DCF settles suit for $10 million
By Nancy L. OthM-sn
Florida's Department of Children & Families reached a $10 million settlement Monday with the adoptive parents of three brothers who endured neglect from their own parents, sexual abuse at the hands of a foster father and punishment that included being placed in a backyard chicken coop.
The former Boynton Beach couple, who adopted the boys without knowing the full extent of the boys' background and deep-seeded psychiatric problems, sued the agency in 2002, contending that the abuse emotionally scarred the brothers for life and that DCF was negligent.
The boys' adoptive parents, who live in High Springs, also argued that DCF failed to provide appropriate mental health services for the boys, downplayed the emotional harm they suffered and concealed information about the brothers to get them adopted.
"These boys have been languishing in sub-optimal psychiatric and mental health treatment centers in Florida," said the couple's attorney, Lance Block of Tallahassee. "[DCF] was nickel-and-diming this family for years."
DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth said DCF settled so the family could "begin to move past these tragic circumstances together."
"As I have said before, we must acknowledge wrongdoing when it occurs and then do what we can to make it right," Butterworth said in a statement. "It is my hope these children can receive the services they need to cope with their past and build a new future."
Under the settlement terms, the agency agreed to pay the statutory $500,000 limit and fully support a $9.5 million claims bill that the Legislature must pass in 2008 before the entire settlement is paid.
"I've been doing this for 23 years and it's the first time I've seen the Department of Children & Families try to get a case settled," Block said. "I do think they are trying to help these kids."
The case would have gone to trial in early November, but attorneys on the case were scheduled to appear in court today for a two-day, mock jury trial open to the public.
Attorneys would not have presented witnesses, but would have outlined the case and presented closing arguments to a mock jury to hear the strengths and weaknesses of the case and try to get the case settled.
The brothers - who are 15, 14 and 12 - were abused by their natural mother and then placed in various foster homes with no stability. One was the home of Hector Rosa, who repeatedly abused the boys and is serving a life prison sentence.
The couple adopted the boys in July 1998 and was told they had mild to moderate behavioral problems resulting from physical and sexual abuse. They later learned the problems were far more severe.
Without the proper intensive psychiatric treatment the boys needed, the brothers violently lashed out at their adoptive mother, tried to molest each other or their classmates and attempted suicide, according to the lawsuit. The couple was forced to install security equipment in the home to protect the boys and themselves.
One child trauma expert, who was deposed during litigation, testified the boys' care upon entering the foster system was "catastrophically destructive" to each child, according to court documents. DCF's care for the children was "uncoordinated and disjointed," said the expert, who was testifying for DCF.
Block said one of the boys is in a group home, another is in custody with the Department of Juvenile Justice and the other is at home waiting placement.
Reached Monday afternoon, the boys' adoptive father said he was relieved that the case was over. Like his attorney, he gave credit to Butterworth and Gov. Charlie Crist for allowing the settlement.
"They're going to require a lot of treatment," said the man, 49. "I feel like we can really get started with the services that we need. In that sense, it gives us hope. I wish this would've come about years ago."
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is not identifying the father to protect the identity of the boys.
Block said the settlement was "fair, at best," adding that if it was against a private entity it would have settled for millions more.
"The delay of treatment has made it more difficult to treat these kids," Block said. "That was one of the reasons why we agreed to settle for less than what the case is worth."
Much of the settlement will go toward a trust fund for the boys that will be available for future care, Block said. The terms of the agreement also call for the boys to receive immediate psychiatric care at prominent treatment centers out of state.
Nancy OthM-sn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-228-5502.
May 2005: $26 million
A Palm Beach County jury awarded the adoptive parents of Marissa Amora $35 million. Jurors said the state was responsible for 75 percent. In 2001, Marissa was severely beaten by her mother's boyfriend. An investigation showed DCF failed to follow its own rules.
August 2007: $6.4 million
A Hillsborough County jury awarded $6.4 million in a verdict against the DCF for failing to investigate complaints about a counselor who treated children.
September: $14 million
The $14 million was split among 20 children placed with Nellie Johnson, a foster parent in Gainesville who was accused of abuse and sentenced to 60 years in prison.