Les Neuhaus, Author at Florida Politics - Page 4 of 7

Les Neuhaus

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.

‘Foster Shock’ documentary takes Florida’s privatized child welfare system to task

A documentary film about Florida’s privatized child welfare and fostering programs — made by a Guardian ad Litem and filmmaker from Palm Beach — casts a draconian look at what happens to children when they are taken from abusive situations at home and become dependents of the state, at taxpayer expense, often to their peril.

Foster Shock,” which is currently being screened around the state at community viewings and nationally film festivals, was directed and produced by Mari Frankel, who has also served as a Guardian ad Litem (person the court appoints to investigate what solutions would be in the best interests of a child) for the last several years.

Her film paints the picture of a bleak and broken system funded to the tune of roughly $3 billion per year of Florida taxpayer money. The film also argues that a sizable chunk of that money often goes to the six-figure salaries of the executives running the so-called “community-based care” agencies (CBCs), like Eckerd Kids, whose own executive director, David Dennis, earned $708,028 in the fiscal year 2015, according to publicly-available IRS 990 statements.

But the children sometimes wind up in group homes, or foster homes, where they are abused or even killed – maliciously or by neglect. There have been a string of widely-publicized incidents the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) has had to ultimately deal with in recent years, but the CBCs keep getting their contracts – typically worth tens of millions of dollars per county – renewed by the state.

“There is unacceptable, and then there’s disgraceful,” Frankel said at a screening of her movie at the Palm Beach International Film Festival last year. “We need to change the system to protect these children from being hurt over and over again. I hope Foster Shock will let people see the dysfunction under privatization and move them to demand action.”

The CBCs – routinely staffed by personnel who are not licensed social workers, certified master social workers or licensed clinical social workers and are packed into cubical-farm office spaces – subcontract out much of the case management work to other agencies. The case management workers who actually check on the children’s welfare are not licensed clinic social workers either and have demanding caseloads hovering around 20-30 families, depending on the county.

The film also explores the reasons children are removed from their homes. A recent review of Florida’s child welfare system by the federal government concluded DCF, and sheriff’s offices that handle child welfare investigations in six of Florida’s 67 counties, prematurely remove children from their homes.

Further, interviews with foster children who eventually age out of the system give their personal testimonies in the film, in which they were alienated from their biological parents and siblings against their will and placed into dangerous homes where they were raped, exposed to illegal drugs or are prescribed psychotropic medications, Baker Acted as minors, with the ultimate attempt to put them into adoption programs. Florida receives thousands of dollars from the federal government for every child that is successfully adopted under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act.

The film will be screened next in at Gulfport’s Stetson University’s School of Law in Pinellas County, on March 29, 2017, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Following the movie, a panel of youth moderated by the Honorable Judge Patrice Moore, will speak about their experiences in a community conversation setting regarding the resources needed to best serve children in foster care. Representatives from GAL, Heart Gallery, Eckerd, and Big Brothers Big Sisters will be at the event.

Attendees are invited to bring full-sized hygiene donations for GAL teens living in group homes. Email Taylor at tgreenbe@law.stetson.edu for questions. Dinner will be served. Spots are limited.

RSVP to:  http://www.galf6.org/calendar/events/Foster-Shock-Movie-Screening-and-Community-Conversation.

Teacher fell asleep during school, leaving toddlers unsupervised

Five minutes could’ve been enough time for a deadly mistake to happen, a parent was reported saying after it was revealed one of the teachers at her toddler’s daycare class in Hobe Sound, Florida, had fallen asleep during class – in the class – as a second teacher was gone in a bathroom, leaving the children unsupervised.

It may be have only been a few minutes, but it was enough time for 2-year-olds to find trouble, according to Rachel Nee, whose 2-year-old son was one of five children in the class during the incident on Feb. 20.

Nee said she wasn’t notified about it by the center but got a call from DCF, informing her about the investigation, according to the NBC-affiliate in West Palm Beach, News 5.

The Department of Children and Families confirmed they are investigating the Dunbar Center, but couldn’t elaborate on an active investigation, per standard protocol.

“It was absolutely the worst phone call I’ve ever received,” Nee said on Wednesday. “I actually broke down and cried.”

DCF told Nee the teacher had fallen asleep in class.

“I think we should have been informed and other parents should have been informed when things like this happen and I shouldn’t receive a phone call from DCF,” Nee said, implying the school should have disclosed the information on their own, not through DCF.

The director of the Dunbar Center, Paul Kelly, confirmed the incident to FloridaPolitics.com on Friday.

He said two teachers were looking after the children when one of them left to go to the bathroom. The other teacher then fell asleep.

Kelly said the teacher had taken over-the-counter PM painkillers, which he said was a clear mistake on her part.

The Dunbar Center has about 90 children, many of them with special needs, according to Kelly.

Last year a DCF inspection found that the center had cleaning supplies accessible to children.

The report from March 8 said: “Bleach water was accessible in three classrooms.”

Special-interest groups rejoice Enterprise Florida House vote; call for Senate death knell

When the Florida House of Representatives voted Friday to do away with the much-embattled Florida Enterprise – the program Gov. Rick Scott loyally supported and, oppositely, Speaker Richard Corcoran virulently chided – special interest groups who had worked tirelessly for its eradication jumped for joy.

None celebrated more than the Florida branch of Americans for Prosperity (AFP-FL), which bills itself as the leading grassroots advocacy organization campaigning against corporate welfare, which is what Speaker Corcoran had called it in the media battle between he waged with Gov. Scott on the program.

It had become the chief example of government waste in citizen tax dollars.

AFP-FL is still celebrating, long after the vote because their effort to educate legislators – some of whom voted against their own party to pass HB 7005, as the measure is known – constituents and Floridians at large was a sizable effort, according to AFP-FL’s communications director, Andres Malave, who spoke passionately about what he called the common sense aspect of the bill evening the playing field for everyone in the Sunshine State.

“We’ve been hammering on the failures of Enterprise Florida for several years because the taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for financing some billionaire’s football stadium … or their competition’s business across the street,” Malave told FloridaPolitics.com by phone after the vote Friday. “Again, we ask that the Florida Senate push this bill forward to the governor’s desk and make him sign it because, ultimately, this is what’s best for Florida’s taxpayers.”

The spokesman for the group said it took “courage” for members of the Florida House of Representatives to vote in eliminating the quasi-state agency, along with a laundry list of other wasteful spending programs that give private businesses taxpayer dollars.

“It takes courage to do the right thing,” Chris Hudson, AFP-FL’s state director, said. “We applaud the leaders of the Florida House that stood up to enormous outside pressures to keep a rigged system in place. Enterprise Florida sends taxpayers the wrong message:  that government believes it can be a better investor of their dollars and that we should accept our money being plucked from our pockets to be redistributed to the wealthy and well-connected.”

In 2013, AFP-FL and Integrity Florida released a comprehensive study to demonstrate the failures of Enterprise Florida. EFI fell short of their job-creation goals. EFI fell short of securing the level of required private funding support. EFI’s lack of transparency resulted in outlandish executive bonuses or extravagant purchases. Finally, EFI is guilty of promoting a culture of state government favoritism that funneled benefits to companies while not offering those same benefits to competitors or all businesses that existed in the state or that wanted to come to Florida.

“In 2016, AFP-FL advocated against a $250 million allocation request by Governor Rick Scott to EFI,” Malave said. “The 2016 legislative session resulted in an allocation of $0 for EFI after AFP-FL mobilized their grassroots army to make over 350,000 phone calls and over 250,000 contacts by going door-to-door, they launched an aggressive social media effort and an intensive direct mail campaign to educate Floridians about the failures at EFI and what votes lawmakers were taking in Tallahassee.”

Scott’s response to the House vote was passed around by the media quickly.

“Today, politicians in the Florida House passed job-killing legislation,” the governor said in a statement. “We can all agree that VISIT FLORIDA and EFI need to be absolutely accountable and transparent, and both agencies have already taken major steps and implemented reforms to ensure their operations meet our high expectations.

“However, today’s actions by the House curb the mission of VISIT FLORIDA and bury it in more government bureaucracy — along with decimating Florida’s economic tool kit and the very programs which are directly tied to the creation of thousands of jobs for Florida families. … But, I want to be very clear — a vote for these bills was a vote to kill tourism and jobs in Florida.”

Florida couple face ‘shocking’ 700+ counts of abuse against fostered, adopted children

Daniel and Jenise Spurgeon

A couple living in southwest Florida have been charged in Alabama with 727 counts of sexual crimes and physical abuses against their 11 adopted and foster children, law enforcement officials in both states told FloridaPolitics.com Friday.

Police in both states are calling it the most shocking case they’ve ever seen.

“I’ve been working sex crimes involving kids for 12 years and this is by far the worst I’ve had so far,” Detective Keith Johnson, of the Florence Police Department in Lauderdale County, Alabama, said by telephone Friday.

Daniel and Jenise Spurgeon, 47 and 53, respectively, are being held without bond in the Lee County Jail in Fort Myers, Florida.

None of the children in the Spurgeon’s care came from Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF), according to DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims.

“It’s important to note that there were no Florida foster children placed in the home with the family,” she emphasized. “Further information cannot be disclosed per section 39.202, Florida Statutes, which provides confidentiality to child victims of abuse or neglect. Any questions regarding the original placement of the children and services for the adopted/foster children should be directed to Alabama’s child services agency.”

Sims noted DCF opened a child protective investigation in July concerning the allegations regarding this family. All children in the home were immediately taken into protective custody, she said.

“The adopted and foster children in the home were placed with the family while they lived in Alabama,” she further clarified. “Since the foster children were in the process of being adopted, they were allowed to move with the family from Alabama to Florida under the federal Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children.”

Police originally learned of the case when they responded to a tip of two minors at a Cape Coral bar who were inebriated last July, claiming their parents had forced them to drink alcohol, according to documents provided to FloridaPolitics.com.

During the interviews with the two intoxicated minors, Cape Coral Police investigators learned that four girls under the Spurgeon’s care were claiming they’d been sexually abused and were from Alabama.

“That’s when I got a call from the Cape Coral police,” Johnson said. “It’s taken this long to get everything done because the children had to be interviewed (on video) in Florida and I had to review each one, and before I charge someone with a sex crime I’ve got to make sure that there’s no doubt.”

Daniel Spurgeon has remained in the Lee County Jail since his original arrest.

The number of counts stemming from Alabama alone total 415 and include multiple counts of sodomy in the first degree (4), sexual torture (4), sexual abuse of a child under 12 (2), sexual abuse in the first degree (115), child abuse (122), sexual torture (4), rape in the first degree (6), domestic violence by strangulation and/or suffocation (3), incest (6), human trafficking in the first degree (11) and enticing a child for immoral purposes (115).

That does not include Florida’s charges.

His charges in the 20th Judicial Circuit of Florida, as represented by state’s attorney Stephen B. Russell, are as follows: One count sexual battery of a victim under 12; four counts lewd and lascivious behavior against a minor; one count sexual assault of a victim under 12; 11 counts aggravated child abuse.

“They’ve got similar charges down there (in Florida), but we’ve got more because they were here longer,” Johnson said.

Daniel Spurgeon is a native Alabamian, while Jenise Spurgeon was from “somewhere up north,” the investigator said.

Originally arrested in July, too, then released, and then arrested again Wednesday per a warrant issued by Johnson in Alabama.

She is charged in Alabama with multiple counts of child abuse (100), domestic violence by strangulation (1), human trafficking in the first degree (11), endangering the welfare of a child (100) and enticing a child for immoral purposes (100).

Her charges in the 20th Judicial Circuit of Florida are as follows: one count out-of-state fugitive from justice; 10 counts aggravated child abuse.

It’s unknown if the state’s attorney office plans on filing more charges. A call placed to his office was not immediately returned.

Children’s Network of Southwest Florida claimed the children went almost six months without monthly checkups from a state agency because Alabama never notified them that the family moved to their state.

It is unclear if Children’s Network of Southwest Florida is trying to deflect blame, but calls to clarify their claim to the Alabama Dept. of Human Resources — the agency tasked with child welfare in that state — were not immediately returned before this article was published.

The Spurgeon’s will be extradited to Alabama, Johnson said, but it is not clear when. When they are brought to Alabama, the Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Office will be handling the case, not Cape Coral, officials in both states said.

The Alabama charges against the pair stem from sex late 2007 to 2015, when they moved to Florida. Johnson would not confirm if it is a crime in Alabama to leave the state with foster children, but considering the human trafficking charges against the couple it most likely is a crime.

However, he noted the adopted children would remain in Florida while the foster children would be brought back to Alabama, though part of his statement conflicted with that of Sims from DCF.

FloridaPolitics.com is still waiting on information on whether Florida prosecutors will hold on to the couple to try them in the Sunshine State before allowing their extradition to Alabama for judicial proceedings there.

 

Pam Bondi touts $165 million recovered by state’s Medicaid fraud unit

Florida has proved to be one of the most effective states in the nation last year for recovering Medicaid fraud money.

A report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed Florida recovered more than $165 million in otherwise lost funds through fraudulent Medicaid cases during fiscal year 2015-2016, the state’s attorney general said in a statement Thursday.

The report shows Attorney General Pam Bondi’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU) is working, according to the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services.

“My Medicaid Fraud Control Unit investigators work tirelessly to stop Medicaid fraud and recover stolen funds for taxpayers,” Bondi said in the statement. “This report sends the strong message that we will continue to aggressively pursue anyone trying to defraud Florida’s Medicaid program.”

According to the report, Florida ranked only second in the nation in total funds recovered for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, with New York raking in the most at nearly $229,000,000.

Since taking office in 2011, Bondi’s MFCU has obtained more than half a billion dollars in settlements and judgments in total.

The unit investigates and prosecutes providers that intentionally defraud the state’s Medicaid program through fraudulent billing practices. In addition, the MFCU investigates allegations of patient abuse, neglect and exploitation in facilities receiving payments under the Medicaid program.

Each year OIG of the HHS publishes a report of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit statistical data from the preceding federal fiscal year.

California and Texas ranked third and fourth, respectively, with California saving more than $136,000,000 and Texas saving more than $128,000,000.

To view HHS OIG’s report, click here.

New details emerge in case of foster mother charged in murder of Tampa-area toddler

Aedyn Agminalis

All the red flags were there.

There was a toddler with medical needs; a medically untrained, first-time foster parent with occasional problems falling behind on rent and a possible need for extra income in raising her two biological children; and multiple visits to the hospital, according to news reports and information gathered independently by FloridaPolitics.com Thursday.

However, on paper LaTamara Stackhouse Flythe met all the criteria for foster parenting. She lived in a nice suburban Tampa neighborhood and listed her income at around $70,000, according to an article by The Tampa Bay Times Thursday, which noted her earnings were a combination of child support and a salary from her employer, Children’s Home Network, an “agency subcontracted by Eckerd Kids to recruit, license and support foster parents.”

A Door of Hope, another Eckerd subcontractor, approved Flythe’s foster parenting license. Foster parents get a minimum of $439 per month, per child, aged 5 or under in Florida. Flythe had the option to foster one more child in her home, meaning a potential four minors could have been living under her roof.

Eckerd Kids is one of the biggest so-called community-based care agencies (CBCs) contracted to do foster care and adoption business with the state of Florida. In 2012, DCF officials in Tallahassee awarded the lucrative $65.5 million annual contract to Eckerd Kids for Hillsborough County, where they claim more children die every year than in any other county in the Sunshine State. (Eckerd is headquartered in Clearwater, and when they got the Hillsborough contract they already had contracts with Pinellas and Pasco counties.)

LaTamara Stackhouse Flythe

Adrienne Drew, the spokesperson for Eckerd Kids, confirmed Thursday to FloridaPolitics.com the agency had no policy in place to flag repeated medical incidents with foster children placed in the care of foster parents, but have since instituted one.

Drew also said Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services, yet another subcontractor of Eckerd Kids, was assigned to handle Aedyn’s case, specifically, while he was in foster care — his case worker would’ve been allocated from that agency.

But now Flythe is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the death of toddler Aedyn Agminalis, who was removed from the home of his biological parents, Brynn and Artha Agminalis, under which Aedyn was living in below standard conditions, a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokesman said.

“The CPID (child protective investigation division) worker said their living environment was in deplorable conditions,” Lt. Larry McKinnon told FloridaPolitics.com Thursday. “There was feces in the crib and on the boy — it wasn’t a good situation.”

No one from Eckerd Kids was at the hospital the day Aedyn’s life support system was shut off.

The mother, Artha, had been interviewed by the local CBS-affiliate TV news station, claiming she and her husband had decided to give Aedyn up for adoption, but that wasn’t true, according to McKinnon.

“People say all kinds of things when this happens, but in this case, she can say what she wants — they (CPID) were taking the boy out of their home anyway the same day they first visited the home,” he said. “They had already decided he needed to be removed.”

According to the Times article, the Agminalis’s admitted to child welfare investigators they were ill-equipped to care for Aedyn and requested he be taken into the foster care program.

“The charges arise from the care and feeding of their son before he was placed in state custody in September,” the Times reported. “The couple, who moved to Florida from Kentucky when Aedyn was about 10 months old, had decided they weren’t ready to be parents. Through an adoption agency, they had chosen Colleen Kochanek and her wife, Stephanie Norris, to adopt Aedyn.”

***

But without Kochanek’s or Norris’s knowledge, Eckerd Kids was trying to get Aedyn’s paternal grandparents to adopt him.

FloridaPolitics.com reached out to Kochanek, but a response was not immediately returned before the publishing of this article.

In December, just after Aedyn’s death, the CBS-affiliate in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, WTSP 10News, interviewed Kochanek and Norris, who had just successfully adopted a separate child and were waiting to add Aedyn to their family.

“It just seems like we were fighting them instead of them saying, ‘Gosh, this is great. This little guy is going to find a permanent home,’” Kochanek, with Norris standing next to her and responding directly about Eckerd Kids, told a 10News reporter. “Why the delay? If people have already been through adoption, let’s expedite that. Let’s get children out of foster care as soon as possible. I’m not saying that any child is going to be harmed any minute in foster care. Sure, there’s excellent foster parents out there but why delay? Why not have him with us as soon as absolute possible?”

Eckerd Kids is widely known to promote Christianity, and the fact the pair were a married lesbian couple may have played a factor in the stonewalling the couple received. Kochanek is a North Carolina Bar-certified lawyer.

David Dennis, the CEO and executive director for Eckerd Kids, is a Baptist from Oklahoma, who earned $566,151 in combined compensation and income during fiscal year 2014, according to an IRS 990 records (untaxed nonprofits are required to file one annually). The next fiscal year, 2015, he got a significant raise, pushing his combined earnings as head of Eckerd Kids, also known as Eckerd Youth Alternatives, to $708,028 — a $141,877 bump up.

Dennis has a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling from Southwestern Baptist Seminary and a bachelor’s degree in religion from Oklahoma Baptist University, according to the Eckerd website.

Kochanek and Norris believe Aedyn’s death needs to be investigated beyond the reasons he died, primarily on why he wasn’t placed into adoption sooner, they told 10News. They also want to see Aedyn’s medical records from the time he went into foster care until the moment he died.

FloridaPolitics.com asked DCF why the medical records haven’t yet been given to the couple yet.

Jessica Sims, a spokesperson for DCF, emailed this message about the medical records: “Regarding the prospective adoptive parents and the medical records, this was through a private adoption agency, so (they) would need to reach out to that entity on their processes. There are also likely HIPAA considerations in a situation related to the release of medical records.

“In general, there may often be more than one permanency plan being sought for a child to ensure permanency is achieved as soon as possible. This is called concurrent case planning. Additionally, there may also be more than one prospective adoptive parent(s) being reviewed as a placement option at one time, especially individuals related to the child.”

***

In four of the last six years, Hillsborough County has led the state in the number of children removed from their homes. In Hillsborough, DCF does not lead child welfare investigations — the sheriff’s office does.

The idea of sheriff’s offices taking over from DCF began as an experiment in the 1990s in Manatee County and spread to three other Tampa Bay-area counties, to include Pasco, Pinellas and, of course, Hillsborough. Only six counties in the state let the sheriff’s offices handle what would normally be DCF-led investigations.

The other two counties are Seminole and Broward out of the six — six counties out of 67 in the state.

However, in Hillsborough County by the end of the 2016 fiscal year, “investigators with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office removed 1,672 children, the highest number in more than 10 years. That’s almost 450 more than Miami-Dade County, home to roughly 1.3 million more people than Hillsborough,” according to a Tampa Bay Times article from August 2016.

The article went on: “For some, the numbers suggest that the county at times removes children unnecessarily. Others speculate that Hillsborough’s large low-income population, scattered over urban and rural areas, makes it difficult to help with social services. Whatever the reason, the result is an overburdened child welfare system.

“Almost 40 children ended up sleeping in offices and other make-do accommodations over a three-month period this spring and summer because state contractor Eckerd Kids could not place them in foster homes.”

Hillsborough’s Child Protective Investigation Division is comprised of more than 70 civil investigators, not sworn law enforcement deputies. They only take a 12-week training course and then additional on-the-job training to get certified by DCF, then they are granted the power to separate children from their biological parents at their discretion.

The Times article from 2016 also noted Eckerd Kids sets a mediocre goal of “getting 60 percent of children returned to their families or placed permanently with foster parents within one year of removal.”

Over a 12-month period ending in June 2016, the Times noted, Eckerd “failed to meet that goal even once and in May and June also failed to meet the state target of permanently placing 40.5 percent of children within one year.”

FloridaPolitics.com asked Eckerd about these goal percentage failures, but they were unable to answer in time for the publishing of this article.

In Aedyn’s case, both his biological parents and foster parent failed him.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll responded a request for comment by FloridaPolitics.com, issuing a statement.

“Quality foster parents are essential to our work in helping vulnerable children begin to heal in a safe environment,” Carroll said. “Because we place such sacred trust in them, each one must pass a background screening and home study, as well as go through specific training. There was nothing in Ms. Flythe’s background that indicated she could be a threat to any child placed in her care.

“We ask individuals and families all across the state to step up and become foster parents. We trust them to help us care for these children and that makes it even more devastating when one is accused of hurting the very child they were charged to protect.”

 

FDLE consultant arrested in fraud scheme

John Leland Goelz

A consultant with more than two decades’ experience working with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) was arrested and charged with grand theft and organized scheme to defraud the state government, a spokesperson confirmed Thursday.

John Leland Goelz, a non-sworn technical consultant to the FDLE for 23 years, oversaw the cellphones used by agents and employees throughout the agency, said FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Pessinger.

Investigators believe Goelz purchased cellphones for himself and his family using FDLE’s mobile device contract, a violation of ethics, Pessinger added.

FDLE began examining Goelz after a member reported not being able to get an older cellphone upgraded, and went to a supervisor about it.

“He started to notice that everyone around him was getting upgrades, but his cellphone was old and he couldn’t get an upgrade,” Pessinger told FloridaPolitics.com by phone Thursday.

As part of its mobile device contract, FDLE is eligible for a certain number of mobile device upgrades at discounted rates each year. Goelz purchased 10 mobile devices for his personal use that should have been used to upgrade FDLE member phones, according to a statement issued by the law enforcement agency.

By using FDLE’s contract, he could receive steep discounts on the phones he purchased.  The value lost to the agency was nearly $5,000, Pessinger confirmed.

FDLE is in the process of upgrading its procedures to ensure no changes are made regarding FDLE mobile phones without supervisory oversight.  Goelz, who was arrested Tuesday and booked into the Leon County Jail, is in the process of being terminated from FDLE.

The Office of the State Attorney, 2nd Judicial Circuit will prosecute this case, Pessinger said.

Lawyers for DCF contend agency didn’t lie to South Florida court; made ‘mistake’

Attorneys representing the Department of Children and Families (DCF) told a Miami foster care judge on Wednesday they did not lie, but made a “simple mistake” when they gave faulty information about a girl who may have witnessed the suicide of another child in their foster home, according to a newspaper.

The Miami Herald reported on the tense hearing in which lawyers appeared in front of Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia, by her order and under threat of potential jail time, to prove they did not intentionally lie to, or mislead, the judge as a way to divert attention away from a child in the same foster home as Naika Venant, 14, who hung herself in January while streaming it on video via Facebook Live.

In the case, the chief lawyer for DCF in Miami, Clarissa Cabreja, appeared in court on Wednesday to tell the judge her error was a mix-up, the Herald said. A girl identified as J.W., who might have witnessed Naika’s death, was confused with another child also under DCF care with the initials J.W. – the wrong J.W., Cabreja admitted to the judge, according to the Herald.

The so-called mistake was preventing the judge in the relevant J.W.’s case not to be able to follow up on her care.

At point is whether the actual J.W., who could have witnessed Naika’s death, was receiving trauma services or the appropriate counseling she needed. Then the “mistake” happened, DCF lawyers claimed.

On Feb. 28 Sampedro-Iglesia threatened the attorneys with contempt of court and possible jail time.

Wednesday’s hearing was meant to clarify the situation, but as the Herald reported, and as video from the hearing shows, it was edgy from the start.

The attorneys were accused of not demonstrating a sense of urgency on the matter, especially in clarifying the situation with J.W., which the judge pointed out was an error not initiated by DCF itself.

In the Feb. 28 order, Sampredro-Iglesia accused Cabreja, who leads Children’s Legal Services in Miami, of not being truthful when the attorney wrote in a court pleading “that the judge in J.W.’s case had been informed that she was in the Miami Gardens foster home with Naika,” the Herald reported.

“No one thought it was important that this child had been in the home where another child had taken her own life?” Sampedro-Iglesia said to Cabreja, according to the Herald.

Then Sampedro-Iglesia took Cabreja to task, asking her a series of questions, like what was the “golden rule” of child welfare law. Sheridan Weissenborn, Cabreja attorney, objected, but Sampedro-Iglesia carried forward.

At one point, Weissenborn got up and admonished the judge, saying she was moving away from the original task at hand.

“While mistakes happened with regard to a case number,” Weissenborn said in the video excerpt seen in the Herald’s website, “the real issue here is the court’s concerns about these children, and they are getting the services they needed. That’s been taken care of by those judges.”

“There is no contempt,” Weissenborn added.

The judge said she would wait to make her ruling.

DCF, beleaguered by a series of high-profile children’s deaths in recent years and month while in under the agency’s custody, along with a host of investigator arrests, has been hobbled by its ability to control personnel and foster homes; hiring unqualified – or at the very least, unethical, investigators and placing children in dangerous homes. They have been accused by the federal government of removing children from homes too quickly, too.

In counties where sheriff’s lead child welfare investigations, funded by grants, similar instances of neglect and problems exist as well, according to annual performance review evaluations, although the sheriff’s child investigation teams tend to have a good record of initial responses to abuse calls.

Family complains about noisy, alleged drug-dealing neighbors; gets DCF-style investigation by Sheriff’s office

A mother and father have had enough of their neighbors’ drug-dealing, late-night romps that devolve from friendly partying into “screaming matches,” court records in a lawsuit filed in early March indicate.

Jose and Lisa Alecia, with their two children, are homeowners in the Gibsonton neighborhood, located in Hillsborough County outside of Tampa, are seeking $75,000 for damages caused by three neighbors renting a townhome next door in violation of community background screenings.

Around two years ago, Yaritza Heredia, Victor Vincente and Bastin Joseph moved in next door, lessees in a house typically required background screenings and more. However, the homeowner did not carry out the standard searches required before letting the trio rent the place.

Over time, a rift widened, as the complaint describes, with the younger three next door to the Alicea’s staying up late and partying, smoking marijuana in plain view for people to see, being loud, riding four-wheel ATVs and tearing up the grounds with those vehicles, etc.

The Alicea’s called the various applicable homeowners’ associations and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

After that, the documents allege, HerediaVincente, and Joseph were party to making threats against the Alicea’s, at one point saying “watch out.”

In retaliation for the Alicea’s complaints, the renters allegedly filed a false report to DCF, citing a host of activities on the part of the Alicea’s, including drug dealing. The neighbors had gone tit for tat.

The phone call warranted a visit to the Alisea’s home by an investigator, most likely an investigator from the Child Protection Team with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. (Hillsborough is one of six counties where sheriff’s offices lead all child welfare investigations, not the Florida Department of Children and Families [DCF] – four of those six are in the Tampa Bay area.)

A call placed to the Hillsborough Sheriff’s child protection team by FloridaPolitics.com was not immediately returned as to whether a case was still open against the Alicea’s.

The suit alleges malice, negligence, gross negligence, slander, and the demand for an injunction on the dogs, and on HerediaVincente and Joseph when they recently filed a false report against the Plaintiffs.

“Specifically, on or about Jan. 30, 2017, the (the three) filed, or caused to be filed, a report indicating that Plaintiffs were involved with and/or selling drugs, which caused the (DCF) to go to the school of Plaintiff’s children on Feb. 2, 2017, with Plaintiffs’ children pulled out of class, and questioned (without their parents present), including questions about any drug use in the home, if there are drugs or weapons in the home, and if there are persons coming in or out of the home regularly,” according to the court filing. “Plaintiffs’ children were upset over the DCF experience and did not understand why law enforcement was pulling them out of class. In addition, law enforcement came to Plaintiffs’ home on Feb. 2, 2017, and did a search of Plaintiffs’ home (no drugs were found) and required Plaintiffs to submit to drug testing, which Plaintiffs both passed.”

Calls were placed to the Alicea’s were not immediately returned Wednesday.

The renters don’t appear to have voter registration IDs in Hillsborough County.

Appropriations Committee approves bill removing police ‘discretion tool’ in first-time cases with juveniles

A bill introduced and passed unanimously in the Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice Wednesday would take away a tool long since considered useful, but increasingly controversial – the power of discretion.

The measure – SB 196 — could drastically limit what those in the policing community could do when responding to calls involving minors, detractors at the meeting — which included representatives from the law enforcement associations — argued, as the bill’s sponsor, Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores looked on.

“We cannot agree to a bill that takes away from law enforcement discretion,” Matt Dunagan, executive director of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, said. “The sheriff’s do support diversion programs, but if an (ordinance or law) has been broken, a citation must be issued.”

Shane Bennet, head of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, echoed Dunagan’s concerns, also adding his organization supported the civil citations program, which helps offenders who are still minors avoid criminal charges.

The bill also would create diversion programs for first-time offenders, avoiding a criminal record, which could prevent them from joining the military or qualifying for a range of jobs.

“When young people commit serious crimes, there needs to be an appropriate legal penalty. However, there are many situations where youth are displaying a lack of judgment and maturity, rather than serious criminal behavior,” said President Pro Tempore Flores. “This legislation ensures that we utilize other avenues that correct inappropriate behavior without stigmatizing our youth with a criminal record that could impact their future education and career opportunities.”

More than 9,000 minors were arrested in Florida in 2016. Disparities between counties can confound officials, too, as Flores noted, citing that in Pinellas County, where diversion programs have been in place for years, 94 percent of eligible juveniles received civil citations.

“But drive across the bridge into Hillsborough County — it’s only one-third, or 36 percent,” she said.

Senate Bill 196 requires a law enforcement officer to issue a civil citation or require the juvenile’s participation in a diversion program when the juvenile admits to committing certain first-time misdemeanor offenses including: possession of alcoholic beverages, criminal mischief, trespass, and disorderly conduct, among others.

The legislation also mandates the policing community to provide written documentation articulating why an arrest is warranted when he or she has the discretion to issue a civil citation, but instead chooses to arrest the juvenile.

According to The Tampa Bay Times, 52 percent of minors got civil citations throughout the state in 2016.

“If law enforcement had been better at adopting these programs early on, but the truth is, we put too many juveniles in jail, and Florida lags behind,” Sen. Jeff Clemens said bluntly. “It’s time we bring Florida to parity with the rest of the nation.”

Flores closed the bill’s discussion before the unanimous vote favoring the legislation.

“I think training officers is a great idea, but it’s not enough,” she said. “The bill requires better and improved reporting. You know, it’s a little uneasy when you go against what law enforcement says … but we all have to get to a comfortable place where we can talk about it.”

After the committee had closed, Senate President Joe Negron weighed in with a statement.

“In too many cases, we have become a society where law enforcement officers are brought in to referee the day-to-day challenges of raising children,”  Negron said. The Stuart Republican has made juvenile justice reform a top priority of his two-year term.

“This legislation strikes an appropriate balance between public safety and decriminalizing the mistakes of adolescents.”

Separately, the commissioner for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement gave a presentation asking for the establishment of a state counterterrorism force on par with that of the FBI.

Dean Register spoke to the committee members, asking for 46 new positions and $6.4 million to run it annually.

He justified it by citing several of the 9/11 hijackers received their flight training in Florida.

 

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