Panel hears chilling tales from Nubia’s short life
BY DIANA MOSKOVITZ AND CAROL MARBIN MILLER
Chilling flashbacks from the short, tormented life of Nubia Barahona were recounted Tuesday by a child-welfare lawyer who periodically broke into sobs.
Christine Lopez-Acevedo, a former attorney for the Guardian ad-litem Program, recited mostly by memory from official child welfare records: Nubia telling a teacher she was going to be beaten with footwear; Nubia locking herself in a bathroom and crying hysterically at the thought of her mother being called to the school; Nubia promising to behave better if a principal promised never again to call her mother.
The records were readily available in 2009 when a Miami judge approved the adoption of Nubia and her twin brother Victor by foster parents Jorge and Carmen Barahona.
The adoption would turn tragic. On Valentine’s Day, Victor Barahona, was discovered in the cab of his red pickup truck along Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County, soaked in toxic chemicals and suffering seizures. Next to him, passed out, was Jorge Barahona, who runs a pest control company. Hours later, Nubia’s decomposing body was discovered in the bed of the pickup, shoved in a bag. Like her brother, she was 10.
At the second meeting of a panel charged with determining how numerous efforts to save Nubia fell so tragically short, speakers said the girl demonstrated a distinct fear of her then-foster mother as far back as kindergarten.
At a 2007 court hearing recounted by Lopez-Acevedo, Nubia’s Royal Palm Elementary kindergarten teacher described the day Nubia wet her pants at school. Thinking it no big deal, the teacher told Nubia she would call Carmen Barahona to have her bring a change of clothes.
“Mama is going to hit me with a chancleta [a type of sandal] on the bottom of my feet,’’ the teacher testified. Nubia then locked herself in a bathroom and cried hysterically, said Lopez-Acevedo, who wept herself when relating the episode.
The principal at another school, Blue Lakes Elementary, also testified that Nubia was fearful of Carmen – so fearful that she once promised she would never fall asleep in class again if the school would refrain from calling home to complain about her. The principal said a colleague from the twins’ previous school suggested “something was not right’’ with the twins, and that school workers should keep an eye on them, Lopez-Acevedo said.
They did. All told, three times between 2006 and 2010, Blue Lakes Elementary employees called the state’s child-abuse hotline with concerns that Nubia had been brought to school dirty, foul-smelling and unkempt. And that Nubia hoarded food and complained constantly that she was hungry.
Yet none of this information was provided to Vanessa Archer, the psychologist charged with evaluating the Barahonas’ fitness to adopt the twins, who had been in their care as foster children. The result: what foster care administrators have called a “glowing’’ evaluation of the couple, which smoothed the way for the Barahonas to adopt.
“There was alarming information from the school,’’ said Roberto Martinez, a former U.S. attorney for Southern Florida who is part of the three-member panel determining what went wrong.
While the panel was listening to speakers, police from both Miami-Dade County and West Palm Beach were, once again, looking for clues at the Barahonas’ West Miami-Dade home. They may have found one: Detectives left the house Tuesday morning carrying a bathtub. A Feb. 10 call to the state’s abuse hotline — the last of nine that mentioned the girl — said Nubia and her twin were being taped hand and foot and forced to stand for hours in a bathtub.
Later Tuesday, a family law attorney representing Carmen Barahona filed for divorce against Jorge Barahona on Carmen’s behalf. Jorge remains at the Palm Beach County Jail with no bail on charges of attempted murder and aggravated child abuse.
Karl Hall, Carmen’s lawyer, said Carmen was a victim of domestic violence who was every bit as terrorized by Jorge as the children.
“Carmen Barahona is a woman with a host of problems stemming from her relationship to Jorge Barahona,’’ Hall said. “His control and his actions put the fear into her.’’
The petition seeks spousal support and child support from her jailed
husband, as well as custody of their three remaining children.
Victor was released from Jackson Memorial Hospital on Tuesday.
At the hearing Tuesday morning, panelist David Lawrence chided foster care workers for placing too much weight on the opinions of “experts’’ –– such as psychologists Archer and Michael DiTomasso, who also evaluated the children — and too little weight to the concerns of teachers and school administrators, who saw the twins every day.
“I can’t imagine a more neutral witness myself than a principal. You listen to this, and you think ‘these are signals of the highest order’,’’ said Lawrence, who heads the Children’s Movement of Florida. “It just seems stunningly tragic to me.’’