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The bad, the ugly and the downright horrible – a roundup of today-in-DCF news

Guns, children, neglect, animal abuse, human trafficking and forced prostitution.

These aren’t the beautiful, cliché, sundown-on-the-beach Florida stories, but in an attempt to raise public consciousness to these issues we at Florida Politics bring you today’s ‘DCF Files.’

On Monday, the Palm Beach Post published a story citing chilling figures from the Florida Department of Children and Families – in an annual human trafficking dossier, fiscal year 2015-2016 – in which 1,892 reports of human trafficking were recorded during the period.

It marked a roughly 54 percent increase from the year before. Here’s another comparison to raise your consciousness on the issue: In fiscal year 2010-2011 in Florida human trafficking reports totaled 480. The worst region of the state for this infernal problem, according to report, was the Central region, followed by the Suncoast.

According to the Polaris Project – a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. that monitors the number of calls to the national trafficking hotline database – Florida ranked third-highest in the nation with reported cases in 2016, trailing only California and Texas.

A large percentage of those abducted wind up in sex trafficking, as the Post pointed out a few days ago when three men in their 20s kidnapped a 19-year-old female with the intention of selling her for sexual services on social media. Other abducted are used for indentured servitude – or slaves. And more and more of the victims tend to be younger, the report noted.

Feel good yet? Let’s move on.

In a few weeks we’ll know more about what will be happening in the case of four-year-old Avion Weaver when on Jan. 20, while alone at home, he discovered the loaded 9mm handgun of his mother’s boyfriend and fatally shot himself in the in the face, reported Leesburg, Florida’s hometown newspaper, The Daily Commercial on Monday.

Police are deciding whether or not the boyfriend, Demeko Robinson, should be held responsible for the boy’s death. He lived at the residence with the boy and his mother, but was apparently outside talking with friends when the incident happened inside the home, according to The Daily Commercial. Avion’s mother, Deja Perry, was on her way home from having picked up her car after it had been repaired.

DCF has opened its own investigation. Avion had been taken into DCF custody for six months during part of 2014 and 2015. The agency is conducting a review of their own staff to determine whether or not they did their job appropriately, something that keeps coming up with the agency as of late, as cited herehereherehereherehereherehere and in this example, in which it was discovered by The Orlando Sentinel that more than 70 DCF case workers had falsified information during investigations over a two year period.

Don’t stop reading. Stay with us here because there’s a reason we’re dragging you through this.

WJXT NewsJax4, out of Jacksonville, reported Monday Heather Stevenson had been arrested for aggravated child abuse and child neglect in connection to her two-year-old son. Meanwhile, Stevenson’s other son, Chance Vanderpool, 4, who was autistic, died in her care in November.

“According to the original arrest report, investigators found several old injuries on Chance’s body, including bruises on his lower back and upper buttocks, swelling and bruising to his nose, eyes and forehead and a ‘large cigar-size’ burn on his left foot,” WJXT reported.

Last one: Christopher Adam Perez, 28, is facing animal cruelty charges after starving his dog, found by authorities in an emaciated state and yellow-stained feet from urine in his cage, reported The Austin-American Statesman on Monday. The police discovered the animal as a result of responded to investigate a nine-month-old baby who had died in the home.

You might wonder why Florida Politics would bring you such a depressing roundup of news.

Something awful is happening in the state of Florida. We’re not sure who’s to blame – certainly there’s enough neglect on the part of inept and careless parents, and poorly trained child welfare workers, to go around. But is the fault of the overall state system?

Over the course of the 60-day Florida legislative session, we hope to ask many of this state’s elected leaders that, and many more questions in an attempt to highlight was has become an atrocious epidemic sweeping across this state, now known as one of the very worst in the nation in protecting its children.

And that’s just unacceptable. We hope you think so, too.

Thousands of demonstrators across U.S. say ‘Not My President’

Thousands of demonstrators turned out Monday across the U.S. to challenge Donald Trump in a Presidents Day protest dubbed Not My President’s Day.

The events on the federal holiday didn’t draw nearly as many people as the million-plus who thronged the streets following the Republican president’s inauguration a month earlier, but the message was similar.

Thousands of flag-waving protesters lined up outside Central Park in Manhattan. Many in the crowd chanted “No ban, no wall. The Trump regime has got to fall.” They held aloft signs saying “Uphold the Constitution Now” and “Impeach the Liar.”

A rally in downtown Los Angeles also drew thousands. Demonstrators there called attention to Trump’s crackdown on immigration and his party’s response to climate change and the environment. Organizers said they chose to rally on the holiday as a way to honor past presidents by exercising their constitutional right to assemble and peacefully protest.

In Chicago, several hundred rallied across the river from the Trump Tower, shouting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Donald Trump has got to go.”

Rebecca Wolfram of Chicago, who’s in her 60s, said concerns about climate change and immigrant rights under Trump prompted her to start attending rallies.

“I’m trying to demonstrate as much as possible until I figure out what else to do,” said Wolfram, who held a sign that said “Old white ladies are really displeased.”

Several hundred demonstrated in Washington, D.C. Dozens gathered around the fountain in Dupont Circle chanting “Dump Trump” and “Love, not hate: That’s what makes America great.”

Dozens marched through midtown Atlanta for a rally named with a Georgia flavor: “ImPEACH NOW! (Not My) President’s Day March.”

Hundreds of protesters chanting “This is what democracy looks like” marched through Salt Lake City.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the crowd marched to push back against Trump and his administration’s stance on such issues as the environment, immigration, free speech and Russia.

Some people raised signs that said “Not My President,” while others held up a large American flag. Protester Reg Brookings warned the crowd that Trump is trying to divide the country by making such groups as immigrants the enemy.

A small but unruly group of protesters faced off with police in downtown Portland, Oregon.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reports the police confronted the crowd in front of the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building. Police took some people into custody.

Hundreds of Trump opponents and supporters turned out in Rapid City, South Dakota.

A larger anti-Trump faction stood on a street corner as part of a “Not My President” protest, similar to other demonstrations being held across the country. A group supporting the president lined up on a different corner at the same intersection.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump taps military strategist as national security adviser

President Donald Trump has tapped Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a prominent military strategist known as a creative thinker, as his new national security adviser, replacing the ousted Michael Flynn.

Trump announced the pick Monday at his Palm Beach, Florida, club and said McMaster is “a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience.”

The president’s choice further elevated the influence of military officers in the new administration. Trump, who has no military or foreign policy experience, has shown a strong preference for putting generals in top roles. In this case, he tapped an active-duty officer for a post that’s sometimes used as a counterweight to the Pentagon. McMaster, who wore his uniform for the announcement, joins Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, both retired generals, in Trump’s inner circle of national security advisers. The White House said Monday McMaster plans to remain on active military duty.

He will take on the challenge of leading a National Security Council that has not adjusted smoothly to Trump’s leadership. The president suggested he does not trust holdovers from the Obama administration and complained about leaks to reporters. His decision to put his top political adviser on the senior committee of the National Security Council drew sharp criticism. On Friday, the head of the council’s Western Hemisphere division was fired after he criticized Trump’s policies and his inner circle of advisers.

Trump said Monday that retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who had been his acting adviser, will now serve as the National Security Council chief of staff. He also said he would be asking John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to work with them in a “somewhat different capacity.”

McMaster is viewed as soldier-scholar and creative thinker. He has a doctoral degree in history from the University of North Carolina and has been heavily involved in the Army’s efforts to shape its future force and its way of preparing for war. He is currently the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, a sort of military think tank, at Fort Eustis, Virginia.

Outside of the Army, he may be best known for his 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty,” a searing indictment of the U.S. government’s mishandling of the Vietnam War and an analysis of what he called the “lies that led to Vietnam.” The book earned him a reputation for being willing to speak truth to power.

McMaster commanded troops in both American wars in Iraq — in 1991, when he fought in a storied tank battle known as the Battle for 73 Easting, and again in 2005-2006 in one of the most violent periods of the insurgency that developed after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. He is credited with using innovative approaches to countering the insurgency in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar when he commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He later served as a special adviser to the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

McMaster was Trump’s second choice to replace Flynn, who has been under FBI investigation for his contacts with Russian officials. Trump dismissed Flynn last week after revelations that the adviser had misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his discussion with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential transition. Trump said in a news conference Thursday that he was disappointed by how Flynn had treated Pence, but did not believe Flynn had done anything wrong by having the conversations.

Trump’s first choice to replace Flynn, retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward, turned down the offer.

Trump announced his choice sitting between McMaster and Kellogg in a luxurious living room at the resort property. The president told reporters that Vice President Mike Pence had been involved in the process, but he did not elaborate.

Trump brought four candidates for the position to Mar-a-Lago over the weekend for in-person interviews, McMaster among them. McMaster called the appointment a “privilege.”

It was not clear how closely McMaster’s and Trump’s views align. On Russia, McMaster appears to hold a much dimmer view than Trump of Moscow’s military and political objectives in Europe.

In remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in May 2016, McMaster said Russia managed to annex Crimea and intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine “at zero cost” from the international community.

McMaster said Moscow’s broader goal is to “collapse the post-Cold War security, economic and political order in Europe and replace that order with something that is more sympathetic to Russian interests.”

In his current role, McMaster has been studying the way Russia developed and executed its campaigns in Crimea and Ukraine, where it used what some call “hybrid warfare” — part political, part disinformation, part military.

Sen. John McCain, an increasingly vocal Trump critic, called McMaster an “outstanding” choice.

“He is a man of genuine intellect, character, and ability. He knows how to succeed,” he said in a statement. “I give President Trump great credit for this decision, as well as his national security cabinet choices.”

The position of national security adviser does not require Senate confirmation.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.


Bill Nelson seems undaunted by prospect of primary challengers

Is Sen. Bill Nelson up for a contested Democratic primary in his re-election bid next year?

“You want to do a contest on pull-ups or push-ups?” Nelson replied to a reporter who asked that question during an informal news conference in Tallahassee Monday.

News reports have mentioned Tim Canova, who tried and failed to replace Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Congress, former U.S. Senate candidate Pam Keith, and state Sen. Randolph Bracy as primary challengers to Nelson, 74, widely seen as a moderate at a time when his party is enflamed by anti-Donald Trump fervor.

Nelson pointed to 2000, when Republicans lured state House Democratic leader Willie Logan into an independent race, hoping to divert enough African American votes to throw the election to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Connie Mack to their candidate.

“With about five candidates in the race, he got something like 1 percent of the vote,” Nelson said.

Nelson visited Tallahassee to speak to STEM students at Florida A&M University and deliver a pep talk to the Senate Democratic caucus.

“My message is going to be: It’s worth it to keep fighting for your values.”

He acknowledged re-election won’t be easy — particularly if Gov. Rick Scott gets in as expected and invests some of his personal fortune.

“We have to assume that the Democratic candidates for governor and in my race for the Senate will always be outspent,” Nelson said.

“In the federal races, you have so many of these unlimited, undisclosed PACs. It makes it harder for me to raise large sums of money. Until the Supreme Court changes that or Congress does, it will be an imbalance.”

Will Trump be a factor?

“You’re guess is as good as mine,” he said.

Democratic senators must defend 10 states that Trump won, including Florida. Nelson observed that many of those margins were quite close — 116,000 in Florida, 50,000 in Pennsylvania, 30,000 in Michigan, and 10,000 in Wisconsin.

And this — “You omitted the big factor. Charles Schumer. He’s a money-making machine,” Nelson said, referring to his Senate party leader.

He praised Stephen Bittel, the new chairman of the Florida Democratic Party for his fundraising ability — not easy, he said, in a state where Republicans dominate government and the lobbying corps.

“Stephen, he’ll go around the lobbying corps,” Nelson said. “He’ll go to all his outside contacts.”

Nelson talked up legislation he and Marco Rubio have filed that would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reassess and redistribute shares of the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola river system to be fair to Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

And he warned that turning Medicaid into a block grant program, as many Republicans in Washington and Tallahassee would like to do, would deal a “double whammy” on poor people in states like Florida, which didn’t expand coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Florida child protection investigator arrested for lying in possible sex abuse case

A former child protection detective in Florida was arrested for lying in an ongoing investigation involving the possible sexual assault of a child, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Children and Families confirmed Monday.

According to court records, Brittanee Sharmayne Carter, 27, was taken into custody by agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) after a warrant was issued for her arrest.

She was charged with two felony counts of altering or destroying the records of a minor in study under custody, court documents confirmed.

DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims said Carter was terminated from her position in February 2016.

“The actions of this individual were absolutely unacceptable, and the Department has no tolerance for any violation of the public trust,” Sims told FloridaPolitics.com by email. “When these allegations surfaced, an investigation was initiated by the DCF inspector general and law enforcement was notified during the course of the investigation. Allegations of falsification of records were reported to the DCF IG Feb. 2, 2016. Ms. Carter resigned Feb. 3, 2016.”

Carter fictitiously reported she had visited various elementary schools in the Tallahassee area in the course of an investigation regarding a child had been sexually assaulted, according to records.

She told investigators that it was difficult for her to keep up with her caseload at times and would confuse facts, The Associated Press reported.

“We appreciate FDLE’s assistance in holding this individual accountable,” Sims said. “When the IG investigation is complete, the full redacted IG report will be posted on our website.”

Carter was only in custody for a little more than an hour before posting bail on a $1,000 bond. It was not clear if she had yet retained a lawyer.

Attempts to contact her were unsuccessful before the publishing of this story.

Lottery says it’s generated $1 billion for education this year

The Florida Lottery, now being sued by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Monday said it had reached “another record – $1 billion in contributions to education for the 15th consecutive year.”

On Friday, Corcoran – a Land O’ Lakes Republican – filed suit against the state agency for “wasteful and improper spending” for signing a multiyear, $700 million deal for new equipment.

The Lottery reports to Gov. Rick Scott.

In a press release, it said it had “reached the $1 billion mark for this fiscal year earlier than any other year in Florida Lottery history. This brings the Lottery’s life-to-date education contributions to more than $31 billion.”

The state’s fiscal year runs July 1-June 30. Lottery proceeds go into the state’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, which helps pay for public education.

“This milestone would not have been possible without the support of our loyal players, dedicated retailers and hardworking Lottery staff,” Lottery Secretary Tom Delacenserie said in a statement.

“The Lottery will continue working hard every day to advance our mission of maximizing contributions to education in a manner that is consistent with the dignity and integrity of the state.”

The release added: “Florida Lottery contributions represent approximately six percent of the state’s total education budget. Lottery funds are appropriated by the Florida Legislature and are administered by the Florida Department of Education.”

Corcoran sued the Lottery “for signing a contract that spends beyond existing budget limitations.” The deal, with International Game Technology (IGT), will provide the Lottery with new retailer terminals, in-store signage, self-service lottery vending machines, self-service ticket checkers and an upgraded communications network.

In a press release last September, the company said the contract is for an initial 10-year period, and the Florida Lottery “simultaneously exercised the first of its three available three-year renewal options.”

But Corcoran’s suit asserts “there is insufficient budget authority for the contract to be paid under the current appropriation assuming current conference estimates of ticket sales,” according to a press release from his office.



WTSP exposé examines Florida’s ‘weakest in nation’ texting, driving laws

Florida lawmakers will probably not make texting while driving a primary traffic offense in 2017, although it is the law in 41 other states.

Right now, Florida doesn’t allow officers to pull over drivers for texting and driving unless they notice another potentially dangerous or deadly offense at the same time.

In an interview with Noah Pransky of WTSP, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran suggested that legislators may need more information before they decide to change the law, perhaps by seeing what such a change had accomplished in other states.

“You need to have evidence,” Corcoran said in a brief clip posted on Facebook. “Let’s look at what those other 41 states are doing … the number of incidents they have related to texting and driving and what it has done [for] their safety … comparisons based on population, based on demographics, based on cities.”

Corcoran added that by studying the data, the Legislature could come to an “objective decision” whether to make texting while driving a primary offense.

In another Facebook video, Pransky says gives three reasons legislators are in no rush to change “some of the country’s weakest distracted driving laws.” They claim texting isn’t dropping in the states where texting while driving laws are in place; banning such activities could represent a potential threat to civil liberties and police could abuse those rules to pull anyone over, for practically any reason.

Pransky calls those ideas simply “excuses” for lawmakers dragging their feet.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway tells WTSP that his department needs a driving while texting law to crack down on this dangerous behavior effectively.

“We need that tool in our toolbox so we can educate our people,” Holloway said.

Pransky will have a two-part report on Florida’s texting while driving and distracted driving laws Monday and Tuesday night at 11 p.m. on WTSP.

Florida prosecutors can seek death penalty despite questions

Florida prosecutors can seek the death penalty in ongoing cases despite a state Supreme Court ruling that found a new death penalty law unconstitutional.

The court ruled Monday that the death penalty can be applied as long as there is a unanimous jury recommendation.

It ruled last October that a new state law requiring at least a 10-2 jury recommendation is unconstitutional.

But Monday justices said other aspects of the law are constitutional and prosecutors can proceed in capital punishment cases.

Prosecutors had been in limbo wondering whether the death penalty could be applied. Attorney General Pam Bondi asked the court to clarify.

The court released an opinion last month saying the death penalty couldn’t be applied in pending cases, but then withdrew the opinion hours later.

Mike Pence tries to reassure anxious Europeans on U.S. support

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence moved Monday to assuage European Union fears about the strength of Washington’s support for the union and its commitment to European security through the NATO military alliance.

During meetings in Brussels, Pence said he was acting on behalf of President Donald Trump “to express the strong commitment of the United States to continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union.”

“Whatever our differences, our two continents share the same heritage, the same values and above all the same purpose: to promote peace and prosperity through freedom, democracy and the rule of law,” he told reporters after talks with EU Council President Donald Tusk.

Trump’s benevolence toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and campaign rhetoric that included branding NATO obsolete and vowing to undo a series of multinational trade deals has sparked anxiety in Europe. Trump was also supportive of Britain’s vote last year to leave the 28-nation EU, a withdrawal known as Brexit. And he has suggested that the EU itself could soon fall apart.

Tusk, who chairs meetings of EU leaders, said he had been reassured after “open and frank talks” with Pence, but made clear that the bloc would watch closely to ensure the U.S. acts on its words of support.

“I heard words which are promising for the future, words which explain a lot about the new approach in Washington,” Tusk said.

He underlined that “too many new and sometimes surprising opinions have been voiced over this time about our relations — and our common security — for us to pretend that everything is as it used to be.”

“We are counting, as always in the past, on the United States’ wholehearted and unequivocal — let me repeat, unequivocal — support for the idea of a united Europe,” Tusk said. “The world would be a decidedly worse place if Europe were not united.”

He asserted: “The idea of NATO is not obsolete, just like the values which lie at its foundation are not obsolete.”

Tusk added, “Both Europeans and Americans must simply practice what they preach.”

After talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg across town, Pence reiterated the administration’s strong support for the alliance, but warned that Trump wants to see “real progress” by the end of the year on boosting defense spending.

NATO leaders agreed in 2014 that alliance members needed to start spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product by 2024. Only five nations currently do so: the United States, Britain, Poland, Estonia and Greece.

“The truth is many others, including some of our largest allies, still lack a clear and credible path to meet this minimum goal,” Pence said.

Asked what the administration would do if allies failed to meet the defense spending target, Pence said, “I don’t know what the answer is to ‘or else,’ but I know that the patience of the American people will not endure forever.”

Pence’s meetings in Brussels were aimed at assuring European leaders that his words reflected the views of Trump and would not easily be swept away at the whim of the U.S. president or undermined by statements issued on Twitter.

Pence, as he did in an address Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, also said Trump would demand that Russia honor its commitments to end the fighting in Ukraine.

“In the interest of peace and in the interest of innocent human lives, we hope and pray that this cease-fire takes hold,” he said.

The vice president also noted the “heartbreaking” suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and subway system in March 2016, and said the U.S. would continue to collaborate with EU partners to address safety and combat terrorism.

“The United States’ commitment to the European Union is steadfast and enduring,” he said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Aerial survey shows increasing manatee count

Florida manatees are thriving during this warm, sunny winter.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) count found the highest number of sea cows since 1991 and the third straight year of a minimum count greater than 6,000 during its annual flyover of popular manatee spots.

A team of 15 observers from 10 organizations counted 3,488 manatees on Florida’s east coast and 3,132 on the west coast of the state during the aerial survey. That top’s last year’s county by 370 manatees.

And while the Jan. 30 through Feb. 2 survey is not a population count, it’s a good indicator that Florida manatees are using the state’s springs, power plant discharge areas and warm water tributaries as their winter refuge.

The survey is done every winter following a cold front, said Holly Edwards, FWC biologist and assistant research scientist, who stressed that aerial counts are not accurate population counts because they can often miss manatees. Warm, sunny weather aided this year’s counts with low winds and good visibility.

“We did have every nice weather conditions this year, and it was cold enough to move the animals into our survey areas,” Edwards said. “This is not a record; this is a minimum count.”

Numbers vary depending on whether it is warm or cold, sunny or cloudy, calm or windy. Manatees are more easily counted a few days after a cold front when it is slightly warmer, clear and windless. A warming trend with sunny, windless conditions following cold weather increases the likelihood that manatees will be resting at the water’s surface, where they can easily be spotted. 

The survey is conducted to meet a Florida state statute, which requires an annual, impartial, scientific census of the manatee population. The counts have been made 31 times from 1991 through 2017.

“The relatively high counts we have seen for the past three years underscore the importance of warm-water habitat to manatees in Florida,” according to Gil McRae, FWC biologist and head of FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, in a statement released Monday.

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