Monday, February 21, 2011

Preventing Evil and Child Welfare: Where There's a Will, There's a Way.

“No government agency can prevent those very few who have lost the core values of humanity from performing inhumane acts.’’

Please Spare Me, Secretary Wilkins.

In my lovely little Ivory Tower, where I live with my beloved 'rescued' child, and where we have our premium healthcare, relative financial ease with no state income tax and no more FL intangible tax to pay, I read about the case of Nubia and Victor Barahona with a feeling of horror that is almost indescribable. I've been a GAL since 2004. I've been a GAL whose recommendations about an adoption were ignored. I've been a GAL who took a case of an adopted child, who was perhaps even more egregiously abused because those who adopted and subsequently abused her knew exactly what she had suffered before. I've been a GAL whose case's adopted child contacted me stating she was being abused and I was forced to call in abuse reports on her adopters. I've also been a GAL of three children whose therapist contacted me to tell me that the oldest child reported that he and his younger siblings were being starved, fed only Ramen noodles, by their foster parent in their lovely Richmond Heights foster home. In the child welfare arena I really don't know a more sickening feeling than thinking that a child that our State removed because they claimed they could keep the child safer, is subsequently re-abused, or killed, after being rendered dependent on our state's dependency regime.

The Department of Children and Families has published a redacted version of a huge number of documents in the case of Nubia and Victor Barahona (formerly Docter), substantiating the simply awful lives that these children have led from the moment they were born. What really amazes me about this whole thing, beyond the special viciousness of what was done to these children, is that we've seen it so many times before in my state. From a child I knew from my days as a Hands on Miami project coordinator at the Miami Bridge Shelter by the name of Cynteria Phillips (I will never, ever forget opening my Local section of the Miami Herald in August 2000 and seeing her photo and saying "I know that face!" as I read, gasping, that she'd been raped and murdered at age 13 and thrown like trash, onto a patch of glass near Miami Edison High School- her suspected murderer/rapist was just recently charged) to one of my present GAL kids who was removed for incest and then sexually abused by her adoptive father, to my former GAL youth whose adoptive parents I have now reported twice to the Abuse Hotline, I can say, unequivocally, having followed the dependency scenario in our state for the past decade, that I truly believe that child welfare in our state is so broken I don't know where to start pointing fingers. 

People who don't want to look at child welfare because it's too "depressing" probably also don't know that both the DCF/Privatized Foster Care System and the Guardian ad Litem Program in my state run on a veritable shoestring budget that is continually facing cutbacks. If people don't like seeing sexually abused or murdered or suicide-committing children, they need to think carefully about what it is that they are asking for when they say they want tax cuts. Because further budget cuts = cutting the margin of safety for children in this state. Is it possible to retain good, professional and caring people working in the child welfare system for no money? No, it really isn't... Anyone who's any good will train for a few years and leave. I vividly recall one social worker, a really good one, telling me he simply couldn't keep doing it. He couldn't sleep at night, thinking about what he saw and what he couldn't help or assuage, about concerns he had about the children in his caseload even as we pulled my autistic GAL youth from her APD home where she spent her weekends in darkness and from which she was sent to school while menstruating with no sanitary products, no change of clothes and no medication for her simply awful menstrual cramps. It's really hard to adequately care for damaged and developmentally delayed children on little money. These children and youth need resources, including high caliber therapy and decent homes, that continual cutbacks make difficult to come by. They need these things so that they don't continue the cycle of abuse themselves, so they don't become homeless, and so they don't get further abused or even killed.

After a full week of listening to all the piecemeal blame-slinging, I'm still as angry and sad and puzzled about how to change an entire system of care as I was at the beginning of last week and long before. What I know about the Barahona case (since so many people have been asking me questions about it) are these things:

·      •  A GAL just like me had his concerns ignored about the adoption of Nubia and Victor by the Barahonas.

·      • A Protective Investigator left off her investigation promptly at 9 pm, the Friday before one of the children died and told a Judge in open court that she didn’t work weekends.

·      • The adoptive mother of these children reportedly told that investigator she had no idea where the children were.

·      • The mother was not arrested and an Amber Alert for the missing children was never issued. 

·      • The child/children died/were grievously harmed.

·      • There is a strong pressure in our system to get all the children in foster care adopted. There is a little less pressure (as I know from my own youngest child) to make sure a placement is in that child’s interest- that it is safe, viable and that the child will thrive there.

·      •  That going back just to 2000 there are many instances of horrible, horrible situations facing children in foster care and that names engraved in my mind like Rilya Wilson, Cynteria Phillips, Gregory Love, Latiana Hamilton, Gabriel Myers and Nubia Barahona, along with despicable snatches of DNA like Jorge Barahona, Thomas Ferrara, Bonifacio Velazquez and Geralyn Graham, all paint a picture of a decade in which change from state to private care has marked too few a number of changes for the children that we, and our state, have deemed should be removed to safer circumstances. Changes that would make them safe, make them more resilient.

Jorge Barhona

I really don't know where one could start to fix the child welfare system but what I do know is that throwing blame around isn't a meaningful solution. It's likely part of the problem. One more panel isn't likely to solve the woes of child welfare in our state. Because the real blame isn't just DCF's or Our Kids' or horrible human beings like the Barahonas and their ilk who take in wounded children and wound them further or even kill them. I don't believe DCF Secretary David Wilkins' claim that no government agency could have protected Nubia and Victor Barahona. I don't believe that as a state, as a country, where we can build marvelous technology, spend billions on entertainment and athletes and the military, that we cannot manage to keep our most vulnerable citizens safe. I cannot believe that Protective Investigator Andrea Fleary couldn't call her supervisor, tell her she was worried about these two children, call the police, arrest Carmen Barahona for obstruction of justice, and get the state of Florida to issue an Amber Alert for two 10 year olds in the company of the very, very scary Jorge Barahona (see photo above, would you like to be a child looking up at that face when angry?), who had already been investigated a number of times, including for sexual abuse and malnourishment, in relation to these children. 

Clearly the focus on child welfare is lost in our state and in its child welfare agency.

Until we demand better for the children of our state in Florida, until we are willing to adequately fund investigations and foster care and therapeutic services and youth who age out so that they don't repeat the same sad cycle of mistakes made by their parents, we are almost as wrong as everything that happened between February 10th- February 14th in the lives of Nubia and Victor, and everything that went before. We might not be starving children, drowning them in pesticides, or walking away from their front doors at 9 pm sharp on a Friday night. But every time we turn a blind eye, every time we don't demand better for the children of this state, we are part of the problem.

We need a better child welfare system and I seriously wonder how many children will have to die sad and horrible deaths before the citizens of Florida think about how to build a better one. It might (gasp) take tax payer money. It might (gasp) take public will. It might take not accepting that it was just a bad case management agency decision that led to a finalized adoption, or simply bad-mouthing the callous PI who walked away from these children. It might take demanding a change to the entire system of care, from the very highest levels of our state. And telling your senators and representatives that they can cut their salaries before they cut child welfare and child healthcare in our state. That enough children have died or suffered.

And to Paul Neuman, the GAL who opposed the adoption of Nubia and Victor, I hope you didn't quit. I hope something in you didn't die when you saw the news last week that those children, about whose best interests you thought you had clearly advocated and been ignored or disparaged, and who had some of the very worst that can happen to any child happen to them. But having lived through the adoption nightmare lite version myself, I'm almost certain that something in you did. You have my sympathies. 

But I hope you turn around and fight like hell for better child welfare in our state.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

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