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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.

What's more, the Department of Children and Families had "obtained a comprehensive behavioral health assessment that stated (the boy) was sexually aggressive and recommended specific precautions and training for potential foster parents," which the family did not receive.

When the couple noticed the child had "significant" mental health needs, they sought to have him placed in a residential treatment facility. But DCF officials told them they would not be granted visitation privileges if the child was removed from their home, according to the claim bills.

Instead, they began special training to better meet the boy's needs.

In 2005, the parents learned the child had squeezed their son's pet mouse to death in front of him, and both physically and sexually assaulted him. He was removed from the home immediately.

Nearly a decade later, a jury found DCF negligent and awarded C.M.H. more than $5 million in damages.

"He's emotionally paralyzed at this point in his life," Talenfeld said. "He didn't make it through high school. He's 22, living at home."

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.

The claim bill filed by the Spring Hill man (HB 3503/SB 30) has already received favorable votes in two Senate committees. But it has not been scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee, or received a single vote in the House.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, "does not have a philosophical objection to claims bills," said Katie Betta, Senate spokeswoman. But there is no money in the budget for claims against the state, she said.

Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Tuesday he believes the claim bill process is "miserably broken" and legislators don't "know how to fix it."

Part of the objection to claim bills is the fact that some cases advance because they have hired lawyers and lobbyists while other victims do not, leaving the perception that there is unequal handling of the cases.

Lee said he was still deciding whether to hear some of the claim bills during a final meeting of the Appropriations Committee, which may take place Thursday.

"It's hard to break the seal on some of the claim bills and not do all of them," he conceded.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli told the Times/Herald he isn't against advancing claim bills but was not willing to push them in the House if they were never going to clear the Senate.

The bill involving the Spring Hill man isn't the only high-profile claim bill at stake.

For the second year in a row, the Legislature could finish the 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.

In 2013, the Department of Children and Families conceded it was at fault and agreed to pay Victor $5 million to settle a lawsuit filed on Victor's behalf.

Talenfeld, the attorney representing the Spring Hill man, said the Legislature has a responsibility to the victims.

"These are horrific wrongs involving DCF and other agencies," he said. "Unfortunately, they aren't moving."