Lawmakers next Session will consider awarding a Fort Myers boy who suffered severe brain damage a $20 million settlement from the state Department that paid — and repeatedly ignored complaints about — his drug-addicted and allegedly abusive mother.
The boy, called C.C. in legislation (SB 8) Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez filed this month, will require lifelong care due to injuries he sustained overdosing on his mother’s methadone supply.
That’s in part because the Department of Children and Families (DCF) failed to properly investigate seven serious complaints filed against the mother, Anna Highland, during the three years it licensed her as a foster parent, Rodriguez’s measure says.
SB 8 is classified as a claims bill or “relief act,” as it is intended to compensate a person or entity for injury or loss caused by the negligence or error of a public officer or agency. Claims bills arise when appropriate damages exceed what is allowable under Florida’s sovereign immunity laws, which protect government agencies from costly lawsuits.
The sum sought in SB 8 is the largest of the 10 claims bills filed for the 2024 Legislative Session.
To responsible parents and those who care about the welfare of children, DCF’s inattention to the many signs Highland was unfit to care for others is nothing short of maddening.
DCF licensed Highland as a foster parent in 2012, and it received little to no complaints about her in the two years after. But in the six months leading to C.C.’s birth on Aug. 12, 2014, the Department received three separate child abuse hotline reports against her, including allegations she was abusing drugs and physically harming children under her care.
C.C. was born addicted to methadone, a narcotic that reduces opiate withdrawal symptoms. Rodriguez’s bill says the drug’s presence in C.C.’s system stemmed from Highland’s use of opiates, cocaine and intravenous drugs.
DCF opened an investigation of Highland the day after a drug test came back positive.
On Sept. 3, 2014, while the investigation was still underway and C.C. remained in intensive care, the Department received two additional hotline reports alleging the same misconduct.
Despite those calls, the three preceding them and C.C.’s condition at birth, the Department advised the hospital there were no holds on the boy and he was free to be released to Highland. The hospital did so three days later. Roughly a month after, DCF closed the investigation with “unsubstantiated findings of substance misuse and a determination that Ms. Highland’s methadone use had no implications for child safety,” the bill says.
Things went quiet from there until June 3, 2015, and again on Aug. 6, 2015, when DCF got two new child abuse hotline reports about Highland. The Department investigated neither claim.
Then on Sept. 12, 2015, C.C. overdosed on Highland’s methadone, which he found and drank. He was found “unresponsive and not breathing,” the bill says.
The 13-month-old was rushed to the hospital, where he remained for a month, half of which he was in a drug-induced coma and on a ventilator. Upon his discharge Sept. 28, 2015, he was placed into medical foster care.
A DCF investigation found Highland and her mother, who was present at the time C.C. was found unresponsive, waited five hours before seeking medical attention for the boy. That included a three-hour nap Highland said she took with the baby after finding him on the floor with a methadone bottle. She called 911 after the boy didn’t wake up.
The Department finally removed C.C. from Highland’s care and gave him to his father. Lee County Sheriff personnel arrested her on charges of medical aggravated child neglect. She was 27.
C.C., now 9 years old, suffered permanent injuries and related symptoms, including anoxic brain injury, seizures, strokes and neurological impairments; cognitive impairments including memory loss and learning disabilities; impaired coordination and motor skills, and damage to his hearing, vision and speech faculties.
Media reports from the time said the boy was rendered partially blind and unable to crawl or pull himself up.
Highland was sentenced in early February 2017 to 60 months in prison and two years of probation after her release. During that period, she must perform 120 hours of community service, adhere to a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and undergo monthly consultations about at-home methadone use.
But C.C. is owed recompense for the disregard DCF demonstrated for his safety, Rodriguez’s bill says.
“As the state agency charged with operating the child welfare system in this state, including conducting child protective investigations to ensure child safety and prevent further harm to children, (DCF) owed C.C. a duty to ensure his safety and protect him from further harm,” the bill says.
“The State of Florida recognizes an equitable obligation to redress the injuries and damages C.C. sustained as a result of the negligence of the Department and its failure to exercise its duties to ensure the safety of children in this state and protect them from harm.”
Florida Politics asked DCF whether anyone in the agency had been reprimanded, punished for their lack of oversight.
“A court has already made a ruling as a matter of law that the Department was not negligent in this case,” DCF Chief of Staff Mallory McManus said by email. “The Court also specifically found that the Department did not put the child at risk.”
Florida Politics also contacted Rodriguez for comment but received no answers by press time.
By approving SB 8 in the 2024 Session, the Legislature will direct Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis to draw a warrant in favor of C.C., payable through DCF to an irrevocable trust created exclusively for his benefit, of $20 million from the state General Revenue Fund.
Attorney fees, lobbying fees and other similar expenses relating to the claim would be paid through the trust, not the state fund. Those fees may not exceed $5 million.
This report has been updated with a response from DCF.