Déjà vu over child deaths in Florida

Date: 2011-03-26

For years, brutal child deaths have begat task forces, which produced reports – followed by still more child deaths

BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER AND DIANA MOSKOVITZ

For months a little girl goes to school, battered and bruised. Teachers’ calls to the state’s abuse hot line go unheeded. She disappears and is found, days later, dead. The prime suspect is her father.

A shocked state calls for reform, and a panel investigates what went wrong. It finds little urgency among front-line workers in the state’s child welfare system, too little credibility given to the concerns of educators and a startling lack of people using common sense.

The group concludes: “It is imperative that the children of Florida be protected from abuse better.”

But this is not the story of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona, found dead on Valentine’s Day, her small body awash in chemicals and shoved in a black trash bag inside her adoptive father’s pickup truck. They are the hauntingly similar findings of a grand jury called more than 10 years earlier to look into the death of 6-year-old Kayla McKean, a Lake County girl beaten to death on Thanksgiving Eve 1998 after a series of reports to state child protection workers saying she was physically abused went ignored.

The grand jury presentment on Kayla’s death is among about two dozen reports compiled in the last 20 years blasting Florida’s troubled child welfare system. Each resulted from a scandalous child death.

Each found similar faults with the system and were soon followed by promises from leaders with the state’s Department of Children & Families to make Florida’s children safer.

Fast forward to Nubia’s death this year, and the cycle continues.

“It doesn’t sound like they learned a whole lot from Kayla,’’ said Susan Salazar, the little girl’s guidance counselor who had begged authorities to take action.

Once the largest state social service agency in the United States, DCF — originally called the Department of Health & Rehabilitative Services — has been chopped, renamed, centralized, decentralized, and mostly privatized.

Through successive administrations, it remained the whipping boy of state government. Lapses meant less money. Less money led to more lapses — followed by panels.

U.S. Circuit Judge Rosemary Barkett, a former state Supreme Court justice, helped draft the Bradley McGee Act when she headed the Florida Study Commission on Child Welfare following the ghastly death of 2-year-old Bradley from having his head plunged into a toilet.

“It gets very frustrating when you address the same issues over and over again,’’ said Barkett, who has been a forceful advocate for attorneys for abused and neglected children.

Before Nubia, and before Kayla, there was Corey Greer.

Corey was four months old and living in a Treasure Island foster home licensed for four children — but brimming with eight more. His caregivers neglected to turn on his heart monitor, and left him alone in a stiflingly hot room. Then-Gov. Bob Graham appointed a task force that found high turnover and low pay among caseworkers contributed to Corey’s death, and a host of changes were put in place.

Four years later, in July 1989, when 2-year-old Bradley McGee’s stepfather plunged the toddler head-first into the toilet as punishment for a potty-training accident, a panel, once again, found the state’s child protection workforce understaffed and underpaid.

The 1990s saw child death task forces at the rate of one every two years. In May 1995, it was Lucas Ciambrone, whose Bradenton adoptive parents beat, starved and tortured him. He died with cracked ribs, more than 200 bruises and weighed just 27 pounds.

The Ciambrone panel issued 44 recommendations, including that lawmakers stop passing child welfare laws without the money to pay for them. Four months later, legislators cut 33 child abuse investigators from their budget.

The Community Review Panel report that followed Lucas’ death barely had time to gather dust when Florida experienced one of the worst periods in its child-welfare history. In September and October 1997, six children with extensive DCF histories were killed: Beaunca Jones, 2; Nia Scott, 2; Alexandria Champagne, 21 months; Saydee Alvarado, 8 months; Walkiria Batista, 3, and Jonathan Flam, 2.

A task force followed, and then-DCF Secretary Edward Feaver developed new protocols for measuring risk to children.

Then came Thanksgiving, 1998. Richard Adams in Clermont reported his 6-year-old daughter missing.

“The Grand Jury understands that is impossible to legislate common sense, or to regulate an employee to care. Yet the Grand Jury is concerned about the reluctance of various individuals to enthusiastically embrace their duties.’’

That was among the criticisms offered in the look back at the short, tortured life of Kayla McKean, a little girl with blond hair and big eyes who forever peers out at the world from her grade school photo with a cautious smile. Born to teenage parents who never married, Kayla lived with her mother most of her life until, when destitute, Kayla’s mother gave her to Kayla’s father, Adams.

Six-year-old Kayla was well-known to Central Florida’s child protection system. When Kayla sustained two black eyes in April 1997, her mother blamed anemia and spider bites. When she, again, had two black eyes — in addition to a broken hand and a broken nose — her parents said she fell off a bicycle.

“Kayla didn’t even own a bicycle,’’ Salazar, the counselor, said of the quality of the DCF investigations.

In October 1998, Kayla had a “knot” on her head, a scraped chin, injured wrist, black eye and walked with a limp. The new explanation: a dog stepped on her face and she fell in the bathtub. Kayla told investigators the marks were because her dad tied her wrists together.

After her father reported her missing, an army of volunteers searched for Kayla for five days in the Ocala National Forest. Adams later admitted he beat his daughter to death, then buried her in a duffel bag. He was upset because she had soiled her panties.

A grand jury convened and proposed sweeping changes to how Florida responded to reports of child abuse: Require the state’s abuse hot line to accept all reports, “every complaint, no matter how inconsequential it may appear over the telephone.’’ Never minimize or ignore the concerns of educators. Require the Department of Health’s Child Protection Team to evaluate all allegations of physical injury.

Allow the same investigator to look into all successive abuse allegations so patterns can be observed. Never interview abused children in front of their suspected abusers.

“We sent that damn thing to the head of the state Senate, the head of the House, the governor-elect, the sitting governor. We sent it to anybody who could possibly make a difference,’’ said Assistant State Attorney William M. Gross, who supervised the grand jury. “Maybe I was naive, but we assumed that when we passed the Kayla law we had done something to protect kids. We all were so heartbroken.’’

It took less than a year before another community was heartbroken.

When asked, 2-year-old Joshua Saccone told DCF investigators in Palm Beach County that his mother’s boyfriend beat him. In one report, the boy told investigators that “Junior hit him and it hurts,” referring to his mother’s boyfriend. His mother promised to keep the boyfriend away. Joshua died in August 2000 after he was beaten to death.

A Palm Beach County grand jury followed, as did another one in Broward a year later.

The third paragraph of the 73-page report warned, “Stability, organization and common sense, hallmarks of successful public systems, are lamentably absent from Broward County’s child welfare system.”

A year later, another panel was formed — this time to study how a 5-year-old foster child had disappeared.

A DCF case worker had lied for months about making visits to the foster home of Miami’s Rilya Wilson. Her foster mother, Geralyn Graham, had a criminal history, including welfare-fraud allegations, authorities somehow overlooked.

It was more than a year before authorities noticed she was missing; they waited another week before calling police.

A blue ribbon panel was appointed, held public meetings, issued angry statements and wrote a page-turning final report. Among its recommendations: Immediately call law enforcement when a child is believed to be missing. Pay caseworkers and supervisors better, but also based on their performance. Streamline policies to focus on preventing abuse and neglect.

Five years after Rilya, when Courtney Clark vanished in the Tampa Bay area, a private caseworker waited four months before reporting her disappearance to police.

The toddler was found alive — in a rural Wisconsin home. Locked in the closet was an 11-year-old torture victim. Buried in the yard under newly planted flowers: a woman’s body.

Courtney’s task force, once again, recommended establishing a “zero tolerance policy” for caseworkers and investigators who fail to call police when a child disappears.

In a 37-page report following the latest death, the missing children recommendations from both Courtney and Rilya’s panels were marked “completed.’’

Still, when investigators failed to find twins Nubia and Victor Barahona after a Feb. 10 report that they were being tied up and locked in a bathroom — and a report two days later that Nubia had vanished — police were never called. The February reports were the last of nearly a dozen made to the abuse hot line about Nubia in her short life. Several calls came from educators — would-be “heroes,’’ according to the panel, had their words been heeded.

The twins went missing for four days until, on Feb. 14, a road ranger found them on the side of Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach. Victor was awash in chemicals and having seizures inside his adoptive father’s pest control truck. Jorge Barahona was nearby, passed out.
Nubia’s body was decomposing in a trash bag inside the truck bed.

Police reports described hellish abuse of the twins in the home of their adoptive mother and father: tied hand and foot, confined to a bathtub, beaten, starved and “tortured.’’ Victor, police said, listened helplessly as his twin was beaten to death on the other side of a bathroom wall. She shrieked until her crying suddenly stopped.

DCF’s newest secretary called for a panel to act quickly. Among its members was Roberto Martinez, a former U.S. attorney who, even as a top federal prosecutor, cannot recall anything quite as horrible as the torment of Nubia and her brother.

The recommendations of Martinez and his two colleagues — children’s advocate David Lawrence, Jr. and former assistant Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner James Sewell — could have been cut-and-pasted from many others:

Place greater weight on the fears of educators. Call police at the first sign of a missing child. Review a child’s entire history when investigating abuse allegations, not just the last call. Avoid interviewing alleged victims in front of their reported abusers. Seek help from the Child Protection Team, the experts in evaluating child abuse. Use common sense.

“It sure seems like you could just substitute the names of the children,” Martinez said, “and the story repeats itself.”

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