Agency's failing baffle HRS boss

Date: 1995-07-25

By Cherie Jacobs Lane
Saratoga Herald-Tribune

The state leader of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services said Monday that he is baffled at errors agency workers made in handling the foster-care case of a 7-year-old Rubonia boy .who investigators say died at the ‘hands of his adoptive parents.

"Frankly, it kind of defies common sense,” said Ed Feaver, acting secretary of the HRS. "I think people tried, and I think we made some mistakes.

"ll you look at the cumulative record, there are serious questions why we would have made them an adoptive home," Feaver said of Joe and Heather Ciambrone. who were arrested on third-degree murder charges two weeks ago.

"I think, absolutely, had we had at our fingertips all this information that we have now, we may have made different decisions," HRS District 6 Administrator Chip Taylor said. "We may not have allowed this family to adopt, or we may have closed the home, or we may have removed the child. or whatever. "But all we had was fragments, here or the‘re.‘” Taylor said. Items missing from five volumes of files that the HRS released Friday include 24 abuse complaints from one set of foster parents and one concern cited by a pediatrician about "supervision in the Ciambrone household.

Those documents include Lucas’ foster care records, his adoptive parents‘ records and all court and medical records tied to the case.

Cumulatively, they reveal flaws in HRS's oversight of the case that may have cost young Lucas Ciambrone his life.

“The most critical problem with our performance is, we didn't have a history of all the events, so the caseworker reviewing that case would have known that there was more than just an isolated complaint (against the Ciambrones),” Feaver said.

The HRS overlooked, ignored or dismissed these things, according to the files and other foster parents: Dozens of abuse complaints regarding the Ciambrones, evidence that Heather Ciambrone was deceitful and uncooperative, and more than one concern by HRS workers that the Ciambrones might be unable to properly care for Lucas.

Officials unlocked the files to show that the agency handled the case well and to illustrate the polar descriptions the agency received of the Ciambrone home.

The HRS investigated two abuse complaints from Bradenton foster parent Carol Burch. which were later combined into one report and closed without a finding of guilt or innocence.

Foster parents Todd and Tanya Burnham say they called the HRS. too -~ two dozen times complaining about abuse by the Ciambrones. Their calls were never recorded in HRS documents.

Another foster parent, Dena Preston, said she complained to the HRS that the Ciambrones were re- fusing to allow Lucas and his sister to visit their younger brothers.

“There's no red flags? Be real," said Preston, who cared for Lucas‘ two younger brothers. "If you were beaten, if you were starved, you'd act up. too."

Pediatrician Carlos Mendez said he called the I-IRS two years ago, concerned about the Ciambrones’
supervision of their children.

“I would have had concerns about whether they would have made good full-time parents at that point,” Mendez said.

Taylor, whose HRS district includes Hillsborough and Manatee counties, said Monday that no documents exist to confirm that those complaints were made to the agency.

Calls to the Abuse Registry Hot Line can go unrecorded. if the person who answers the phone deems the complaint unacceptable.

Also, if concerns were voiced to workers in the Bradenton HRS office, they might not have made it to the Abuse Registry, Taylor said. The registry may not have accepted those complaints, either, even if they came from an HRS employee.

Feaver said that the HRS is looking into improving the hot line so that it would make a computer record of every call received. That way the HRS could keep a more accurate tally of complaints.

Feaver said the HRS is continuing to investigate the way its workers handled the Ciambrone case.

Taylor plans to meet with all Manatee County foster parents at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 1 to brainstorm about ways to improve the reporting process. The meeting will be in Manatee Coiuity’s Central Library, 1301 Barcarrotta Boulevard W., Braden- ton. The goals will include setting up a better network of reporting to ensure that complaints are heard by the HRS, Taylor said.

Heather Ciambrone at times was deceitful to authorities to get what she wanted, records show.

She told foster parents that a therapist recommended that Lucas and his sister be denied visits with their two brothers, who were staying in another foster home. The therapist in fact did not discourage visitation, the files show.

Heather Ciambrone pulled Lucas and his sister out of public school and placed them in private school-ing, despite specific instructions from the HRS that she not switch schools.

‘When a psychiatrist began to doubt Heather Ciambrone's capability to parent a troubled child like Lucas, she switched doctors, against the HRS officials’ wishes, the files show.

"I'm not sure at the time that anybody was aware of that pattern,"Taylor said. “it seems very clear, in retrospect, that the Ciambrones were less than honest with people.”The parents’ longtime caseworker, Marcia Katich, repeatedly mentioned concerns about the family in monthly reports.

Twice in February 1992 she said she feared the Ciambrones “will not be capable of dealing with the children." She considered finding the children a new foster home, but never did so.

Katich voiced concerns in September 1992 about the Ciambrones adopting a third child. The coiple  had “not been too cooperative,” Katich wrote.

Then, after an abuse report was generated about the Ciambrones, a child protection investigator who visited the family wrote that the threat to Lucas was intermediate, and “. . . she was concerned that something may be wrong in this foster home, but that she was unable to find it out.”

“There are misgivings all through there that Marcia Katich had about the home," Taylor said. "I don't think they are red flags that still stayed red after we investigated." He said he did not know why the HRS failed to follow up on suggestions about finding another foster home for the children, or complaints that they weren't following the HRS's orders regarding schooling.

Then, at the end of 1992, Katich took a leave of absence and the Ciambrones’ case was reassigned to someone else. Katich was not reassigned the case upon her return. On Monday she said she believes the HRS purposely kept her off the case.

“I had a lot of grave concerns," she said. “I think HRS needs to pay moreattention to the caseworkers who worked the case," she said.

Katich wouldn't comment further.

Taylor said Katich was not removed from the case. Some of her cases were reassigned to her, others weren't, Taylor said. They were divided up in a punitive fashion, he said.

The Ciambrones were close to adopting Lucas when Katich returned.

Investigators have said the Ciambrones’ abuse of Lucas escalated after they adopted him in March 1993.

Joe and Heather Ciambrone remained in the Manatee County Jail Monday on $75,004 bond each. Each is charged with third-degree murder. Manatee County Sheriff's detectives said they believe the couple beat, starved and torttu‘ed the frail boy until he slipped into unconsciousness May 11. He died in the hospital two days later.

The Ciambrones told deputies that Lucas injured himself by thrashing around the bathroom, after being told to dry off following a bath. The boy had a history of throwing tantrums after routine requests.

An autopsy conducted May 14 showed Lucas died of a fatal blow to the back of his head, so forceful it could not have been accidental or self-inflicted.


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