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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January 09, 2015

Before father threw his daughter off bridge, he had history of abuse


By age 5, Phoebe Jonchuck already had a significant history with Florida child protection authorities: Her father, they were told, was habitually violent with his domestic partners, and had been accused of “smacking” his daughter in the face. Phoebe’s mother, according to reports to the agency, was a meth user who had been charged with cruelty to another child in 2008.

A Tampa judge left to determine custody between them faced difficult choices.

The battle between John Nicholas Jonchuck and Michelle Kerr ended tragically early Thursday when Jonchuck tossed his 5-year-old daughter from a bridge approaching the iconic Sunshine Skyway, which spans Tampa Bay between St. Petersburg and Manatee County. Phoebe’s body was found by an Eckerd College dive team.

The report of Phoebe’s death to the state Department of Children & Families child abuse hotline was the sixth report the agency had received about the family in the past 2 1/2 years. Records of those contacts suggest little was done to ensure Phoebe’s safety since the first report was received at 9:51 p.m. on April 14, 2012. More from Carol Marbin Miller here. 

January 04, 2015

Florida's public records tradition in 2014 became the year of 'oops'

It was a dark year for sunshine in Florida in 2014.

Legal fights by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican Party of Florida kept crucial documents under wraps long enough to dilute their impact once they were released. The governor took the state’s public records tradition a new direction as he used taxpayer money to defend his attempts to shift the burden for holding the public records from the state to individual employees, and his lawyers opened a new legal vein with his interpretation of the blind trust law.

A lawsuit over the state’s congressional redistricting was fought without the aid of emails that showed GOP political consultants conspired to manipulate the process with false witnesses and gerrymandered maps. A legislatively commissioned report to make the state’s budgeting process more transparent was ignored by legislators.

Scott continued to be the first governor in modern history to shield all record of his travel from public view, and his office defended efforts to erase events from calendars before turning them over as public records.

The Department of Children & Families, under orders from the Legislature following a Herald serieson the state’s failure to protect vulnerable children from abusive parents, unveiled a website listing all child deaths. At the same time, Scott’s Department of Health stopped posting critical child death data on its website and excluded from its annual report on child deaths detailed analysis of the causes of death and the state’s role leading up to the fatalities.

And although the Department of Corrections introduced a “transparency database” listing prison deaths after a spate of critical news reports, it continued to embrace a policy that makes it difficult to fully examine the circumstances of in-custody deaths.

“What you’re seeing is a CEO mentality in which everything is viewed as a trade secret,’’ said Paula Dockery, a former Republican senator from Lakeland and former Scott supporter. “While that has served Rick Scott well, it has not served the people of Florida well and is not abiding by the spirit of the open government laws.” Story here. 

Here's a timeline of only some of the issues:

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January 03, 2015

Another judge slams the state for failing children in its care

Judge Michael Hanzman@Marbinus

A child welfare judge in Miami has accused the state of denying necessary psychiatric treatment to abused and neglected children in its care, and has ordered Florida social service administrators to appear before him and explain why they have “no duty” to help sick foster kids.

The blistering order by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman comes in the case of two siblings, identified only as L.S. and D.S, who are in the state’s care after being removed from their parents. Though Hanzman has ordered the Department of Children & Families to send the two to an in-patient mental health facility for treatment, the siblings remain without treatment.

“This court’s orders are routinely ignored, and children with severe mental health needs are denied critical care,” Hanzman wrote in the Dec. 29 order.

The judge’s order comes at a sensitive time for state healthcare and child welfare administrators: On New Year’s Eve, a federal appeals court judge in Miami released an equally scathing order saying the state had systemically, and for many years, rationed care to impoverished and disabled children insured by the Medicaid program. The failure to provide adequate healthcare to needy children, the judge wrote, violates federal law. Story here. 



January 01, 2015

Judge blasts Florida for depriving children of needed healthcare

By Carol Marbin Miller

A federal judge Wednesday declared Florida’s healthcare system for needy and disabled children to be in violation of several federal laws, handing a stunning victory to doctors and children’s advocates who have fought for almost a decade to force the state to pay pediatricians enough money to ensure impoverished children can receive adequate care.

In his 153-page ruling, U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan said lawmakers had for years set the state’s Medicaid budget at an artificially low level, causing pediatricians and other specialists for children to opt out of the insurance program for the needy. In some areas of the state, parents had to travel long distances to see specialists.

The low spending plans, which forced Medicaid providers for needy children to be paid far below what private insurers would spend — and well below what doctors were paid in the Medicare program for a more powerful group, elders — amounted to rationing of care, the order said.

“This is a great day for the children in this state,” said Dr. Louis B. St. Petery, a Tallahassee pediatrician who is executive vice president of the Florida Pediatric Society and helped spearhead the suit. “This action was taken because we found that children weren’t being treated properly if they were on Medicaid. Our position as pediatricians,” he added, “is that children do not choose their parents. They don’t have a choice to be born into a rich family or a poor family.”

“We feel all children are of equal value,” St. Petery added.

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December 17, 2014

Governor's spox says they want child abuse settlement paid, won't say how

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott has indicated that the governor's office wants the Department and Children and Families to pay the settlement to the surviving Barahona twin whose sibling died after years of torture by their adoptive parents, but questions remain. 

"DCF will work with everyone involved to honor the agency's commitment to compensate the victim of this terrible tragedy,'' said Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz in an email to the Miami Herald late Tuesday.

It is unclear how DCF will honor the agency's commitment or how long it will take. The department's deputy general counsel has objected to a claim bill that has been filed to compensate Victor Barahona for the $3.75 million the state owes him and, as a result of those objections and additional concerns raised by the Senate's lawyer, the bill has been put on indefinite hold.

DCF agreed in 2013 to settle the child abuse lawsuit of Victor and the estate of his deceased sister, Nubia, whose body was found doused in chemicals in his father's pickup on Valentines' Day 2011. Victor was rescued, barely alive and covered with chemical burns, nearby. The agency convened a panel and conducted a report that concluded the state's child welfare safety net had been a "systemic failure" for the twins who had been in state care since they were infants.

DCF did not admit liability in the settlement with Victor and his new parents. It agreed to pay $5 million but not admit liability and $1.25 million was paid immediately. The remaining $3.75 million was to come from the passage of a claim bill and the settlement indicated DCF would not object to its passage. After the bill was filed, DCF then objected to the "whereas clauses," most of which had been taken from the DCF report, and the bill has now been indefinitely on hold. 

Sen. Antiere Flores, R-Miami, the sponsor of the claim bill, said she would "not rest" until the victim has been compensated and she is working to find an alternative way to have the measure pass the Legislature this year. 

Schutz and DCF would not indicate how DCF will move ahead with compensating the victim. Will it ask the Senate to waive its rules? Will DCF withdraw it's objections to the Senate claims bill? Schutz did not provide a response

December 16, 2014

Lawyer for victim asks judge to order DCF to stop fighting child abuse settlement

Lawyers for one of the surviving victims of the Barahona child abuse tragedy asked a judge on Tuesday to order the Florida Department of Children and Families to honor a settlement it agreed to last year and stop trying to delay the payments.

Neal A. Roth filed a "Motion to Enforce Settlement" with the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade County suggesting that the agency's attempts to oppose legislation that authorizes payment to Victor Barahona and his new parents has "breached the settlement agreement and has completely undermined the settlement."

DCF last year agreed to pay $5 million for the rehabiliation of Victor Barahona, after he was found with chemical burns and near death alongside the body of his his twin sister, Nubia. The 10-year-old twins had been in the state's child welfare system their entire lives, including after they were adopted by Jorge and Carmen Barahona. Despite repeated warnings to the state's child abuse hotline, the twins suffered years of torture and sexual abuse from their adoptive parents as the state stood silent.

The Barahona parents are now facing  murder charges and DCF agreed to pay $1.25 million immediately. Although the agency did not admit liability, as part of the settlement it has agreed not to oppose legislation to authorize the remainder of the money. 

DCF has now changed its position and objects to the "whereas" clauses in the proposed bill. It claims the legislation could hurt DCF's attempt to fight two other child abuse lawsuits by two other Barahona children.

Several South Florida legislators have said they will not let the legal technicality stand in the way of getting payments to the victim of one of the most horrific child abuse cases in state history, and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she “won’t rest” until Victor and his new parents are paid what they have been promised. 

Roth has also asked the court to order the agency to step back from its opposition so that the claim bill can move forward.

"The Survivor and the Victim's estate have suffered horrendous abuse which is well-documented,'' he wrote in the motion. "DCF settled the case because they knew what their exposure was relative to the issues in this case. To allow DCF to continue to engage in conduct which is outside the Settlement Agreement is inappropriate and cannot be condoned."  Download Motion to Enforce



Legislators vow to get payments to abused Barahona child

Several influential South Florida legislators said Monday they will not let a legal technicality stand in the way of getting payments to the victim of one of the most horrific child abuse cases in state history.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she “won’t rest” until Victor Barahona and his new parents get the $3.75 million they are owed after he was found near death alongside his twin sister’s decomposing body after years of abuse warnings to the state went unheeded.

The payment is part of a $5 million settlement agreed to by the Department of Children and Families in 2013, but Flores, and a bi-partisan group of lawmakers, face an uphill battle getting the money to the family.

Senate President Andy Gardiner told the Herald/Times on Monday that he stands by the recommendation of his general counsel George Levesque who, along with DCF, wants the settlement payments put on indefinite hold. Even though the state agreed to not interfere with the legislation as part of the settlement, the lawyers now argue that passage of legislation could hurt the state’s attempt to fight two other child abuse lawsuits by two other Barahona children. Story (please consider subscribing) here. 

December 15, 2014

Lawyers for state tell Legislature to put payment to Nubia Barahona's brother on hold

Jorge Barahona Carmen Barahona


 When the state of Florida quietly agreed to pay $5 million to settle a lawsuit over the gruesome death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona and the torture of her twin brother, Victor, it all but admitted it was at fault.

Now, the Florida Department of Children and Families and lawyers for the state Legislature want to put the deal on hold and indefinitely delay final payments.

DCF agreed to settle the lawsuit in March 2013, two years after Victor was found near death and covered with pesticides alongside his sister’s decomposing body on I-95 in Palm Beach County. A 2011 DCF report concluded that, from the time Victor and Nubia Barahona entered the child welfare system as infants through Nubia’s death, their safety net was a “systemic failure.”

They were sexually abused, starved and forced to sleep in a bath tub for years by their adoptive parents, 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, the state stood silent as their adopted parents routinely beat and bound them inside their West Miami-Dade home. Story here. 

Here's the DCF report:  Download DCF Barahona Case Findings and Recommendations - March 14 2011

Here's the email correspondence between the lawyers:  Download Morris Emails (1)

Photos: Jorge and Carmen Barahona, Associated Press