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Foster Agencies In Spotlight In Wake Of Barahona Murder

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Nubia Barahona (Photo provided by CBS4 Viewer)

Nubia Barahona (Photo provided by CBS4 Viewer)

Legislative Session Coverage

TALLAHASSEE (CBS4) – Non-profit agencies that provide children’s services are facing new legislative scrutiny in the wake of the torturous death of ten-year-old Nubia Barahona last month.

While both critics and supporters acknowledge that contracting out foster care and adoption services has improved Florida’s child welfare system, the Barahona case remains a cautionary tale of how that system can break down. The report of an independent panel last month pointed to “fatal ineptitude” in the Barahona case.

But this week, as prosecutors announced they’ll seek the death penalty for Nubia’s adoptive parents, Carmen and Jorge Barahona, a bill by Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, moved closer to capping damages for pain and suffering by children in Florida’s foster care system.

Plakon’s HB 1019 passed the House Health care subcommittee by a vote of 10-3 on Monday – with opposition decrying the salaries and bonuses paid by the lead community based care organization, Our Kids, which approved Nubia’s foster placement and subsequent adoption by the Barahonas.

As he has at every committee stop, Plakon acknowledged the “evil” done to Nubia and her twin, Victor, who is recovering from life-threatening injuries. But he also warned that without his bill, agencies overseeing children’s services could very well lose their liability coverage and go out of business. Just this month, the Children’s Home Society of Florida had its liability insurance canceled, Plakon noted.

But opponents of the measure are asking whether the nonprofit agencies face higher premiums due to their own negligence.

“If there’s an increase in lawsuits, it’s because more kids are being injured,” said Gary Farmer, who represents the Florida Justice Association, the state’s trial bar lobby.

Plakon’s bill would cap awards for pain and suffering at between $200,000 and $1 million and lower the amount of liability insurance the agencies must carry from $1 million to $500,000. It would also limit economic damages to $2 million. Farmer points to Victor Barahona’s medical bills, which have already totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Farmer also points to Our Kids’ gross revenues – $101 million in 2008 – and the salaries paid its top staff. Our Kids CEO Fran Allegra, who served on Gov. Rick Scott’s transition team, earns more than $200,000 with bonuses, but has said performance expectations for her agency are high.

Still, the juxtaposition has caught the attention of Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon and chairwoman of the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, who has called Plakon’s measure “a sharp stick in my eye.” With her full backing, a bill that would curb the control of private contractors over the education of youth in the foster care system also advanced on Monday.

The measure, SB 1902 by Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston and the Senate Democratic Leader, would tighten oversight of funds for young people aging out of foster care and give them the option of receiving independent living services until age 21, under the jurisdiction of a court rather than the contractors.

Much of the impetus for the measure is coming from an audit showing that $641,913 was paid to ineligible youth and that the Department of Children and Families and community based care organizations couldn’t provide documentation justifying the amounts of the awards. The final audit has not yet been issued, pending a review by DCF.

Before that bill passed in the committee, however, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice and the sponsor of the first Road to Independence program for youth aging out of foster care, called the measure more of “the same stuff.”

Rich said the program, while laudable, “wasn’t implemented properly. There are a lot of issues about the stipend and how it was used.”

Storms agreed “the numbers are poor.” Despite legislative efforts, she said, 70 percent of youth in foster care are still not graduating from high school. “The idea is good, the foundation’s good,” she said. “Now we want to send it out to people who have a proven track record.”

“What we’re doing is what legislators always do,” Detert responded. “When in doubt, rename it or put somebody else in charge of it. What we really need is the program audited.”

Rich said the pending report by the Auditor General shows that the contractors’ oversight was lacking.

“Well, I know, and they keep flunking their audits,” said Detert.

Representatives of the community based care agencies did not speak against the measure. Last year critics recoiled when Our Kids cut stipends to foster youth while it paid out employee bonuses totaling $330,000.

SB 1902′s House companion, HB 1241 by Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, faces three more committee stops.

Meanwhile, Plakon’s bill to cap damages and liability has a powerful backer in the upper chamber. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and chairman of the Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Appropriations, has included the caps in the Senate’s omnibus Medicaid bill, which has its first hearing Wednesday.

(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.)

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