller said, had a serious cut on his lip that required stitches. Instead, he told the hotline, the Barahonas put a Band Aid on the cut and neglected to get the boy medical attention.

“The little boy,’’ the caller said, “shows signs of a wound around his face or mouth, which he claim [sic] that the boy fell, but I don’t believe — believe that is the story.’’

“It is questionable why this kid was not taken to a medical facility when the wound obviously needs stitches,’’ he told Brian.

“And why don’t you believe that he fell,’’ Brian asks.

The caller: “Because we went, we went to see the lady [Jorge’s wife Carmen]. She was never straight as to what I saw and she was giving this sign like I want to take a bottle and never wake up, a bottle of pills and never wake up again.’’

Jorge Barahona is in jail without bond, charged with the attempted murder of his son, who is recovering from the chemical burns. Carmen Barahona has not been charged.

DCF also released Wednesday afternoon a heavily redacted copy of the preliminary investigation of the Feb. 10 hotline call. Huge chunks of the report were blackened by department administrators, who say they are protecting the children’s confidentiality — as well as the ongoing police investigation into Nubia’s death and Victor’s injuries.

In the report, much of which consists of a checklist that was filled out by investigator Andrea Fleary, Fleary checks a box marked “safe’’ on Feb. 11 next to the notation:. “No safety factors were identified at this time.’’.

Though Fleary could not have seen the twins, she marked that there was no risk associated with this question: “Primary caregiver provides physical care consistent with child needs.’’

The checklist indicated Fleary had made contact with unspecified “collaterals’’ — such as neighbors, pediatricians or teachers — though every neighbor, including both next-door neighbors, contacted recently by The Miami Herald said they had not once spoken with a DCF investigator.

The checklist also indicated that Fleary had notified police about the allegations, though administrators have since acknowledged no such action was taken.

Earlier Wednesday, child welfare administrators held a news conference to say they were fixing those lapses that they can correct quickly — and studying those they can’t — in the wake of Nubia’s grisly death.

David Wilkins, recently appointed as DCF’s secretary, told reporters the agency is moving quickly to correct agency missteps that might have contributed to Nubia’s death, and Victor’s injuries. Some lapses, Wilkins said, will require greater study and already are being investigated by a panel Wilkins appointed last month.

Among the early reforms: Administrators in Miami now are sending electronic copies of all child abuse and neglect reports that suggest criminal wrongdoing immediately to local law enforcement agencies, said both Wilkins and Jacqui Colyer, the agency’s top Miami administrator. Before Nubia’s death, the department sent such referrals to police in weekly “batches,’’ Colyer said.

“We are sending these referrals out immediately,’’ Colyer told reporters,’’ adding: “Police departments all have been very responsive.’’
Wilkins began his news conference Wednesday by encouraging Floridians to continue praying for Nubia and her family. Victor, he said, was released from Jackson Memorial Hospital’s burn unit to a therapeutic foster home Tuesday night, and he is recovering nicely, though he will require intensive counseling and medical care.

“I believe in the collective power of prayer and hope in this situation,’’

Wilkins said. “Sadly,’’ he added, “no amount of prayer or hope can provide peace to Nubia in this world.’’

Wilkins lauded his administrators in Miami for posting hundreds of pages of documents about the case on DCF’s website, adding that “no other agency has been so completely public in so short a period of time.’’ In all, DCF has released records on several prior abuse investigations involving the twins, several years of documents related to their five years in foster care, personnel records on the DCF investigator involved in the Feb. 10 hotline call, and a host of other documents. Wilkins dismissed criticism that the agency has not been transparent enough.

When asked by reporters to address specific shortcomings in the agency’s lengthy involvement with the twins, Wilkins mostly declined, saying he would withhold his evaluation until after his review team has released its findings.

He also defended the performance of DCF employees in Miami, whom he has lauded consistently for their dedication to the area’s children.
“Despite opportunistic criticism, I have full faith in your work,’’ he said, mostly addressing a collection of employees who attended the news conference, as well as other staffers.

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