MIAMI (CBS4) — One week after a shocking family tragedy which involved the death of a 10-year-old girl and her injured twin brother, a Department of Children and Families investigator has been relieved of duty for the way she handled the Barahona case. She was put on administrative leave with pay.
DCF Secretary David Wilkins made the announcement Monday. He also announced that the agency has appointed a Blue Ribbon Panel to probe what went wrong. The special panel will review DCF’S entire history with the Barahona children.
“Second guessing and finger-pointing are the inevitable reactions when faced with tragedies that defy logic. It is impossible, however, for most of us to understand the passion and effort that our investigators bring to work every day,” said Wilkins.
The most recent apparent failure came Valentine’s weekend when DCF received a call claiming the twins were being tied up and locked in a bathroom. DCF has promised transparency with the release of thousands of pages of documents from the Barahona children’s files.
The Blue Ribbon Panel will be chaired by David Lawrence Jr., the former publisher of the Miami Herald and a child welfare advocate. This is the second time Lawrence has chaired a DCF blue ribbon panel. The first was the case of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, a little girl lost by DCF and never found, presumably murdered and her body never recovered.
CBS4’s Natalia Zea spoke to Lawrence about his role on the panel. He said it was his duty as a citizen to accept the task. He says Secretary Wilkins has stressed how seriously he will take the Panel’s findings.
He says the Panel’s mission is critical.
“Whatever happened wrong here, shame on us if we can’t figure out how to make it right for next time,” said Lawrence.
He also told Zea he was personally disturbed by the tragedy.
Lawrence added, “awful awful awful, makes me weep literally to see what some people put children through.”
Others on the panel include former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Roberto Martinez, a partner with the Miami law firm of Colson, Hicks, Edison; and James D. Sewell, former assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and police chief who chaired DCF’s investigation into the death of Gabriel Myers.
“It is my expectation that this review will be done quickly and thoroughly,” Wilkins said. “It is my charge to this team that I expect their recommendations on what went right, what went wrong, where we could improve and what governance, systematic or operating processes should be addressed further.”
The panel will be holding public hearings in accordance with the sunshine laws of Florida. The first meeting is scheduled for February 25th a 2 p.m. at the DCF’s Southern Region Headquarters at 401 Northwest 2nd Avenue in Miami. Additional meetings will be held March 1st at 8 a.m.; March 3rd at 8 a.m.; March 7th at 2 p.m. and March 10th at 2:3o p.m. p.m. The panel will issue its findings and recommendations at the final meeting.
In the meantime, 10-year-old Victor Barahona, who was critically injured when he was doused in chemicals allegedly by his adoptive father, is improving, a state official said Saturday. Victor was found clinging to life in his father’s extermination truck parked on the side of I-95 in Palm Beach County on Monday, Feb. 14th. The body of his twin sister, Nubia, was later discovered in the back seat.
At a news conference Saturday, Wilkins said Victor’s condition was better, but he declined to elaborate, citing patient confidentiality rules. The cause of death of the boy’s sister, Nubia, has not yet been released.
The children’s’ father, Jorge Barahona, is charged with attempted first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse with a weapon. Police say he told investigators he loaded his dead daughter into the truck, got into the pickup with his son and planned to kill himself.
The boy was found convulsing in seizures, overcome by the toxins. The father was nearby on the ground, unresponsive.
Barahona pleaded not guilty Friday and is being held without bail and ordered not to have contact with Victor or other children.
Police have also interviewed his wife, Carmen Barahona. Child welfare officials said she repeatedly covered for her husband in the days before the twins were found. Law enforcement officials said the truck was so toxic several rescue workers were sickened and had to be treated.
Officials with the Department of Children and Families said they expect charges to be filed against the mother. West Palm Beach Police Capt. Mary Olsen said her agency is reviewing evidence, and authorities searched the couple’s Miami home late Thursday night, but she wouldn’t give details.
Child welfare officials have said the couple tied the twins’ hands and feet and locked them in the bathroom as punishment. The couple, who adopted the twins out of foster care in 2008, has been the subject of three abuse investigations in the past few years.
A family member called the abuse hotline about two weeks ago after the Barahonas’ granddaughter claimed the twins were being tied up and locked in a bathroom.
On Friday, a judge removed the granddaughter from her mother’s care amid concerns that family members knew about the twins’ abuse but did nothing. Officials said Carmen Barahona even warned the girl that these were “family secrets” that shouldn’t be repeated.
DCF officials do not believe the granddaughter was abused.
A judge on Friday ordered the mother not to have contact with the girl and placed the child in her father’s custody. The couple is divorced.
The girl’s abuse allegations tipped off a futile four-day search for Jorge Barahona and the twins. The agency finally called police Monday, the same day the truck was found.
Child advocates questioned why the agency didn’t alert police sooner.
A doctor said Victor’s burned body was also covered with scars, including marks indicating he had been tied. Jorge Barahona admitted to starving his daughter, according to officials.
An autopsy was completed, but authorities said Friday it wouldn’t be released for several days.