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Marina
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Florida

Postby Marina » Fri Aug 03, 2007 7:36 pm

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See articles on Courtney Clark case
http://forum.fightcps.com/viewtopic.php?t=6791
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http://www.tampabays10.com/news/local/a ... ryid=60423

Lawmakers want investigation into state foster care system

TALLAHASSEE, Florida -- A second South Florida legislator today proposed creation of a special legislative committee to investigate living conditions for children in state custody and foster care.

State Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, further suggested a legislative inquiry into all aspects of Florida's child-welfare system. House minority leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, proposed such a committee in the House recently, in response to some high-profile abuse cases.

In a letter to Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, Rich cited the reported rape of an 8-year-old boy in foster care in Dade County and the disappearance of Courtney Clark, a Pinellas County girl who was found in squalid conditions in Wisconsin.

Rich wrote that "it is clear that we are having a problem keeping children in state custody safe." She said she hopes House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, agrees to Gelber's proposal for a select House committee on children and said Pruitt should appoint one in the Senate, so the two could join in a joint inquiry into children's needs.

"I believe this committee needs to look at children in foster care, but it also needs to look at the child welfare system as a whole," she wrote. "I know some will say that the agencies are doing their own investigations. That is all well and good, but when children die or are raped in the custody of the state, we the Legislature have our own responsibility to figure out how to make the system better and how to make children safer."

With state budget cuts planned in a Sept. 18 special session, Rich said, "it is especially important that we have a special committee that reviews these issues and considers what impact budget cuts would have on this important child safety net."

Pruitt's office said Rich's letter was received this morning and that a response will be forthcoming.

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Last edited by Marina on Sat Apr 05, 2008 8:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Marina
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Postby Marina » Fri Aug 03, 2007 7:40 pm

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http://www.miamiherald.com/news/breakin ... 90535.html

Lawmakers seek more oversight of DCF

Posted on Thu, Aug. 02, 2007

BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
[email protected]

Democratic leaders in the Florida Legislature asked top lawmakers Thursday to convene a series of oversight hearings into recent scandals at the state's long-troubled child welfare agency, including the recent rape of a Miami foster girl.

In letters Thursday to House Speaker Marco Rubio of West Miami and Senate President Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie, minority leaders in both chambers called for the creation of a select committee to investigate a series of recent tragedies involving children under the care of the Department of Children & Families.

In his letter to Rubio, House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach cited two recent stories in The Miami Herald. One detailed the plight of 15-year-old Stephanie Dorismond, who was beaten to death by a 36-year-old man with whom she was living shortly after a DCF abuse investigator pronounced her safe.

The second story, published last week, reported that a Miami foster child had been raped in her foster home. Police have charged the boyfriend of the girl's foster mother. The assault took place months after a DCF investigator had found ''some'' evidence the man had molested another girl in the same home months earlier.

''The allegations in The Herald and in a Channel 4 [WFOR-CBS 4] news story in Miami suggest that this was an entirely avoidable tragedy that resulted from serious lapses by both DCF and Our Kids,'' DCF's privately run foster care agency, Gelber wrote. ``As we go into leaner budget years, our members ought to pay special attention to budget cuts that might have disastrous effects on Florida's important, but often tattered, child safety net.''

In a separate letter to Pruitt, Sen. Nan H. Rich, a Sunrise Democrat, said lawmakers need to look at the entire child-welfare system.

''I know that some will say that the agencies are doing their own investigations,'' Rich said. ``That is all well and good; but when children die or are raped in the custody of the state, we the Legislature have our own responsibility to figure out how to make the system better and and how to make children safer.''

Rich and Gelber also mentioned the case of Courtney Clark, a Pinellas County toddler who was missing for four months from a state-approved caregiver's house before police found her in a Portage, Wis., home with her birth mom. Another child in the Wisconsin home had been tortured, and his mother was buried in the back yard.

DCF administrators have repeatedly acknowledged that both they and the private agencies with which they contract made serious errors.

Spokeswomen for Rubio and Pruitt said the leaders received the letters but will have no immediate response. Rubio is vacationing with his family. Pruitt has taken the request under review, said his spokeswoman, Kathy Mears. A DCF spokesman said the agency would cooperate fully with any investigation by state lawmakers.

DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth ''has made it very clear the state's child welfare system is in need of serious repair. Thats why he has established [a] task force on child protection that begins its work in Tampa'' today, said Tallahassee spokesman Al Zimmerman.

''That's also why, if lawmakers choose to convene oversight hearings, we will certainly welcome their assistance in trying to -- once and for all -- fix our child welfare system,'' Zimmerman added.

The 13-member Task Force on Child Protection, appointed by Butterworth, will meet at 10 a.m. today on the Tampa campus of the Stetson University Law School. It will hold hearings on recent lapses, and make recommendations for legislative action -- including measures for paying for reforms of programs that may be costly, Zimmerman said.

Said Fran Allegra, who heads Our Kids: ``Tragedies like this are completely unacceptable. . . . Our Kids looks forward to having an opportunity to discuss any systemic failures in an open and transparent manner. We will use lessons learned to continue to improve the system of care so that kids are safe.''

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Marina
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Postby Marina » Fri Aug 03, 2007 8:09 pm

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http://www.baynews9.com/content/36/2007/8/3/277542.html

DCF hosting task force meeting in Tampa
Friday, August 3, 2007

Courtney Clark was missing from her Florida foster home for four months before officials realized she was gone. She was later located in Wisconsin. TAMPA (Bay News 9) -- More than two dozen Department of Children and Families officials from around the state are meeting in Tampa today to examine the Courtney Clark case and how the agency operates.

Clark is the 2-year-old girl who went missing for four months from her foster home earlier this year before officials realized she no longer was in Florida. She was later found with her birth mother in Wisconsin.

The meeting, taking place at Stetson University's downtown Tampa campus, is focusing not only on the Clark case but system-wide problems plaguing the agency.

"We cannot have children go missing, 2-year olds don't run away,'' said DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth. "It's an example of a case where if anything could go wrong. It went wrong."

Butterworth said the case prompted him to kick start the first "Task Force on Child Protection" meeting. He said experts are be in attendance who fully understand the importance of ensuring the safety of children in the DCF system. He also said the agency's recurring problems can no longer be tolerated.

"This committee will look at every aspect of the Department of Children and Families and our subcontractors and ask what we could do better,'' said Butterworth, who added that the committee will report back to DCF officials on Oct. 1. "So this will not happen again."

In other DCF news, the state has shut down a controversial computer system aimed at helping child abuse investigators do their job.

The "Home Safe Net" project was plagued with problems during its 13 years of use. The agency ultimately spent $190 million the system that never completely met its mission.



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Marina
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Postby Marina » Fri Aug 03, 2007 8:11 pm

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http://cbs4.com/local/local_story_213175318.html

Aug 2, 2007 11:17 pm US/Eastern

Politician Wants To Reform DCF's Foster Care
Man Accused Of Molesting Children In South Florida
DCF Pulls Plug On Computer System To Track Abuse

Rachael Aram
Reporting

(CBS4) MIAMI A local lawmaker is asking for an investigation into a subcontractor of the Department of Children and families after two girls were allegedly raped by a foster parent's boyfriend this year.

"That case, like too many others, was avoidable," said State Representative Dan Gelber (D).

Gelber wants a full investigation performed on DCF after CBS4 News aired a report that the agency knew of allegations of sexual abuse at a North Dade foster home, however, they did nothing to take the suspect out of it, leading to another alleged attack on children this year.

He drafted a letter, calling on House Speaker Marco Rubio to create a special house committee to fix Florida's foster care system.

At the foster home in North Miami-Dade, sex crimes investigators say Ian Garrick sexually battered two girls. According to police reports, Garrick molested a 10-year-old in the foster home in November of 2006, and in April of this year raped an eight-year-old. Garrick was the boyfriend of the children's state-licensed foster mother.

DCF was aware of the alleged sex abuse last year. But for reasons no one has not made clear, Garrick was allowed to move into the foster home with his girlfriend and the foster kids in March of this year. He went on to allegedly rape the second child the next month. It is the first major scandal for DCF since Bob Butterworth took over the Department and the former attorney general has dodged questions about it.

He went on to allegedly rape a second child in this home the very next month. This is the first major scandal for DCF since Bob Butterworth took over the department. The former attorney general has dodged questions about it.

A spokesperson told CBS4 News:
"He's waiting to learn exactly what happened...who messed this up and how this was messed up...he's waiting on a review to be completed."

An outfit called Our Kids oversaw the foster home under contract to with the state. Our Kids has a website with faces of smiling children and a slogan boasting, "We create safe havens for kids."

The executive director of Our Kids would not appear on camera Wednesday to comment on the rape case.

A spokesman told us:
"She is going to be tied up all day in meetings about this particular case."

The foster home is now the subject of many meetings and reviews, only after CBS4 News revealed the alleged abuses, months after DCF and its contractors learned that Garrick was allegedly doing vile things to the children in the state's care.

Sources told CBS4's Gary Nelson that a caseworker who signed off on the paperwork for Garrick was apparently unaware of the previous allegation of sex abuse.

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Marina
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Postby Marina » Sat Aug 04, 2007 7:31 pm

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http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/loc ... ?track=rss

DCF chief: Kids need more protection

Mitch Stacy | the Associated Press
August 4, 2007

TAMPA - Florida should rewrite laws to give state child-protection officials better oversight and control of its community-based care partners and forge universal standards for those private contractors, Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth said Friday.

This year, the case of Courtney Clark, a 2-year-old foster child who was missing for four months before police began searching for her, underscored the need to improve oversight and communication between state officials and private contractors, Butterworth told members of the newly minted Task Force on Child Protection.

"That case, more than any other one I know, exposed problems in a number of areas -- in virtually every area, in fact," Butterworth said.



Butterworth also announced he has appointed a separate panel to assess the performance of the Sarasota Family YMCA, the contractor whose team provided substandard care and lost track of Courtney, according to a DCF review.

Courtney's mother, Candace Clark, 23, violated a court order in September when she took the toddler from a Lake County foster home, authorities said. But child-protection workers didn't report the disappearance for four months.

Police eventually found her safe June 14 in a Portage, Wis., home where a severely injured and malnourished 11-year-old boy was hiding in a closet. They found the body of the boy's mother buried in the yard. They also found other endangered children in the home, including Courtney's sister.

Candace Clark, two other adults and a 15-year-old girl have been charged with killing the woman and abusing the 11-year-old boy.

A review found that DCF and its contractors made a series of errors in handling the case. The agency is implementing reforms to prevent similar missteps, including assigning specific employees to track missing children.

"Our system is not broken," Butterworth said. "It is in desperate need of serious repair."

The task force will present a preliminary report to Butterworth by Oct. 1.

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Marina
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Postby Marina » Sat Aug 04, 2007 7:44 pm

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http://www.bradenton.com/local/story/113958.html


State orders scan of YMCA in Sarasota

By MELANIE MARQUEZ
[email protected]

A state-appointed review team will assess operations at the Sarasota Family YMCA, examining how the group handles its work as a contractor for the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Bob Butterworth, DCF secretary, announced the plans Friday during the first meeting in Tampa of a statewide Task Force on Child Protection.

The Sarasota Family YMCA and its subcontractors do case work for abused children, many who are in foster care, in five counties. Pasco and Pinellas make up the north region and Sarasota, Manatee and Desoto counties form the south section.

The nonprofit came under fire when a Bradenton girl, whose case it was handling, died in December 2006 shortly after she was reunited with her mother. A Pinellas County foster girl, Courtney Clark, was also under the Y's jurisdiction and she went missing for nine months, four of them unreported, before authorities found her in Wisconsin in June.

Since those incidents, the group's work has improved, said Carl Weinrich, CEO of the Sarasota Family YMCA.

"We subcontract our work with other agencies," Weinrich said. "We really started to micromanage that process a lot more and we started to get more cooperation from our subcontractors."

Manatee Glens, a local agency that offers alcohol, drug and mental health treatment, works as one of four subcontractors handling case management for the Sarasota YMCA's south region and was the group handling the case of 18-month-old Kenia Valencia, the Bradenton child who died last year. After Kenia was reunited with her mother, Manatee Glens caseworkers tried to check on her four times in a month and no one answered the door at her mother's home.

Kenia later died when a stove fell on her while her mother slept. The mother, Maribel Chavez, has been charged with manslaughter in the case.

Her death led to Manatee Glens changing its policy on home checks. If after two checks there is no answer, the sheriff's office is asked to do a wellness check. They can break down a door if there is no answer. The group also handles cases for children ages 6 and older now, after a contract bidding process changed which subcontractors do what for the YMCA.

But the key to an improved child welfare system, says Manatee Glens CEO Mary Ruiz, is less bureaucracy and more care. Manatee Glens' staff of 22 case workers handle 323 children and provide courtesy supervision for other agencies for 48 more.

Adding more requirements to the list of 900 items caseworkers are asked to check for each child and increased paperwork aren't the answer, Ruiz said. It's improving and utilizing current resources.

"We've added mentors for our newer workers and beefed up our training," Ruiz said.

Increased state funding for alcohol, drug and mental health treatments would dramatically shrink the size of the state's welfare system, Ruiz added, since 85 percent of the families in the child welfare system have some kind of alcohol or drug involvement, situations that are often also paired with mental health issues.

Florida is 48th in the country for mental health funding and 35th for alcohol and drug treatment funding, Ruiz said.

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Postby Marina » Wed Aug 08, 2007 8:07 pm

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http://www.miamiherald.com/news/florida ... 95988.html

CHILD WELFARE | SOUTH FLORIDA

Study: Foster care system in S. Florida is flawed

The work of South Florida's foster care agencies suffers from serious flaws, a national study said.

Posted on Wed, Aug. 08, 2007

BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
[email protected]

Document | Report card on area foster care programs
South Florida children in foster care do not receive regular immunizations or preventive dental care, often do not get needed counseling or therapy, and get bounced from foster home to foster home because caregivers become frustrated over a lack of support from child-welfare agencies, a national study says.

The findings are part of a comprehensive review of privatized foster care services in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties by a well-regarded child-welfare think tank at the University of Chicago. The report, still in draft form, is set to be released within the next few weeks.

The review, by the Chapin Hall Center for Children, comes at a particularly difficult time for the Florida Department of Children & Families, which already is under siege by advocates and lawmakers over a series of recent mishaps, including the rape of a Miami girl in a foster home in which an alleged child molester lived.

Last week, two state lawmakers asked legislative leaders to convene investigative hearings into the scandals. The lawmakers also want to look into whether Florida's privatized foster care system has improved -- or diminished -- the welfare of abused and neglected children.

David Fairbanks, the DCF's assistant secretary for programs, said administrators are ''very concerned'' by the group's findings but await the final report before drawing any conclusions.

''The department fully expects the [private agencies] will make an effective management response to the final report. That's what we're focused on: the future,'' he said.

SOME CONCERNS

Larry Rein, interim president of ChildNet, which provides foster care service in Broward under contract with the DCF, said he, too, is awaiting the final version.

''We have expressed concerns about the draft and several things we don't think are accurate,'' Rein said. ``We very much want to work on improving those things that need improvement. But at this point, there are several things brought up in the report that may not accurately reflect the situation.''

Said Fran Allegra, chief of Our Kids, the agency that provides foster care services in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties: 'Parts of the draft report contain valuable information that we will use to continue to improve the system of care in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. However, we have alerted DCF and Chapin Hall that we have been unable to validate some of the reviewers' preliminary assertions, findings and conclusions.''

The Chapin Hall report involved the review of 90 foster children's files -- 45 from ChildNet and 45 from Our Kids. It looked at whether the two South Florida agencies were performing well at critical tasks such as health screenings, reacting properly to repeat abuse, making monthly foster-home visits and preparing adolescents for the transition out of state care.

The report says much work needs to be done, even for such basic requirements as medical and mental healthcare.

''In general, the health needs of the children are not addressed in a consistent manner,'' the study said of the youths under Our Kids' supervision.

Of the medical and dental care provided by ChildNet, the report concluded: ``Compliance is low with respect to how routinely the [agency] connects children served to ongoing health- and dental care.''

MORE FINDINGS

The report also found:

• Children in the care of both ChildNet and Our Kids are forced to move from one foster home to another because the agencies are ''slow'' to respond to requests for help from foster parents.

The situation in the Florida Keys is even more dire, as children sometimes are sent ''outside of their communities'' to receive care because the agency has no therapeutic or medical foster homes in Monroe for kids with severe behavioral problems, mental illness or chronic healthcare needs, the report said.

• Siblings in foster care often do not live together in the same foster home, and visitation among siblings ''is occurring infrequently'' in Miami-Dade and Monroe, and ''not occurring regularly'' in Broward. The report says brothers and sisters are not offered opportunities to talk on the phone or communicate in other ways.

• In Miami-Dade and Monroe, 75 percent of the foster kids whose records were reviewed had been moved at least once, and the kids with mental health or behavioral problems were the most likely to be bounced from home to home. In Broward, children in a ''family-like home'' were more likely to be stable than kids in group homes.

Across the three counties, children placed with relatives were less likely to be moved than their counterparts living with strangers or in group homes.

• Children and families are not getting services to improve the conditions that brought them into foster care to begin with. Case records suggest that children under the care of Our Kids are not getting referred to programs ``even though the case record documents a need for clinical services.''

At both agencies, children sometimes are forced to wait for services. At Our Kids, the delay is ``significant.''

• Foster care administrators have the most trouble finding foster homes for teenage girls, sibling groups, children who have been sexually abused and minority children.

• Services for older foster kids who are moving into young adulthood are in such short supply in Miami-Dade and Monroe that ``there are instances where youth are unable to maintain their housing and are utilizing homeless shelters.''

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Marina
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Postby Marina » Sun Aug 26, 2007 8:52 am

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http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20 ... 2/-1/RSS01

Child welfare agency wants records to be more accessible and shared

Official points to foster children whose paperwork forms their life history

BY BRENDAN FARRINGTON


THE ASSOCIATED PRESS


TALLAHASSEE -- A child welfare official told a commission looking into open government laws Thursday that there needs to be more openness at his agency and foster children need better access to their personal files.

Foster children who are about to enter adulthood and leave the Department of Children & Families' care often have problems receiving records that basically serve as a recorded history of their lives, including Social Security numbers, where they've lived and why they changed homes, said George Sheldon, DCF's assistant secretary for operations.

"They really need easy access to their own records, whether it is to get information to fill out a college or job application or just so they know where they've been and what's happened in their lives," Sheldon told the Commission on Open Government. "It's very important for them to know their background."

And he said the department wants more leeway to release records as a way to be open with the public when something happens to children in its care.

"I would recommend giving the secretary of the agency greater authority to release records when in the public interest. We trust him with a $4 billion budget and the entire child protection system, why not entrust him with balancing the interest of public knowledge against any privacy rights within a file?" Sheldon asked, adding that sensitive information such as sexual assault details can be blacked out.

DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth, who sits on the commission, has gone to court to seek the release of records after high-profile cases and has advocated for more information to be shared.

"When mistakes are made, and regrettably they do happen as much as you try to avoid them, agencies need to admit them," Sheldon said. "They need to open up records, they need to put systems in place to avoid making that same mistake again."

He also told the commission that there are still problems with state agencies sharing sensitive records with each other, such as the Department of Juvenile Justice handing over their records of a child in DCF's care.

That was of particular concern to Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and a commission member.

"If there's a roadblock to sharing of information, I'm very willing to try to change that," she said.

The commission was holding its second meeting since Gov. Charlie Crist formed it to examine the state's open government and public records laws and ensure residents' access to government is not unnecessarily blocked.

"The importance of your work is not lost on me, nor is it lost on the people of Florida -- our boss," Crist told the commission. "These laws that we have on the books give the boss -- the people -- the opportunity to watch their government, to know what it's doing and understand what it may be doing that's good and what it may be doing that's not so good."

The commission heard from a wide range of people Thursday, from citizens concerned that clemency records are closed even to the offenders who may need them to appeal their cases to newspaper editors who suggested some public officials deliberately try to block access to records through "shell games" and excessive fees.

The commission also heard suggestions about making all communications between public officials available on the Internet and posting department budgets and contracts online for public scrutiny.

The commission will continue meeting through December 2008, when it will make recommendations on changes to the state's open government laws. Its next meeting will be held in October in Orlando.

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Postby Marina » Thu Aug 30, 2007 9:42 am

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http://www.miamiherald.com/news/america ... 19051.html

Judge lashes out at DCF lawyers in custody case

BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
[email protected]

JOHN VANBEEKUM/MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Joe and Maria Cubas wait in the hall outside judge's chambers where their adopted 13-year-old son testifies about his birth mother, Elena Perez, Tuesday.
Brother tells of abuse in Cuban custody case
Foster family's care compounds Cuban tragedy
DCF takes unusual role in custody case
For the second time since she convened trial in a controversial custody battle over a 4-year-old Cuban girl this week, a Miami judge Wednesday lashed out at Florida child welfare lawyers seeking to prevent the girl's return to Cuba.

No more than 20 minutes after testimony in the case began Wednesday morning, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen scolded lawyers for the Department of Children & Families for failing to adequately prepare. On the witness stand was Maria Zamora, a caseworker for a privately run foster care program.

Zamora, who is a supervisor and is overseeing the girl's case, was describing how the 4-year-old had ended up under the department's care. Zamora was describing events that occurred in Cuba before the girl arrived in Miami -- events she acknowledged she knew about only second-hand.

Ira Kurzban, a lawyer for the girl's birth father, objected that Zamora's testimony consisted largely of hearsay and was relying on case notes that she had not brought to court.

Cohen then castigated department lawyers, who are spearheading the case, for failing to enter the notes into evidence -- forcing Zamora to rely on memories that may not be reliable.

''Now we have a situation where I don't have case notes, I don't know what you are relying on, and I don't know where you heard it,'' Cohen said, her voice rising with frustration. ``I don't know where she [Zamora] gets her recollection. We don't know if her recollection is any good, and we don't have any case notes to rely on.''

''He's going to object,'' Cohen said, referring to Kurzban. ''I'm going to have to parse it, and you're going to have your say.'' All of which, Cohen added, would complicate and slow down Zamora's testimony unnecessarily.

''I want it on my desk,'' the judge said of the case notes, adding she would give DCF 15 minutes to deliver the file. After lawyers protested that the DCF building was too far away to collect the file in 15 minutes, Cohen gave them 15 more.

''You have a half hour to have them in court,'' the judge said.

''I'm actually quite shocked and disappointed,'' she added.

The drama, which pits foster parents Joe and Maria Cubas against the youngster's birth father, Rafael Izquierdo, has been unfolding since December 2005, when the little girl's mother, Elena Perez, took a kitchen knife to her wrists in the throes of depression. DCF took the girl and her older brother into custody when Perez was hospitalized.

The case headed to court in earnest this week as DCF began what could be a monthlong trial of Izquierdo on allegations that he is unfit to raise his daughter because he essentially abandoned her by allowing the girl to move to the United States with her mother.

The department also is alleging Izquierdo failed to protect his daughter from her mother's mood swings and sometimes violent behavior.

DCF lawyers have announced in court that they want the little girl to be raised permanently by the Cubases, with whom she has bonded. They say they want the Cubas family to maintain custody of the girl even if the judge finds Izquierdo to be a fit parent. The Cubases have adopted the girl's older half brother.

With tensions extremely high, Cohen has criticized lawyers for both the department and Izquierdo.

On Tuesday, in a mostly hushed courtroom, the little girl's 13-year-old half brother testified that both he and his sister had been the victims of frequent and often harsh abuse from Perez, who suffered from emotional outbursts that became significantly more severe after the family moved to the United States in March 2005.

The boy said he told Izquierdo at least once about the abuse, but the girl's father never did anything about it. Izquierdo told reporters after the Tuesday hearing that the boy never told him about the abuse.



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Postby Marina » Thu Aug 30, 2007 9:52 am

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http://www.miamiherald.com/457/story/218609.html

Brother tells of abuse in Cuban custody case

A teenage boy was the first witness in the emotional custody trial of his 4-year-old half-sister, who is in the midst of a dispute spanning the Florida Straits.

By CAROL MARBIN MILLER AND TERE FIGUERAS NEGRETE
[email protected]

JOHN VANBEEKUM/MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Elena Perez, the mother of the 4-year-old girl whose custody is being determined in court, listens to testimony in the case.


The 11-year-old boy was lying on the couch watching his favorite movie, The Black Stallion, when his mother, sobbing after an argument with her estranged husband, went into the kitchen and picked up a knife.

Pointing at his wrist, the boy described what happened next: 'She started doing bad things. I started running, and pushing her to get the knife out of her hands. I said, `You don't have to do this. You have two reasons to fight for.' She was saying, 'I don't care.' ''

The boy, now 13, was the first witness to testify Tuesday at a rancorous custody trial over the fate of his 4-year-old half-sister. The case pits the girl's father, Rafael Izquierdo, a Cuban farmer, against the girl's foster parents, Coral Gables couple Joe and Maria Cubas.

State child-welfare lawyers say Izquierdo, who lives in Cuba, is unfit to raise the girl because, among other things, he did nothing to protect her when their mother, Elena Perez, beat her.

The boy testified that while he and his sister were living in Cuba, he told Izquierdo -- who did not live with them -- that both he and his little sister were frequent victims of their mother's violent moods. If lawyers with the Department of Children & Families can convince Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen that Izquierdo abused, neglected or abandoned his daughter, they will then request that she be allowed to live permanently with the Cubas family.

Izquierdo, who is in the United States temporarily to take part in the case, has said he wants to return to his Cuban village of Cabaiguán with the youngster.

The Miami Herald is not identifying either child to protect their privacy.

ADOPTION AGREED

The boy and his half-sister, who arrived in Miami with their mother and their stepfather in March 2005, were taken into the custody of DCF after their mother attempted suicide. The boy was adopted by the Cubas family after both his mother and father, who remains in Cuba, agreed to the adoption. The stepfather left Perez and has since returned to the island.

The drama began in December 2005 when Perez, living hand-to-mouth, abandoned by her husband and beset by emotional problems, took a kitchen knife to her wrists. Her son testified he begged her to call police before ending her life.

'I started crying, saying `Please stop. Stop,' '' the boy testified. 'I said, `If you do this, please call the police first.' ''

Perez was involuntarily committed, and the state took the children.

Dressed in a blue polo shirt with green and white stripes, his black hair cropped close, the boy was questioned in a small wood-paneled room by an attorney for the Guardian-ad-Litem Program, John O'Sullivan. His testimony was broadcast to a nearby courtroom through closed-circuit TV. Speaking in English, his second language -- though occasionally reverting to Spanish -- the boy said Perez beat him daily for virtually no reason, and beat his sister ``twice a day.''

The teen catalogued the myriad ways in which he said his mother mistreated him and his sister: She hit him. She kicked him while he was on the ground. She pulled the girl's hair. She hit him with a stick. She choked him. What did the girl do to prompt such abuse, O'Sullivan asked him. ''She would cry. She would talk to her back,'' the boy replied.

As the boy spoke, his court-appointed guardian-ad-litem, Andrea Steinacker, gently stroked his back. A few times, she reached over and held the boy's hand.

The teen described one incident in Miami when his mother became enraged that he had inadvertently hit her with a cart he used to throw out the trash.

'She said, `Prepare yourself.' I was nervous because I thought I was going to get beat up. She walked forward and hit me with a stick.''

Throughout most of the boy's testimony, Perez sat at her attorneys' table, her head resting on her clasped hands, eyes down. A half hour after he began testifying, she began to weep and was led out of the courtroom.

During a lunch break, surrounded by reporters outside the courthouse, she tearfully read a poem she wrote as a plea to her son.

''One day you'll understand that a good mother is not an object, a toy, an insignificant thing,'' she read in Spanish. ``One day you'll understand how much I love you, adore you. One day you'll understand.''

Perez said she occasionally spanked her children, or slapped them, but that her actions did not constitute the abuse described in court, calling her son's statements an exaggeration. ''It's all lies,'' she said.

Later in the day, a DCF supervisor testified that his notes about the agency's decision to take custody of the children did not mention any concerns that they were being physically harmed by Perez.

''This was somewhat of a special conditions case,'' said Sam Reynolds, an investigations supervisor who handled the case. Under questioning by Izquierdo's attorney, he reviewed his casework notes, which have been entered as evidence in the case. ``No one alleged abuse under this particular incident that I can recall.''

The DCF attorneys maintain that Izquierdo should have known his daughter was in peril, and was aware of Perez's mental state even before she left the island with the children.

TOLD OF BEATINGS

During the boy's cross-examination by Ira Kurzban, Izquierdo's attorney, the boy said he had told Izquierdo only once while living in Cuba that his mother was routinely abusing him and his younger sister. He said several members of his large extended family in Cuba knew of the beatings, as did his teacher.

After the hearing, Izquierdo told reporters that the boy never told him about any abuse.

At one point during the questioning, Kurzban asked the teen if he thought Izquierdo loved the girl.

''I don't think so,'' the boy replied. ``He didn't pay attention to my sister like I did. He wasn't there when my sister needed him. My sister got hit really hard; he was supposed to be there.''

The boy said that while they lived in Cuba, Izquierdo visited perhaps twice a month.

Questioned by Kurzban about how he feels about his mother, the boy said: ``I don't want to kiss her. I don't want to get close to her.''

Speaking matter-of-factly, the teen later said any warm memories of his mother were few and far between.

''In my life there were little times where she was lovely, she was awesome,'' said the boy. ``But that was really small.''

As the boy's testimony came to an end, O'Sullivan asked him one final question: If ``somewhere in your heart you have love for your mother.''

The boy's one-word response: ``Yes.''

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Postby Marina » Sat Sep 08, 2007 6:45 pm

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http://www.news-press.com/apps/pbcs.dll ... 8/70908003

Local DCF leaders cast aside

Regional office in charge during review


By Erin Gillespie
[email protected]
Originally posted on September 08, 2007




The top two managers in charge of the local office of the Florida Department of Children and Families were removed from their positions and put on indefinite paid leave Friday.

Robert McHarry, circuit administrator, and Harry Propper, operations manager, will no longer direct DCF’s local office while a management review is conducted, said Nick Cox, regional manager.

“We’re essentially taking over supervision of the Fort Myers office,” Cox said.

McHarry was in charge of the local office for the 20th Judicial Circuit, which includes Lee, Glades, Hendry, Charlotte and Collier counties.

Cox, 44, is a regional manager throughout 11 counties from Tampa to Naples.

When reached at home Friday, neither McHarry nor Propper would comment.

Cox said there already is a program review going on at the local office and the new review will include upper management and study efficiency, resources and urgency on cases.

The review is not disciplinary action against the two leaders, Cox said, but having them on leave is best way to conduct the assessment.

Besides Cox, two regional leaders — Janet Gregory, deputy regional director, and Michael Carroll, program management director — will handle the local office during the review.

At a News-Press roundtable last month, more than two dozen child welfare experts met to talk about how to improve the system that takes care of abused and neglected children. Communication and policy reviews were two issues mentioned.

“Too many times information is not shared, vital contacts are not followed up on, and in those kinds of cases ... you may very well have to make some changes,” George Sheldon, assistant DCF secretary, said at the roundtable.

The department has undergone many policy changes in recent years after deaths of local children.

In 2006, 13-year-old Michelle Fontanez was killed after being returned to her home by investigators even though she said she was being sexually abused by her stepfather, Alberto Hernandez, who is now charged with her murder.

In May, 3-year-old Zahid Jones was beaten to death in his mother’s home after being released back into her care. His mother, Nicole Brewington, is charged with aggravated manslaughter, and her boyfriend, Kashon Scott, is charged with murder in the case.

Zahid’s grandmother Janice Jones, who tried to get help from DCF to keep him away from his mother, said Friday she was glad some review is taking place but believes investigators also need better training.

Cox said he doesn’t know what the problem is, but it could include training and supervision issues.

The changes Friday were not because of any specific case, he said.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” Cox said. “I’m asking questions. I expect certain things to be done. I expect certain levels of accountability.”

There is a lack of urgency with some people in the office, Cox said, and sometimes people follow procedure or policy to the detriment of a child’s well-being.

Employees who believe something needs to be done against a policy to make a child safe should be able to go to supervisors or management and work to find a way to help the child, he said.

“I may break a policy every now and then because I’ve just got to get something done,” he said.

The employees are not the problem at the agency, Cox said, but the way the system works and the culture.

“I don’t know that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing,” he said.

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Postby Marina » Tue Sep 11, 2007 4:09 pm

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http://www.winknews.com/news/local/9697572.html

DCF Manager: "I can't apologize enough. I'm so sorry"

By Nick Spinetto, WINK News

Fort Myers - Monday marks a new beginning at the local office of the Department of Children and Families.

On Monday morning, regional managers from Tampa took over the office. This comes after local leaders admit their mistakes contributed to the death of two children.

In his first sit town television interview in Fort Myers, regional manager Nick Cox goes on the record with WINK News, apologizing for the way they've been handling cases and promising people DCF will change for the better.

"I can not apologize enough. I'm so sorry for the losses they had. I'm sorry this happened," Cox said adding that, "It's important we don't turtle up now, we come out and say we did something wrong."

Now they're trying to fix it.

"We have begun a management review and we've been reviewing the departments," he said.

On Friday, Harry Propper and Robert McHarry were put on paid leave indefinitely. Both men are the top two managers of Southwest Florida's DCF branch.

Cox is clear to say their leave is not a disciplinary action. Instead he says their absence will make it easier to review the DCF office.

"This allows us to do a more thorough review. It allows us, from Tampa, to come in and get our arms around this. Get our hands dirty. Get into this," Cox said.

He and several other managers from Tampa will come to Fort Myers on a weekly basis, review every department and examine their strengths and weaknesses. Once this is done, they hope to establish better ways to handle cases, make the necessary changes, and forge a stronger relationship with a seemingly skeptical public.

"I hope a year from now, you and everybody in Fort Myers will say wow that was a brand new day for DCF," Cox said.

There's no time table as to when this review will be done and when the changes will be made. However, Cox hopes it happens within the coming months.

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Postby Marina » Thu Sep 13, 2007 6:16 pm

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http://www.miamiherald.com/top_stories/ ... 35741.html

CHILD CUSTODY CASE

Judge tosses key evidence in Cuban custody case

For the second time in an international custody dispute spanning the Florida Straits, a Miami judge dismissed key elements of the state's case.

Posted on Thu, Sep. 13, 2007Digg del.icio.us AIM reprint print email
By CAROL MARBIN MILLER
[email protected]

AL DIAZ / MIAMI HERALD STAFF



Though much of the Department of Children & Families' case against the Cuban father, Rafael Izquierdo, remains, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen signaled state lawyers would face an uphill battle when his side begins to present its case Friday.

The judge said recent Florida appeals court rulings make it very difficult to prove a parent abandoned his or her child. That claim is at the heart of the state's petition, which seeks to declare Izquierdo unfit to raise his 5-year-old daughter. The state wants the girl to remain permanently with a Coral Gables foster family, Joe and Maria Cubas.

''It is very difficult to show abandonment in Florida,'' Cohen said. ``I was very surprised to find out how hard it is when I read the case law. Believe me, if it were up to me, it would be easier.''

And, for the first time, the judge acknowledged the politics that overshadow the case.

''The United States is reluctant to repatriate a child to a communist country,'' Cohen said, adding that she believes state workers might have acted differently had her father lived anywhere but Cuba. ``We don't need to mince words here.''

She also suggested the state was being ''disingenuous'' by claiming DCF was not trying to strip Izquierdo of his right to raise the little girl. DCF has said it doesn't want to terminate Izquierdo's parental rights but simply to have the foster family maintain guardianship over her.

The judge said that given the state of relations between the United States and Cuba, the father was unlikely to see his daughter again if he returns to Cuba without her.

''Just because you are asking for a permanent guardianship and not a [termination of parental rights] doesn't mean, in fact and in theory, that it is not equivalent to a termination,'' Cohen said. ``You're wrong if you think I don't know that.''

Cohen said in nearly 10 years of presiding over child-welfare cases she had never seen DCF attorneys request that a parent forever lose his or her right to raise a child unless the parent had failed, again and again, to meet the requirements of a courtordered parenting plan.

The judge's ruling on the state's case came at the end of a day that saw other dramatic developments.

`I WILL JAIL YOU'

Wednesday morning, she threatened to jail any attorney in the case who ''taunts'' or seeks to ''intimidate'' other lawyers. Her harsh lecture came on the heels of a complaint by DCF chief of staff Jason Dimitris, who is spearheading the state's case, that one of Izquierdo's lawyers teased him about a prior divorce. Dimitris called attorney Steve Weinger's conduct ``offensive.''

''If I find out anybody brings up any issue of someone's personal life or intimidates or taunts another lawyer, I will hold you in contempt, I will jail you, and I will file a complaint with the Bar. No lawyer here will talk about another lawyer's personal life,'' the judge said.

Later in the morning, John O'Sullivan, an attorney for the Guardian ad Litem Program, which is advocating for the girl's interest, argued that Izquierdo fabricated evidence and lied on the witness stand and is therefore unfit to raise his daughter.

Izquierdo's attorneys deny the claim, saying the trial had become a circus only because the girl's mother, Elena Perez, repeatedly lied on the witness stand. The judge said she is reluctant to take a parent's child from him because he lied -- though she gave no indication whether she believes Izquierdo perjured himself.

After the state rested its case, Cohen dismissed three of the claims against Izquierdo. One of the allegations: that Izquierdo knew or should have known that Perez was depressed and unstable, and thus unsuitable to bring the girl to the United States, where Perez later tried to kill herself.

Cohen said DCF failed to show that Izquierdo had any idea his wife was incapable of raising the girl and her older half-brother, noting that the older boy -- the state's star witness -- testified he wasn't even sure Izquierdo heard him when he told the girl's father that their mother was abusing them.

The other claims she threw out: that Izquierdo abandoned his daughter when he failed to send her money from Cuba and that he wasn't there to protect her when she became dependent on the state.

Though the judge did not dismiss the state's main claim that Izquierdo abandoned his daughter, she hinted it will be difficult for the state to prove it. Under current case law, Cohen said, parents must ''willfully reject'' their ''parental obligations'' in order to be stripped of custody.

'MARGINAL' EFFORTS

Mercedes Scopetta, an attorney with the guardian's office, said Izquierdo had only ''random and occasional contact'' with the little girl before she left Cuba -- and virtually ''no contact'' with the girl after she left. Izquierdo's efforts to retrieve the little girl after she entered foster care, she said, were ''marginal'' at best.

Weinger countered that Izquierdo hired an attorney as soon as he learned his daughter had been taken into state custody and traveled to Havana to seek help from the U.S. Interests Section. He said Izquierdo acted quickly, within the choices available to him, to retrieve the youngster.

''There is uncontroverted evidence that he always considered himself her father and always wanted to be her father,'' Weinger said.



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Postby Marina » Sat Sep 22, 2007 8:02 pm

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http://www.miamiherald.com/775/story/243266.html

U.S.-Cuba relations loom over custody case as judge nears ruling

Posted on Thu, Sep. 20, 2007

By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ
AP Hispanic Affairs Writer

MIAMI -- There have been no street protests and few public outcries this time in the area's large Cuban exile community.

But as the judge in the custody dispute over a 5-year-old Cuban girl prepares to rule on the child's fate, U.S.-Cuba politics loom as large as they did during the Elian Gonzalez saga seven years ago.

"In Florida, in this type of case, God knows what can happen, because political interests and emotions can easily prevail over the interests of any child," said Chicago-based attorney Jeffery Leving, who helped Elian's father in 2000.

In the current case, Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen must decide whether 32-year-old Cuban farmer Rafael Izquierdo is a fit parent and should be able to regain custody of his daughter. The girl went into foster care after her mother brought her to the U.S. in 2005 and then attempted suicide days before Christmas.

The Florida Department of Children & Families wants the girl to remain with her Cuban-American foster parents. Its lawyers have argued that Izquierdo abandoned the girl and should not be able to take her away from loving foster parents.

Since the case began in late 2005, DCF has spent an estimated $150,000. Department Secretary Bob Butterworth said it has required more hours than any other case under his watch but declined to further compare the case to others.

Cohen has made clear she is aware of the larger political context.

"The U.S. is reluctant to repatriate children to a communist country," she told DCF attorneys, summing up the case during the closing days. "Let's not mince words."

The case could also affect her future among Miami-Dade County's Cuban-American voters: she is up for election next year. And she has made missteps before with the community.

In 2002, the often mercurial judge said in an offhand comment in court that if the U.S. could deport Cubans, the state would be able to clean out its jails. The comment did not go over well with the Cuban American Bar Association. Cohen profusely apologized.

She has shepherded the current case forward despite reiterating that she sees little legal merit in the state's arguments and despite dismissing several key allegations.

The judge must still rule on the most serious charge, whether Izquierdo abandoned his daughter by having little contact with her during her first nine months in the U.S.

Ruling against the father on that basis would be unusual, said University of Florida law professor and custody expert Nancy Dowd.

"If we were to look at the number of noncustodial parents who don't maintain regular contact with their children, that's a lot of people," she said. "That's a rather radical position to take."

The judge has said that is DCF's strongest argument, but she suggested politics played a part in why the agency did not make more of an effort to contact the father in Cuba after the girl went into foster care.

"They're usually falling all over themselves calling fathers," Cohen said. "The difference in this case is that the father lived in Cuba."

The standard for a fit parent is not high. Generally, a person only needs to be an adequate parent to regain custody of a child. Izquierdo appears to meet that standard.

He broke up with the girl's mother while his older daughter with another woman was still in diapers. Still, by most accounts, he visited the girl at least twice a month when she was in Cuba and was kind to her. Izquierdo has since reconciled with the mother of his first child, who would presumably help him raise his younger daughter.

But the state's attorneys, including a former federal prosecutor, have sought to portray Izquierdo as a pawn of Fidel Castro's government, asking if his Cuban attorneys penned letters he said he sent to the girl's mother.

They also grilled him about the posh apartment where he has been staying as he awaits the ruling. The apartment is the home of a wealthy Cuban-American who favors more exchange between the two countries.

An attorney for the girl's wealthy Cuban-American foster parents, who have adopted her 13-year-old half brother, was more diplomatic outside court.

"We have no evidence that the Cuban government has manipulated him into doing this," lawyer Alan Mishael said. Mishael said the foster parents simply want the girl to stay in America with the half brother she has grown up with.

The state attorneys also targeted one of Izquierdo's U.S. lawyers, Magda Davis, a Cuban-American who gained infamy among many in the exile community 17 years ago when she kissed Castro on the cheek during a visit to the island.

According to testimony from Elena Perez, the girl's emotionally troubled mother, Davis hatched a scheme in which Izquierdo and Perez were to pretend they had exchanged several letters and photos to prove his interest in the child. Perez's accusations were initially plausible, but she repeatedly shifted her story, and several witnesses rebutted her testimony.

Perhaps most striking in this case, the Cuban government has largely remained in the background. In Elian's case, Cuba loudly protested attempts by the boy's Miami relatives to keep him. Armed federal agents eventually took Elian by force from those relatives and he returned to Cuba with his father.

In the end, no matter how Cohen rules in the current case, U.S.-Cuba relations will affect the girl's fate.

If she goes back to the island with Izquierdo, it is unlikely they will be allowed to leave again. And since U.S. law allows Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba only once every three years, she will have little contact with her older half brother, the one constant in her life.

If Cohen agrees to let the girl stay with her foster parents, and Izquierdo returns to Cuba where his extended family remains, the judge will have similarly damaged the ties between father and daughter.

"If you think I don't know that, you've been talking to the wrong person," a weary Cohen said. "That's what will happen if he goes back to Cuba."

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Postby Marina » Sat Sep 22, 2007 8:09 pm

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http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070920/ap_ ... _dispute_1

Closing arguments in Cuban custody case

By RASHA MADKOUR, Associated Press Writer
Wed Sep 19, 8:26 PM ET



MIAMI - A Cuban farmer fighting for custody of his 5-year-old daughter made virtually no effort to be a parent when the girl left the island nation with her mother, state child welfare attorneys said in closing arguments Wednesday.

Rafael Izquierdo denies abandoning the girl, but he did not speak on the phone or write letters to her for nine months after she moved to the U.S., said attorneys for the Florida Department of Children & Families and the girl's state-appointed legal guardian.

During the defensive's closing argument, attorney Ira Kurzban said his client did communicate with his daughter. Kurzban referred to testimony by the girl's half brother, who said the girl spoke to her father at least once a month via telephone.

If Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen decides Izquierdo did not abandon his daughter, she must then rule on whether the 5-year-old is better off with him or with her Cuban-American foster parents, who live in the Miami area and want to keep her.

The case has been compared to the one of Elian Gonzalez, who returned with his father to Cuba after armed federal agents took him from relatives in Miami. But unlike that case, the girl's mother wants her to be with the father and Miami's Cuban-American community has largely stayed quiet.

The state has taken an unusually active role in this case, which the judge acknowledges is playing out under the specter of tense U.S.-Cuba relations.

The girl has been in foster care since her emotionally troubled mother, Elena Perez, tried to commit suicide almost two years ago. Her testimony was marked by her admitting she lied on the stand, but attorneys for the state tried to focus on Izquierdo's behavior toward the girl.

"He left her — like Elena — out to dry," said John O'Sullivan, the attorney for the girl's legal guardian.

The judge called that argument the strongest one from the prosecution side, but blamed DCF for not making more effort to contact the father in Cuba after the girl went into foster care.

"They're usually falling all over themselves calling fathers," Cohen said. "The difference in this case is that the father lived in Cuba."

Defense lawyer Kurzban said the father was courageous coming to the United States from Cuba when the countries have not had diplomatic relations for decades.

"For this man to come, I think you don't appreciate what a heroic act this is," Kurzban said.

Prosecuting attorneys said the girl was in foster care for months, and the father should have come sooner. They said the daughter was emotionally damaged when her father failed to come to the United States and take her out of foster care.

The judge said she would make a decision by Friday or early next week.

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Postby Marina » Sat Sep 29, 2007 6:47 am

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http://www.charlotte.com/nation/story/295370.html

Posted on Thu, Sep. 27, 2007

Court win for Cuban dad in custody case

By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ
AP Hispanic Affairs Writer


Court win for Cuban dad in custody case

MIAMI --A 5-year-old Cuban girl at the center of an international custody dispute should be returned to her father, unless separating the child from her Miami foster parents would cause her extreme harm, a judge ruled Thursday.

Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen said she would not immediately return the girl to her father, farmer Rafael Izquierdo, who wants to take her back to Cuba. But she said he is a fit father and the state would have a difficult time proving a reunion would harm her.

The Florida Department of Children & Families wants the girl to stay with the foster parents. Cohen said she would hold a follow-up hearing to listen to the state's arguments but urged agency attorneys to "take their blindfold off and see the forest for the trees."

"I have read the cases in Florida, and you're going to have a very steep mountain to climb here, and you know it," she told attorneys for the state. She suggested all parties enter into mediation.

The girl went into foster care after her mother brought her to the U.S. in 2005 and then attempted suicide days before Christmas. For the past 18 months she has been living with foster parents Joe and Maria Cubas, a wealthy Cuban-American couple.

State attorneys said Izquierdo abandoned the girl by not keeping in contact with her. Izquierdo denied that and professed his love for her.

Cohen ruled that Izquierdo neither abandoned nor neglected his daughter, even though he went months without communicating with her after she moved to the U.S.

The state's attorneys have said removing the girl from her foster home after such a long time would cause her serious emotional trauma. The department maintains the girl has bonded with the Cubases and wants to remain with her half brother, whom the couple adopted.

"These two children have been together their entire lives. Again, through the best and worst moments of their lives, and it is our beliefs, as is the wishes of the children, that they remain together," Joe Cubas told CNN.

Cohen said the court couldn't deny Izquierdo custody of his child unless it would endanger her.

At a news conference held outside the courthouse, Izquierdo, a pig and potato farmer, said in Spanish: "Truth wins."

Izquierdo said the Cubases knew all along that the girl had a loving father who wanted her back and he wants to return home as soon as possible to the central Cuban town of Cabaiguan.

"I want to be with my family, be together," he said.

His lawyer, Ira Kurzban, said he was unaware of any cases in Florida where a father, after being found to be fit, was denied custody based on "nebulous" psychological harm a child might suffer from being separated from foster parents.

"Unless a father is unfit, he has a right to his child. Period," Kurzban said.

DCF spokeswoman Flora Beal said afterward, however, that "to separate siblings from each other does have an emotional and psychological effect."

The father, foster parents and mother were all in court as the judge read her 47-page ruling over several hours. Izquierdo's efforts to regain his daughter once she was put in foster care "were not marginal for a man of his circumstances," Cohen said.

"He has diligently participated in what must seem to him a mysterious and daunting legal process. While geographically, Cuba is only 90 miles from the United States shores, the two countries are philosophically and politically worlds apart," Cohen said.

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Postby Marina » Tue Oct 23, 2007 8:32 pm

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http://www.miamiherald.com/news/breakin ... 72244.html

Cuban dad's lawyers: Law unconstitutional

Posted on Mon, Oct. 15, 2007

BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER AND TERE FIGUERAS NEGRETE
[email protected]

Attorneys for a Cuban father seeking custody of his 5-year-old daughter have asked a Miami judge to declare unconstitutional a state law that would allow child-welfare administrators to strip him of custody permanently even though he has been found a fit parent.

The legal team for father Rafael Izquierdo, a farmer and fisherman from central Cuba, filed a 70-page motion Thursday asking Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen to declare a portion of Florida's child-welfare statute in violation of the state and federal constitutions.

The legal challenge faces a difficult hurdle: Cohen, who has been presiding over the girl's unusual case for more than a year, indicated Monday she does not believe the state law is improper.

''I don't see any constitutional issues here, quite frankly, that can be attacked,'' Cohen said at a 90-minute hearing. ``I want you to know where I'm going: I don't think this is an unconstitutional statute in any way, shape or form.''

The dispute over custody of the auburn-haired little girl will enter its second phase Tuesday, when Cohen begins taking testimony about whether the girl would be ''endangered'' by a reunification with her father, who has been living in a Brickell Avenue condo since entering the United States on a humanitarian visa in May.

Jason Dimitris, the state's lead attorney, said his first of a possible 25 witnesses will be Miguel Firpi, the girl's longtime therapist. Izquierdo's attorneys announced they may call as many as 47 witnesses, though Cohen pointed out there is extensive ''overlap'' between the witness lists of the two sides.

The little girl has been living in the Coral Gables home of Joe and Maria Cubas since April 2006, four months after the girl and her older half-brother were sheltered by the Department of Children & Families after their mother, Elena Perez, slashed her wrists with a kitchen knife. The Cubases have since adopted the 13-year-old boy.

The DCF, the girl's guardian ad litem and the Cubases are asking Cohen to strip Izquierdo of custody over the girl forever, arguing that she has bonded with the Cubases and would be harmed by any separation from both her foster parents and half-brother.

Izquierdo's attorneys are arguing that the part of Florida's child-welfare law that permits judges to withhold custody from fit parents -- if ''the court finds that such placement would endanger the safety, well-being, or physical, mental or emotional health of the child'' -- violates the ''fundamental'' rights of parents to raise their children.

Jeffrey P. Bassett, a child-welfare lawyer with the Florida attorney general's office, asked Cohen to delay a hearing on Izquierdo's request, saying the attorney general is charged with defending state law and had not yet received a copy of the complicated motion.

The father's attorneys were hoping their motion would be heard by Cohen before the hearing is to begin Tuesday morning, but Cohen refused to hear arguments, saying state officials had insufficient time to prepare.

''To go forward with an unconstitutional proceeding for two weeks would be improper,'' said Steven Weinger, one of Izquierdo's attorneys.

Cohen ruled she would begin taking testimony on the child's possible endangerment, and rule on the motion later.

''They have a right to be heard if you are asking the court to declare a statute unconstitutional,'' Cohen said, referring to the attorney general. ``It won't do any good to argue this. My ears are closed. I don't want to delay this. . . . We're putting on witnesses [Tuesday].''


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Postby Marina » Tue Oct 23, 2007 8:56 pm

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http://www.wftv.com/news/14358401/detai ... c&psp=news

Family Upset Over DCF Phone Lines Not Working

POSTED: 9:08 am EDT October 17, 2007


ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. -- A Winter Garden couple said they tried to call the Department of Children and Families for two months but couldn't get through.

David and Christie Crader were trying to get assistance to care for their 6-year-old autistic son. They got a letter in September saying they needed to do a phone interview, but every time they tried to call they got only busy signals, or were put on hold for hours.

DCF has sent a letter refusing to give the family assistance because they didn't call or come in by the deadline.

"It's like you're clawing your way out of a hole and somebody just keeps shoveling dirt on top of you and every time you get an inch or two up, they throw another inch or two on top of you," said David Crader.

Eyewitness News called and had the same results, a busy signal. DCF said it was in the process of upgrading its phone system. It said it will do whatever it can to take care of any unresolved cases.

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Postby Marina » Thu Oct 25, 2007 9:18 am

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http://www.miamiherald.com/news/miami_d ... 76762.html

CHILD WELFARE

Was DCF too quick to close child-abuse cases?

A child's death has sparked renewed interest in claims that child-abuse investigators in Miami routinely cut corners and left children at risk.

Posted on Fri, Oct. 19, 2007Digg del.icio.us AIM reprint print email
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER AND TRENTON DANIEL
[email protected]



The brutal death of a toddler this week, allegedly at the hands of her caregiver, has reignited child-welfare administrators' fears that Miami investigators and supervisors routinely rushed suspected abuse cases to closure to improve performance numbers.

Allegations of shoddy casework and outright fraud first arose in a whistle-blower's complaint months ago that some abuse caseworkers in Miami were cutting corners to improve their standing on an office ''leader board'' -- potentially leaving children in harm's way.

Authorities say shoddy casework may be linked to the deaths of two children, including 2-year-old Jada Woodson, who police say was sodomized and beaten this week.

''It appears that safety was compromised for the sake of generating performance numbers,'' Jack Moss, the Department of Children & Families' South Florida chief, said Thursday. ``I have no tolerance for compromising the safety of children.''

One of DCF's highest-ranking Miami officials, Alejandro Villibord, sent out an ''urgent'' memo to underlings Thursday restricting practices common in Miami since early this year. Among them: declining to investigate reports of child abuse by simply declaring the agency lacked ``jurisdiction.''

Moss said he was aware of about 70 cases in Miami-Dade County that were closed for lack of jurisdiction in recent months -- significantly more than elsewhere in Florida.

CENTER OF PROBE

Villibord, who was in charge of Miami's child-abuse investigations program, is himself at the center of the probe, Moss said, and was replaced earlier this week.

Villibord told The Miami Herald on Thursday through a DCF spokesman that he never ''encouraged'' investigators to place performance numbers over children's safety.

Moss said he recruited a half-dozen abuse-investigation experts from around the state Thursday to recommend reforms in training, supervision and case-work practices.

The death Sunday of Jada, who police say died of skull fractures, gave the investigation greater urgency. Sunrise police charged Jada's custodian, Tyra Williams, 29, with first-degree murder, sexual battery and cocaine possession.

Though a Broward resident, Williams lived in Opa-locka until recently.

Moss could not estimate how many Miami-Dade children were left vulnerable by the improper closing of cases.

The probe already has led to the dismissal of Jackye Russell, one of DCF's highest-ranking Miami administrators, Moss said. Russell was asked to resign a few weeks ago, after Moss took over operations in Miami-Dade.

Russell could not be reached for comment.

A top DCF administrator named David Welch, who was one of the first to complain that questionable practices in the district were leaving children at risk, was fired weeks ago.

Moss confirmed Thursday that he has received no information to suggest Welch had done anything improper.

''Everything was focused on the leader board,'' Welch told The Miami Herald on Thursday. ``We were closing cases in order to rise to the level of No. 1 on the leader board, and placing children at risk.''

Moss, DCF chief for Broward before he was recently given responsibility for all of South Florida, said he became aware of the allegations about three months ago, when he received an anonymous letter accusing investigators of routinely closing cases for ''lack of jurisdiction'' without doing any real investigating. Moss said he immediately called the agency's inspector general.

''I was told they were already conducting an investigation from a whistle blower,'' he said. ``I said to them there may be very serious safety issues involved, and we need to know now, rather than waiting for the investigation to be completed.''

Moss ordered an internal review of cases closed for lack of jurisdiction and found three ''of significant concern.'' They were reopened for a thorough investigation. Moss said he doesn't know whether that review included Jada's case.

On July 5, three months before Jada's death, the state's child-abuse hot line received a report that an ''unknown'' child in the care of Williams and her then-boyfriend, Eddie Ingram, was at risk because Ingram had abused Williams.

2006 INCIDENT

The report stemmed from an incident a year earlier: On Sept. 1, 2006, Miami-Dade police filed a report on an altercation between Williams and Ingram in which Ingram allegedly grabbed Williams, threw her to the ground and threw a brick through her car window.

But a DCF investigator closed the case about 10 days after the report without ever setting foot inside Williams' home, Moss said. The investigator left a business card at the home. Williams called the number back and insisted no children lived in her house.

The investigator took her word for it, Moss said. In fact, Williams was caring for two toddlers.

Welch said he believes shoddy case work also contributed to the May death of 15-year-old Stephanie Dorismond, who police say was beaten on the head with a porcelain toilet lid by a 36-year-old man with whom she was sharing a Biscayne Boulevard motel room.

Records show a DCF worker closed an investigation into Stephanie's safety in less than a week, even though the teen had run away from her mother's home and had not been found.

Records show no one even looked for Stephanie.

''If that case had not been closed, she wouldn't have died,'' Welch said.

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Marina
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Postby Marina » Fri Nov 02, 2007 6:40 pm

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http://www.miamiherald.com/775/story/289549.html

State report criticizes Sarasota foster care agency

Posted on Tue, Oct. 30, 2007
The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The community-based child welfare agency partially blamed for losing track of a 2-year-old foster child could lose its $72 million annual contract with the state if certain problems aren't corrected, a new report said.

The Sarasota Family YMCA, once held up as a model of privatizing social services in Florida, must change its culture of arrogance and acknowledge its part in "creating or perpetuating problems" or risk losing its contract next year, a Department of Children & Families review team said in the report, which it planned to present in a public meeting Tuesday.

The Sarasota Family YMCA oversees foster care for the state in Sarasota, Manatee, DeSoto, Pinellas and Pasco counties. It lost track of 2-year-old foster child Courtney Clark, whose disappearance wasn't reported by child protection workers for four months, a DCF investigation showed.

Courtney's mother, Candace Clark, 23, violated a court order in September 2006 when she took the toddler from a central Florida foster home, authorities said.

Police eventually found the child safe June 14 in a Portage, Wis., home where a severely injured and malnourished 11-year-old boy was hiding in a closet. They found the body of the boy's mother buried in the yard. They also found other endangered children in the home, including Courtney's sister.

Candace Clark, two other adults and a 15-year-old girl have been charged with killing the woman and abusing the 11-year-old boy.

A review found that DCF and the Sarasota Family YMCA made a series of errors in handling the case. The agency is implementing changes to prevent similar missteps, including assigning specific employees to track missing children.

The new report said changes at the Sarasota YMCA must begin with attitude and improving relations with community members and businesses who provide foster care services. They feel the YMCA management is defensive, arrogant and retaliatory against anyone who criticizes or disagrees with the agency, the report said.

"The review team was in unanimous agreement that if the culture and attitude does not change, they cannot recommend renewal of the (state contract)," the report said. "However, there was not agreement on how long change might take."

Sarasota YMCA Chief Executive Officer Carl Weinrich said that while he was surprised by the allegations of arrogance and defensiveness, the report was generally "balanced."

"We recognize some of the strengths we have serving children and families over the years, but we acknowledge we have some issues we've been working hard the last five or six months to correct," Weinrich said Tuesday. "We've got a lot of improvement we need to make to get where we need to be."



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Marina
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Postby Marina » Sun Nov 04, 2007 12:07 pm

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http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2007/nov ... mon_sense/

Butterworth: DCF needs to use common sense

By PETE SKIBA, Daily News Correspondent

Friday, November 2, 2007

Calling for greater cooperation between agencies when dealing with children at risk for abuse and kidnapping, the Task Force on Child Protection met Friday to hand over its recommendations.

Accepting the recommendations from the task force, Bob Butterworth, Department of Children and Families secretary, said the recommendations would arouse agencies to action.

“This is going to go a long way to improve the child welfare system in the state,” Butterworth said. “We need a sense of urgency. We need common sense.”

The task force met in Tampa, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville to hear community concerns and made its recommendations in the Fort Myers City Hall.

The recommendations include but are not limited to:

-- Reduce a child’s review time by a caseworker to 31 days

-- Strengthen and standardize background screening requirements for caregivers

-- Enhance judicial oversight of children in non-relative homes

-- Review caregiver licensing

-- Enhance and upgrade training for criminal justice, social services and other personnel

-- Compile DNA from children in state care

As part of the common sense theme, the task force recommended a legislative way be found to allow social service, law enforcement and other agencies to exchange information that is sometimes legally confidential to that agency.

It only makes sense that if two or more agencies are involved in a child’s case they should be able to share information in their files, said State Attorney Barry Krischer, task force chairman.

“By January we hope to see several of our recommendations made law by the Legislature,” Krischer said.

The task force plans to continue meeting through next year. Its next meeting will be Jan. 17 in Tallahassee.

After the Legislature looks at the recommendations and makes its contributions, a final report will be issued.

If the recommendations require financing, it will be up to the lawmakers to move it forward. The task force seemed to lean in the direction that their recommendations would eliminate spending at one agency for a child that might actually be supported by another agency’s funding.

“The money should be attached to the child (in the system),” Krischer said. “Not to the agency.”

That point became hammered home when Matt Claps, senior management analyst for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, gave a presentation.

“A child (under the care of) welfare might also be disabled,” Claps said.

His agency would like to continue partnering with other agencies to give care to children. Greater cooperation and communication between agencies remained a goal of the task force’s recommendations.

Butterworth appointed the task force in July after Courtney Clark, 2 at the time, a Pinellas child missing for nine months, was found in another state. She was taken out of foster care by her mother to Wisconsin.

The case was a series of management foul-ups starting with a failure by a caseworker to report the girl missing to law enforcement for four months. DCF officials knew of her disappearance but did nothing more than exchange e-mails.

The hunt for the child sparked calls for improved child welfare changes in the state.

At least one ex-foster child thinks the recommendations are heading change in the right direction.

“I think it will help all the children in foster care,” said Casey Heidkamp, 21, a medical administration student who had aged out of foster care. “I would like to thank the task for what it has done.”

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Postby Marina » Tue Nov 13, 2007 4:43 pm

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http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/conte ... 7&cxcat=76

DCF bullied free overtime from staffers, report says

By KATHLEEN CHAPMAN

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

WEST PALM BEACH — Child and adult abuse investigators at the Florida Department of Children and Families said they worked long hours but were threatened with termination if they asked for any overtime, according to newly released documents.

The U.S. Department of Labor found that DCF unlawfully denied overtime to 126 Palm Beach County workers between August 2004 and September 2005. The state agreed to pay a total of $166,516.51 in back wages to settle the case.


A report from the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, released this month, portrays an environment in which DCF workers whose jobs are to protect vulnerable adults and children were intimidated into working without pay because the state did not have enough employees.

The DCF employees said their bosses used guilt, fear and coercion to get them to work off the clock, according to the federal report. Though there was not enough time to do the job, they said, supervisors often reminded them that, if they cut corners and someone got hurt, they could be sued personally - and shamed publicly.

"Constant reminders were apparently received that DCF had received negative press and that if things weren't done 'by the book' they would find their names on the front page of The Palm Beach Post," federal Wage and Hour investigator Ronald Mease wrote in his report.

One boss reportedly told DCF workers in Palm Beach County that, if they didn't like their supervisors, they should go ahead and bill for overtime. Any supervisor who approved an overtime request would be fired after a single reprimand, the boss allegedly said. DCF supervisors can be fired at any time without cause.

The name of that boss and the names of other DCF officials who were responsible are blacked out in the federal report. The Department of Labor declined to release any names of the supervisors involved, citing an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act that allows the federal government to withhold names of people cited in law enforcement reports to protect their "personal privacy."

Ted Simpkins, who was in charge of DCF in Palm Beach County when the violations happened in 2004 and 2005, could not be reached for comment. Alan Abramowitz, who was appointed as interim head of DCF in Palm Beach County, pledged this summer that the state will pay employees for the hours they work.

The job is manageable in 40 hours when the agency is at full staff, he said, but becomes much more difficult when workers have to cover for others who have quit.

The report says that, at one point, nearly half the workers in DCF's Lake Worth office had quit, and replacements were not hired quickly.

Mease began his investigation for the Wage and Hour Division in 2005, after speaking with more than 10 DCF employees. When questioned about the memo in July 2005, one of the supervisors involved repeatedly asked Mease for names of employees who complained and refused to cooperate without those names.

According to Mease's notes, she "then stated, very heatedly, that she knows who filed complaints and that she would hire an attorney to defend herself."

DCF adult protective investigators, who make an average of $36,600 a year, were paid an average of $3,475 in overtime for the 2003-04 fiscal year as they worked to clear a backlog of cases. That dropped to about $915 each in for 2004-05 as the state tried to get control of its budget

DCF attorneys initially denied any wrongdoing, saying that they were encouraging workers to take flex time but had paid a total of $112,000 in overtime between August 2004 and September 2005.

But the federal investigators found numerous cases in which employees had logged onto state computers outside their eight-hour shifts. Mease calculated that the DCF employees worked an average of more than 10 hours a week without pay.

Larry Johnson, a representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in South Florida, said overtime abuses were common at the Department of Children and Families under the previous administration, though rarely brought to light.

"Workers are scared to death to exercise their rights. The first thing they do is terminate them," Johnson said.

But he thinks DCF has made some improvements under Secretary Bob Butterworth, who was appointed to run the agency when Charlie Crist took over as Florida's governor this year.

"Prior to Butterworth, it was a nightmare," Johnson said

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Postby Marina » Thu Nov 29, 2007 8:14 pm

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http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2007/nov ... _their_hi/

DCF: Make it easier for foster children to access their history

By Associated Press

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

KISSIMMEE — Foster children could more easily access their personal history under proposals presented by state officials Wednesday.

The plans presented by Florida’s Department of Children & Families at the governor’s Commission on Open Government would allow foster children to more easily access information such as previous home addresses, birth and health records.

The proposals now go to state lawmakers for consideration.

Children and foster parents are turned away by judges and caseworkers who say they want to protect children from painful personal histories and public records laws that are murky, said Andrea Moore, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Florida’s Children First. Bob Butterworth, the DCF secretary, said the obstacles discourage people from becoming foster parents.

“What this will do, we think, it will not only help out the kids, which is primarily where our mission is, but it will also help us attract and not discourage people from becoming foster parents,” he said.

The governor’s Commission on Open Government, established in June, is a nine-member commission that sends recommendations to Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Legislature on how to protect the public’s right to know about what its state and local governments are doing.

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Postby Marina » Sat Dec 01, 2007 5:59 am

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http://www.nbc-2.com/Articles/readartic ... 092&z=3&p=

DCF searching for caseworkers



Last month alone, 12 people left DCF
More cases piling up on fewer caseworkers
DCF putting ads in papers, job fairs, and TV


Last updated on: 11/29/2007 5:22:15 PM by Kara Kenney

FORT MYERS: As child abuse cases increase in Southwest Florida, protecting children from abuse and neglect is getting even more difficult. NBC2's Kara Kenney uncovered the Department of Children and Families is losing workers regularly. Last month alone, 12 people left DCF.

Right now, there are only 27 people to handle a massive caseload. On Thursday, we dug deeper to find out how this is affecting children in Southwest Florida and what they're doing to fix the problem.

Melissa Mickey is a child investigator with DCF. Her job is to look into allegations of child abuse, neglect, and help families get resources.

"Usually a couple families a day, the case loads are pretty high," said Mickey.

But she says enjoys her job.

"I really like it. It does make me feel good - it really does," said Mickey.

Although Mickey has no plans to leave DCF, she seems to be in the minority lately with so many caseworkers leaving.

"It's a stressful job, definitely. We're on call. We're always working," said Mickey.

Since February of 2006, DCF has seen a more than 80-percent turnover. That means is there were 10 people that started then, only two would be left.

And that turnover is putting even more cases on those who stay.

"When you lose one person, you get more cases. Those stack up on people still here. It can be so overwhelming sometimes," said Mickey.

NBC2 learned that shortage of workers could be putting children at risk.

DCF Administrator Cookie Coleman admits fewer workers mean something could get missed.

"I would like to say no, but the truth is yes," said Coleman. "It's an incredible concern."

That's why DCF is launching a huge effort to find new investigators - print ads, job fairs and word of mouth.

Coleman says the only requirements are a college degree and the desire to keep children safe from abuse and neglect.

"If you care about children, you can honestly make a difference," said Coleman.

To improve morale among case workers, DCF is also going to change its training.

Instead of doing classroom sessions, investigators will be trained one-on-one by a mentor doing ride-alongs so they can really learn the job first hand.


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Postby Marina » Sun Feb 10, 2008 8:55 pm

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http://www.nbc-2.com/Articles/readartic ... =17377&z=3

DCF gets help clearing backlog of cases


DCF has backlog of over 600 cases
Group from Pasco County will help clear backlog
Should be complete within a month



Last updated on: 2/7/2008 5:35:13 PM by Cara Sapida

LEE COUNTY: Hundreds of child abuse cases are just sitting on a shelf at the Department of Children and Families. The organization says there are too many cases to tackle on their own, so they’ve called in help from up north.


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