March 02, 2016

Agency ordered to pay children abused while in foster care but Legislature won't authorize payment

by @KMcGrory and @MaryEllenKlas

Time is running out for lawmakers to compensate a Spring Hill man who, as a young boy, was sexually abused by a foster child living in his home.

A jury awarded the man $5 million because the state Department of Children and Families failed to disclose the foster child's violent history to the family that took him in.

But in order for the man to collect, the state Legislature must approve what's known as a "claim bill." And so far, Senate leaders have held up about two dozen such bills, calling the process flawed.

Howard Talenfeld, the attorney representing the Spring Hill man, called the situation "sad," but said he hadn't given up hope of lawmakers taking action before the session ends next Friday.

"It's amazing to me that the state won't right some wrongs," he told the Times/Herald. "This is adjudicated by a jury. This is something (for which) we fought for years."

The victim, who is identified only as C.M.H. in legal documents and the claim bill, was 8 years old when his parents invited a 10-year-old boy to live in their home in 2002.

"They knew a kid from (their son's) school who was wandering the streets and took him in," Talenfeld said.

The two boys shared a bedroom.

What the family didn't know: The child placed in their home had an "extensive history" as a victim and perpetrator of sexual abuse, according to the claim bill.

Continue reading "Agency ordered to pay children abused while in foster care but Legislature won't authorize payment" »

March 01, 2016

Legislature balks at approving payment to victim of torture and abuse in Barahona case

Nubia BarahonaFor the second year in a row, the Florida Legislature is poised to finish a session without awarding any of the legal damages owed to the surviving victim of one of the most horrific child abuse cases in state history.

Victor Barahona, the surviving twin brother of Nubia Barahona, was found near death and covered with pesticides alongside his sister’s decomposing body on Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County in 2011. They were 10 years old.

The twins had been sexually abused, starved and forced to sleep in a bathtub for years by the foster parents who adopted them, Jorge and Carmen Barahona. They were ordered to eat cockroaches and consume food that contained feces and, despite numerous complaints to the child abuse hotline and warnings from teachers, the state failed to stop their parents from routinely beating and binding them inside their West Miami-Dade home.

A report commissioned by David Wilkins, then secretary of the Department of Children and Families, found that the agency’s "failure in common sense, critical thinking, ownership, follow-through, and timely and accurate information-sharing" defined the care of Nubia and Victor.

In 2013, the agency conceded it was at fault and agreed to pay Victor $5 million to settle a lawsuit filed on Victor’s behalf. The department said it would pay $1.25 million to Victor immediately, money from a risk-management fund used to cover liability. But the agency can't pay the rest without legislative approval of a "claim bill."

Under state sovereign immunity laws, the state is shielded from having to pay more than $200,000 when it injures someone, unless the Legislature agrees to lift the cap and authorize the payment. But because of a decision by Senate leadership, the Legislature won’t pay the Barahona bill and, potentially, a host of other claim bills even though the state is at fault.

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December 03, 2015

Senate panel confirms Secretary Mike Carroll as head of Department of Children and Families


After grilling him about changes in the state’s child welfare system, a panel of state senators Thursday okayed Mike Carroll’s appointment as secretary of the Department of Children and Families.

Carroll, who is from Safety Harbor, was first appointed interim secretary by Gov. Rick Scott in April 2014, in the midst of serious upheaval in the department. His appointment came after the Miami Herald chronicled a series of child deaths, including 477 children whose families had previously interacted with DCF.

Since then, other the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune have detailed violence and neglect at the state’s mental hospitals, tied to decreases in funding and understaffing.

“Despite some of the failures that are so prominently documented in the news, the department has many successes too,” Carroll said. “We deal with many families where we change literally the trajectory of a child’s life, we change the trajectory of a family’s life moving forward.”

The Senate committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs voted unanimously for Carroll. Members supported him last year as well, but his was one of many gubernatorial appointments that were not confirmed by the Senate. If Carroll is not confirmed this year, the governor will have to appoint someone else to the job.

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October 27, 2015

Gov. Scott requests $22.9M for DCF to counteract child abuse


Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday requested $22.9 million in the state budget for case managers for children in the custody of the Department of Children and Families and provide other safety services for abused and neglected kids.

The money is expected to hire 272 case managers, reducing the number of children each manager is responsible for.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking when a child is a victim of abuse or neglect," Scott said in a statement. "Anytime something horrific happens to an innocent child, we have to stop and think about what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again."

In stories published over the last year and a half, the Miami Herald found that children have died and been severely abused as a result of cutbacks to DCF. This has meant that fewer children are being taken into state care and those who are have access to fewer resources.

Hiring people alone may not be enough to keep staffing levels high and kids safe. Earlier this month, Janice Thomas, deputy secretary of DCF, told a Florida House subcommittee that the agency faces high job turnover: For every three new hires, one staffer leaves.

“It is a high-pressure stress situation,” said Thomas, a former investigator.

October 22, 2015

Florida girl died after Department of Children & Families bowed out of case

Janiya Thomas B_F 08-29-04

via @Marbinius

Keishanna Thomas’s name — and those of her five children — appeared again and again in reports to the state’s child abuse hotline. The calls began more than a decade ago. There were an even dozen.

In June 2014, just as state lawmakers were passing the most far-reaching reform of Florida’s child protection system, Thomas decided she had had enough of caseworkers coming to her home and scrutinizing her children. “Ms. Thomas became uncooperative” a report said.

The Department of Children & Families could have asked a judge to force Thomas, now 32, to let workers into her home, to accept their oversight. But agency lawyers instead insisted the state walk away.

It was a tragic mistake.

When the next report — No. 13 — was phoned to the hotline earlier this month, an investigator made a startling discovery: Thomas now had only four children. Eleven-year-old Janiya was nowhere to be found, and her mother had nothing to say about her whereabouts. What is believed to be Janiya’s body was found Sunday night inside a locked freezer in a relative’s garage. “The freezer was brought to the relative’s home by the mother . . . under the guise that she was being evicted,” a DCF report said.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll declined to discuss the case Wednesday with the Miami Herald. In a short statement, the agency’s press secretary, Michelle Glady, said Carroll has dispatched a “Critical Incident Rapid Response Team” to Bradenton to look into the agency’s long history with the Thomas family, and to investigate the actions leading to Janiya’s death.

More here.

April 02, 2015

Miami Herald Innocents Lost series wins investigative journalism prize

via @CTeproff

The Miami Herald “Innocents Lost” series, which examines the deaths of nearly 500 children in Florida who had a history with the Department of Children & Families, has added another award to the list.

On Wednesday, the year-long project written by staff reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, won the 2014 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism, an annual award honoring investigative reporting.

“This series is powerful,” Bingham Judge Deborah Nelson said in a release. “Powerful statistics, powerful examples, powerful writing. And that’s what it takes to move government to protect its most vulnerable citizens — and move they did with significant changes in law and policy.”

Also recognized for their work on the project: Reporter Mary Ellen Klas, designers Lazaro Gamio, Ana Lense Larrauri and Kara Dapena, videographer and photographer Emily Michot and investigations editor Casey Frank.

The $20,000 Bingham Prize will be presented to the Miami Herald on May 7 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The series, which was published in March 2014, resulted in sweeping changes in child-welfare laws across the state. In addition to the stories that ran in the newspaper, The Herald built a searchable database detailing the children’s stories.

The series has already won several major awards: The Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in March; The University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism's Selden Ring Award in February; the McClatchy President's Award for Public Service in February and the Knight Award for Public Service in September.

March 26, 2015

Warning signs were ignored by Broward sheriff in dead boy's violent, 'painful' life

Ahizya OsceolaThe purple bruises on either side of Ahizya Osceola’s jaw were telltale signs: Someone, a child abuse expert said, had grabbed the 3-year-old’s face forcefully enough to leave fingerprints.

But Ahizya’s bruised jaw was only a small part of what the boy faced. The state’s abuse hotline received a report on April 21, 2014, that he had scratches on both sides of his neck, and a “large bruise and bump” on his forehead. Two weeks earlier, teachers saw a “pinch mark” on one ear, a bruise behind the other and two bruises on his face.

Two weeks before that, Ahizya had a busted lip, another scratch on his face, a bruise on his shoulder blade and pinches and bruises on his ears. Ahizya told his preschool teacher that “daddy” hit him with a belt. His father, Nelson Osceola, instead described an active and clumsy toddler who frequently injured himself in run-ins with furniture, walls, a toilet and other children during an Easter party.

Broward County child protection investigators discounted the possibility of abuse and left him with a father who had a lengthy rap sheet — including aggravated assault charges — and a history of alleged drug use. The Broward Sheriff’s Office had one last chance to intervene in December, when the state’s abuse hotline was told that Ahizya’s stepmother had beaten his bottom, and he had bruises and abrasions on his face. But that call, too, went unheeded.

On Wednesday, Nelson Osceola and the stepmother, Analiz Osceola, were arrested by Hollywood police in connection with Ahizya’s death the previous week. He was found last Friday concealed by garbage bags in the family’s laundry room. Analiz Osceola faces the bulk of the charges: aggravated manslaughter, child neglect and giving false information to police conducting an investigation. Nelson Osceola is charged with one count of child neglect.

More from Carol Marbin Miller and Carli Teproff here.



March 03, 2015

Miami Herald wins Goldsmith Prize for 'Innocents Lost' project

Miami Herald reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch won the 2015 prestigious Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting for their series, Innocents Lost, a year-long project that chronicled how nearly 500 children died of abuse or neglect over six years in families who had a history with the Florida Department of Children & Families, the state agency designed to protect children.

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School announced Tuesday night it had awarded the $25,000 prize to Marbin Miller and Burch. Also recognized: reporter Mary Ellen Klas, designers Lazaro Gamio and Kara Dapena, videographer and photographer Emily Michot and investigations editor Casey Frank.

The series led to sweeping changes in child-welfare laws across the state. The project included a searchable database detailing the children’s stories.

More here.

February 04, 2015

Child welfare officials defend transparency and death review report

Mike Carroll DCFFlorida’s top child welfare officials were on the defensive before a House committee on Wednesday as they defended an annual report on child deaths that had been stripped of data and embarrassing details about the state’s role in failing to protect the children whose lives were lost. 

Secretary of the Department of Health John Armstrong told the House Committee on Children, Familes and Elders outlined the membership, duties and terms of appointment for the state  Child Abuse Death Review Committee’s which, by law, must provide an analysis of what killed Florida children the year before.

But unlike previous years, which was nearly 200 pages long and included dozens of charts and graphs describing both the victims and perpetrators of child abuse, and brief memorials for several of the youngsters whose lives were cut short, the 2014 report was only 17 pages long.

The scaled-down death report came the same year the Miami Herald’s series Innocents Lost detailed the deaths of 477 children whose families were known to the Department of Children & Families.

“Ultimately, recommendations are only as good as the quality of data and analysis,’’ Armstrong told the House panel. He then introduced the chairman of the death review committee, Robin Perry, to explain the report.

Perry told the committee that said they are going to update the web site to include local committee reports reports, and past committee reports, but his goal is to produce a more “epidemiological approach” to the data  in its analysis of the data.

Photo: DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, courtesy of DCF

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January 22, 2015

Sobel doubts ability of admnistration to do transparent review of child deaths

Eleanor SobelFrustrated that state officials have scrubbed crucial, and often embarrassing, details from a state report on children who have died from abuse, the head of the key Senate oversight committee said Thursday that it may be time to take the job away from the administration.

“It seems they are less transparent that they have been in the past,’’ said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, referring to an annual report from the the Child Abuse Death Review Committee that went this year from nearly 200 to 17 pages and failed to include a discussion of the state’s role in the child deaths

“If they are not going to change their ways, maybe we need an alternative,” Sobel said. Her suggestion: change the law to take the job away from the governor’s agency and require an independent panel to review the fatalities, such as the newly-created Florida Institute for Child Welfare, which is housed at Florida State University. 

Current law requires the Florida Department of Health to produce an annual report of the Child Abuse Death Review Committee which reviews each child death, as required under federal law, in order to determine what changes needs to be made to try to prevent future deaths. Until this year, the report had been a robust 197-pages. At the same time the report was scaled back, several veteran and well-respected members of the committee were removed by Surgeon General John Armstrong.

Last year, the report helped to underscore the state’s failure in protecting the children in its custody as the Miami Herald documented the deaths of 477 children whose families were known to DCF in a series of reports, entitled Innocents Lost.

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