MIAMI (CBS Miami/AP) – The Department of Children and Families will train more than 5,000 employees to use a new and improved approach to investigations.
This new training follows the agency coming under fire for cases where children were harmed, even murdered.
The murder of a 10-year-old South Florida girl in 2011, Nubia Barahona, is just one of the investigations the DCF cites as a reason for changes.
Police found Barahona’s decomposing body in the back of her adoptive father’s truck parked on the side of I-95 in West Palm Beach.
In the front seat, they found her twin brother, Victor, suffering seizures from chemical burns.
The children’s adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona were both charged with first-degree murder for the death of Nubia.
The DCF was scrutinized during the course of the police investigation into Nubia’s death for failing to piece together warning signs from medical professionals and school officials that something was wrong in the Barahona home.
The agency blamed it on a system-wide failure, including poor judgment by child protective investigators, overwhelming caseloads and missed opportunities at every turn.
A new approach to the prevention of cases like Barahona’s centers around two core principles according to the DCF – safety and consistency.
The safety framework model is used in more than 16 states for conducting investigations and keeping children safe.
Under the new approach, child protection professionals will assess the full family functioning so they can understand family dynamics and identify what is needed to keep children safe while helping families make better decisions.
“This is the next stage of the transformation process that we’ve been working toward for more than two years. True transformation takes time, and we knew our process had to be deliberate, transparent and inclusive in order to get it right,” DCF Secretary David Wilkins said.
“I am looking forward to the continued collaboration and support from DCF staff, community-based care agencies, judges, advocates, providers and law enforcement as we continue to transform the child protection system for the children and families who are counting on us.”
The DCF worked with the National Resource Center for Child Protective Services, ACTION for Child Protection, law enforcement, judges and child welfare advocates to develop the new safety approach.
Together, the agencies hope to make the holistic approach to child safety effective.
“Florida’s Department of Children and Families has chosen to adopt and implement a methodology that specifically focuses on children’s safety,” Circuit Court Judge Beth Krier in Collier County said.
“As a judge who is beginning to use the new methodology, I find that it gives me more confidence in the decisions I make to protect children’s safety and give parents a meaningful opportunity to develop capacities to keep their children safe in the future.”
The new training comes less than two weeks after police found 2-year-old Ezra Raphael unconscious on the dining room of his Miami home. His mother’s boyfriend, Claude Alexis, was charged with first-degree murder and child abuse after. An autopsy said the boy’s death was a homicide from injuries to his back and body. The toddler was home alone with Alexis at the time, according to a DCF report.
DCF officials said the child’s mother, Cierrah Raphael, left the boy with a caregiver in Gainesville in 2012 because she couldn’t take care of him. Raphael, a former foster child, told the investigator she had turned to prostitution to try to make ends meet. In February, DCF asked the unnamed caregiver to call the hotline if the mother ever tried to get her child back.
But DCF said the caregiver never made that call and Ezra went back to his mom, who was charged with neglect after the boy’s death.
According to the February DCF report, risk was high because the mother had lost custody of an older child and was deemed unfit. But that was mitigated because the child was with another adult. DCF closed its investigation saying there were no indicators of inadequate supervision or threatened harm and no action was taken.
“Every time we have a child die that’s the ultimate failure of the system,” said Wilkins, who said investigators didn’t ask the right questions in Ezra’s case. “That’s an obvious case where the tool could have made a difference.”
In another case, DCF fired an investigator in May after they said she forged documents about substance-abuse treatment for a mother months before her 11-month old baby died in a sweltering car.
Catalina Bruno is accused of leaving her son Bryan Osceola, along with her purse and a can of beer, in the car outside their Miami home. The boy had a 109-degree temperature when he was found. His mother was charged with aggravated manslaughter. But DCF was involved with the family six months before the boy’s death after 30-year-old Bruno was accused of driving recklessly, hit several walls before she passed out with the engine still running with the baby lying in her lap. The car reeked of alcohol, according to documents released by DCF.
The investigator was supposed to contact a drug treatment expert to evaluate the mother to determine whether Bruno’s children were safe to remain there, but DCF said the investigator falsified those records and Bryan remained in Bruno’s care.
Police are also investigating the recent deaths of two other children.
On June 10, 4-year-old Antwan Hope was found dead during an unsupervised weekend visit with his mother, who had lost custody of the boy. ChildNet, the South Florida agency that contracts with DCF, was in the process of reuniting the child with his mother. An email sent to ChildNet was not immediately returned Monday.
And in southwest Florda, authorities are investigating the death of 1-and- 1/2-year-old Fernando Barahona, who was found unresponsive in his crib in June. Two weeks before Barahona’s death, DCF was called after the boy was taken to the hospital with fractures to his skull and back. His mother and boyfriend said he was knocked over by a dog, according to DCF records.
DCF can’t legally comment on cases where abuse and neglect have not been confirmed and stressed the deaths were under investigation.
Miami Judge Jeri Beth Cohen said Raphael, Barahona and Osceola’s deaths “were all very preventable” and lamented that the agency continues to make the same mistakes. The embroiled agency made national headlines nearly a decade ago when a caseworker lied about visiting foster child Rilya Wilson for more than a year, even though she was filing reports and telling judges the girl was fine. The girl is presumed dead.
“It’s the lack of training, the lack of accountability, the lack of supervision, the lack of diligence, the inability to read red flags, to work smartly,” said Cohen. “It just goes up the chain of command and when you have every level shirking their responsibility you’re going to get tragedy.”
The DCF hopes the new procedures that will be implemented in October will help staff make better decisions and lead to a reduction in the number of re-abused children and repeat investigations.
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