Florida Took Thousands of Kids From Families, Then Failed to Keep Them Safe
Six years ago, Florida lawmakers embraced a tough new approach to stop parents from abusing their children.
They approved millions of dollars to hire more child welfare investigators and rewrote rules to make it easier to seize children from their parents.
Then they told investigators to rewire their thinking. Instead of looking for every way possible to keep families together, they had a new priority: protect children at all costs.
The plan, signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott, was widely embraced as a historic stand against child abuse, a crucial rethinking of philosophy that had made regulators soft on abusers.
But there was a problem. No one had figured out where to put all the children.
In a matter of months, the foster care system found itself drowning in hundreds of new cases. By 2017, the state needed space for 6,000 additional foster children – an influx equivalent to the size of the entire foster population of the state of New Jersey.
But lawmakers, child welfare leaders and Scott did not hire more caseworkers or increase the money paid to foster families to make more homes available. And they failed to tackle the root problems driving most of the removals: lack of access to drug treatment, mental health care and domestic violence services for parents.
Instead, they stood by as foster care agencies packed children into overcrowded homes and sent nearly 200 boys and girls to foster parents previously accused of abusing or neglecting the children in their care, a USA TODAY investigation found.
Using a state database, USA TODAY reporters examined more than 1 million foster home placements going back a decade. They collected police reports, court records and government documents and ran background checks on every foster parent who had been assigned a child.
Reporters then crisscrossed the state to interview more than 100 survivors, parents, caseworkers and child advocates.
Among the findings:
- The Department of Children and Families and the 17 private agencies that manage the child welfare system across Florida sent nearly 170 children to live in foster homes where the state had some evidence that abuse occurred. In 2016, two preschool girls said their Sarasota County foster father molested them. The state sent him 13 more children, stopping only when a third toddler reported that the 64-year-old had forced her to put his penis in her mouth.
- Caseworkers ignored or overruled DCF safety guidelines to crowd children into foster homes not equipped to handle them. The number of foster homes caring for four or more kids almost doubled between 2014 and 2018, according to a USA TODAY analysis of child placement data.
- The number of children under 10 sent to live in group homes doubled between 2013 and 2017, adding to the cost of care and the danger to children. Some were sent to places such as the Mount Dora-based National Deaf Academy even after a whistleblower lawsuit was filed in Lake County claiming that staff had held children down, punched them in the stomach, spat on them and denied them medical care.
- As caseloads rose, child welfare workers skipped home visits and parent training sessions because they could not keep up with required safety checks. They fabricated logs to make it appear as if the sessions took place. When caseworkers lied and omitted information from their reports, children got hurt, according to lawsuits and DCF inspector general reports. One IG report told of a child who was sexually assaulted after an investigations supervisor falsely claimed a hotline call had been successfully investigated and provisions had been made for the safety of the children involved.
DCF and the nonprofit agencies in charge of foster care repeatedly tried to prevent USA TODAY from obtaining information about foster parents and the allegations against them. They would not provide a list of parent names and demanded $50,000 for search and copy fees for disciplinary records. In reaction to one USA TODAY records request, DCF officials pressed legislators to pass a law making foster parent names secret from the public – an effort that ultimately failed.
In a January statement, DCF Secretary Chad Poppell said many problems in Florida’s system stem from the decision to privatize foster care in the early 2000s, putting decision-making in the hands of 17 nonprofits across the state. When that happened, he said, DCF “faded into the background and became too distant from the front lines of child welfare.”
“This has led to a fractured system that is not appropriately resourced, lacks bandwidth for increases in children in care and is not performance-driven,” Poppell said. “This is not how I would design a system around my own children, and especially not our children in foster care.”
Poppell promised to fight for greater accountability and more “resources to drive performance and positive outcomes for families.”
During Florida’s legislative session, which adjourned in March, he secured at least $7 million for a quality assurance office that had been crippled by budget cuts during the Great Recession. His aim: to provide oversight and analysis needed to make sure the agency learns from its mistakes going forward.
In response to USA TODAY Network’s reporting on a longtime Sarasota County foster father charged with molestation, DCF also formed a task force with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and child welfare subcontractors. The group has put together recommendations to improve its procedures for handling sex abuse investigations.
In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a temporary respite from the surging removals. Reports of abuse and neglect fell with children out from under the watchful eyes of teachers, coaches and school administrators. But those numbers are expected to rise again once kids return to school in person.
Tasked with raising troubled kids, dealing with difficult relatives and navigating red tape, the majority of foster families in Florida have the best interests of children in mind. Many go out of their way to mentor biological parents and push for reunification. But in an overcrowded system, more families are asked to operate at or above full capacity and some become overwhelmed.
Florida’s child welfare system repeatedly risked children’s safety on foster parents with criminal records and abuse allegations, USA TODAY Network found.
In Lee County, child welfare workers placed 20 foster children with a couple over the course of six years despite multiple abuse allegations that DCF declined to explain. The stream finally stopped last year after police were approached by two boys who testified they had been whipped with belts and locked in cages.
In St. Johns County, child welfare workers sent more than 70 children to a foster family even though the foster father had a report of child abuse on his record dating back to 1996 – and a rap sheet that included felony drug possession, driving under the influence and disorderly conduct for brawling with a neighbor.
Last year, the foster father was sentenced to 25 years in prison for sexually abusing one of his foster daughters over a seven-year period beginning when the child was just 5.
“The system is so broken, it makes me want to cry,” said Brandy Towler, whose adoptive daughter lived with a Sarasota County foster parent arrested on molestation charges. “Our most vulnerable children are being preyed upon.”
Since the early 2000s, experts in child welfare have stressed the importance of keeping biological families together except in cases of last resort.
Like many other states, Florida took that approach and put resources into counseling parents or placing abused and neglected children with extended family members whenever possible.
For most of the previous decade, state officials measured their success by how few kids were taken from their parents.
But after the Miami Herald published a series of stories in 2014 revealing nearly 500 children had died when DCF left them in abusive homes, legislators pushed to change the fundamentals of Florida’s child welfare law.
With the backing of child advocacy groups, lawmakers unanimously passed reforms that included adding more investigators to crack down on abusive and neglectful parents and creating a critical response team to speed up interventions.
The new message: Child safety comes first, even if it breaks up more families.
“As a father and a grandfather, the safety of Florida children is a top priority,” then-Gov. Rick Scott said at the time. “That’s why in this session we succeeded in creating 270 additional child protective investigators, so we can decrease caseload and provide our servants in the field the support they need to ensure we’re doing everything possible to protect children.”
The impact was immediate. As some other states, like New York, California, Michigan and Alabama, reduced foster load by focusing on prevention, children in Florida were pulled from their homes in numbers not seen in a decade.
In Clay County, a suburb west of Jacksonville, the number of new foster children entering the system shot up by 60% from 2014 to 2015, according to DCF records.
In Putnam, a poor county just to the south, removals increased 205%. The numbers more than doubled in at least six counties: Charlotte, Gadsden, Glades, Flagler, Hamilton and Hernando.
Statewide, total children in the system reached a high-water mark of nearly 24,000 in 2017 – a 34% increase in five years.
Officials initially set aside $16 million to deal with the influx, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
Private agencies stepped up foster parent recruitment. But monthly payments to foster families ranged from $429 to $515 at the start of 2014, well below states such as Kentucky and Indiana, where basic room and board could top $700.
The state was able to add 900 foster homes – to handle 6,000 more children.
From 2014 through 2016, news reports from around the state showed what was happening to foster children who had nowhere to go. They bedded down in office buildings and in cars parked at a Wawa and a Dollar General in Hillsborough County. Infants were placed in emergency shelters designed for older children and cared for by shelter shift workers.
“Foster families are the lifeblood of the system,” said Mike Watkins, chief executive of Big Bend Community Based Care, which manages child welfare in Tallahassee and the Panhandle area. “If you don’t have a place to put these kids, bad things will happen.”
In Alachua County, a suicidal teenager was among the children left to spend the day in the offices of the Partnership for Strong Families, the nonprofit in charge of child welfare in the Gainesville area. Despite having run away 11 times between March and May of 2015 – and once from the partnership’s offices just eight days earlier – case managers left her “completely unsupervised” in the lobby of their building, according to claims in a lawsuit filed in 2017. The girl slipped out after telling caretakers she was going to the store. Police found her body the next day 40 miles away.
She had thrown herself 90 feet off a bridge into a ravine.
The lawsuit was settled in mediation.
In Collier County, a 9-year-old boy repeatedly told his caseworkers in late 2015 and early 2016 that he did not feel safe in the emergency shelter where he had been placed. “He was afraid of people holding him to the ground,” according to allegations in a lawsuit filed against the organizations charged with his care. By the time caseworkers saw bruises on his legs and arms, he had been sexually assaulted by a 16-year-old shelter resident, the lawsuit said.
Parties in the case reached a settlement last year.
Executives at nonprofit agencies sounded the alarm, begging state officials to send them more money to cover rising costs and find new foster parents.
All told, private agencies across Florida reported at least $66 million in red ink from 2015 to 2018, according to reports filed by DCF. State officials found money to help them cover their shortfalls. More than 80% went to just four of the state’s 17 nonprofits, leaving the rest to fend for themselves.
The hardest-hit agencies had to lay off staff. Others implemented hiring freezes.
Still, they had to find a place to put the increasing number of kids.
Many turned to group homes and institutions, the most expensive housing option in the child welfare system and sometimes the most dangerous.
Nonprofits paid the National Deaf Academy more than $600,000 to house 11 children from 2014 through 2016 – just after a whistleblower suit claimed a boy died after staff failed to provide him proper treatment for his diabetes and a girl a was forced to crawl on the floor and sit in her own urine after staff refused to provide her with a wheelchair. As a result of the allegations, the institution, which had cared for deaf and autistic children since 2000, was forced to shut down in August 2016.
Florida taxpayers also paid $154,000 to send four children to Detroit’s Capstone Academy amid reports that Michigan cited the facility for choking and hitting teens in 2017. Another $173,000 was spent to send three children to Pennsylvania’s Glen Mills School just before it was shuttered amid abuse investigations in 2019. At both schools, children were beaten and sexually assaulted by residents and staff.
“They have incentive to not know what’s going on in these homes, because if they did, they’d have to pull that kid and find a new home,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “The more you overload a system with children who don’t need to be there, the less time they have to find the children really in danger.”
In Southwest Florida, the crush of foster kids that followed state reforms made Gilberto Rios and his wife more valuable than ever.
By 2016, the couple were caring for five or six foster children at a time, plus their two adopted kids. Florida limits foster homes to five children because caring for more is considered too difficult. But the state has routinely given waivers.
That year, two preschoolers living in Rios’ North Port foster home began showing up to visits with their mother with cuts and bruises on their lips and buttocks. The 3-year-old made two startling statements: She told her mother that “she had secrets she is not allowed to tell or she will go jail,” and that “the ‘Boss Man’ hurts her between her legs,” according to allegations in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the girls and their mother in May.
USA TODAY is not naming the mother because it typically does not publish information that could be used to identify the victim of a sex crime.
In early November 2016, the mother reported that she suspected physical and sexual abuse to Sarasota-based Safe Children Coalition and its subcontractor, Youth and Family Alternatives in New Port Richey – the two agencies in charge of her daughters’ care. Instead of immediately finding another foster home for the children, the two agencies sent the children back to live with Rios and his wife in North Port.
The girls’ mother and their therapist asked DCF to have a trained child sex abuse investigator interview the girls. But the foster care agencies felt the girls were too young.
“Everybody kept getting ignored,” the mother said. “Emails, calls – it was ignored.”
When their mother saw her daughters again in late December, there were fresh signs of abuse. The May lawsuit filed against SCC, YFA and Nereida Rios claims the 3-year-old was also wetting her pants and acting fearfully about getting in trouble for having a toilet accident. The 2-year-old had a busted lip that she said she got from “Big Boss Man.”
Asked about the scars and bruises, Rios and his wife told officials that they no longer wanted the two girls in their house. “They did not want to be the subject of any further investigations.”
DCF said in an email message that the investigation was closed in 2016 with no indications of abuse.
Sarasota child welfare officials sent Rios and his wife 13 more foster children over the next year, state records show. The stream of kids finally ended in 2018, when a third girl told her adoptive mother that Rios put his penis in her mouth when she was 3.
Rios, who pleaded not guilty, hanged himself while on trial in April 2019. By then, he and his wife had fostered 46 children in Florida and more than 100 in Pennsylvania, according to his lawyers.
His wife, Nereida, was not charged. But the civil suit filed in May accused her of negligence and assault and battery.
She could not be reached for comment. As of Sept. 8, court representatives still had not located her to serve her with the lawsuit.
Gilberto Rios was among more than 40 foster parents identified by the USA TODAY Network who have been arrested, sued or sanctioned for child abuse or neglect over the past six years.
Hundreds of pages of corrective action plans obtained by reporters detail serious allegations against them that foster care officials brushed aside – until more children got hurt.
All told, more than 600 children lived with those parents after they obtained their foster licenses. State officials have not tried to assess if those children were abused.
In Brevard County in 2016, a foster father allegedly hit a boy with a belt and choked him for misbehaving in the car. His foster mother made him stand against a wall for hours for not taking a nap at school. The couple faced at least four investigations in less than a year over “ongoing concerns” of inappropriate physical discipline and supervision, records show. They were ordered to complete more than 15 hours of parenting training but kept their license and continued to foster kids.
In Lake County last year, a foster couple was accused of holding down a teenage girl with their body weight, throwing her belongings onto the porch and then kicking her out of their home.
The foster parents were investigated for abuse, though not charged, in 2019. The foster mother had a previous DUI and misdemeanor domestic violence charge on her record. None of this prevented Florida from granting the couple a foster parent license.
In 2014, St. Lucie County motorists flagged down police after seeing longtime foster father Anthony Reed pull a boy out of his car, slam him against the ground and then repeatedly punch him in the head and chest.
After Reed’s arrest in 2014, prosecutors agreed to withhold adjudication. He was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to take anger management classes. He lost his Florida foster care license.
Four years later, DCF permitted Reed to parent young adults over 18 but under 21.
They placed an 18-year-old boy with Reed in July 2019.
In an Oct. 15 email message to USA TODAY Network, a DCF spokesperson acknowledged that officials should have taken earlier disciplinary action against the Brevard County couple, and stated no more children were placed in that home after June 3, 2016.
The agency added that no more children were placed with the Lake County foster parents who used physical force to kick a child out of their house. But officials defended their decision to give the St. Lucie foster father a second chance.
“While the man in question’s actions were indefensible, since 2014, he has proven he can provide the unique structure and support for young adults (18-21) who choose to participate in Extended Foster Care,” DCF’s statement said. “To be clear, these young adults have voluntarily chosen to live with him after his criminal history was disclosed to them and alternatives were presented.”
Under ideal conditions, social workers should oversee no more than 14 children each month, according to Florida standards. But a half-dozen financial reports published over the past six years show how child protective investigators in Florida – who handle abuse allegations and determine whether children should be removed from their homes – have to deal with caseloads exceeding 20 children every month.
The same is true of case managers, who follow up with children after they’ve entered the system. The more children under their care, the more difficult it is for them to visit families each month, prepare for and attend court hearings, and keep their electronic case files up to date.
The larger their caseloads, the more likely they’ll have to cut corners.
Over the past six years, more than 300 child protection investigators, case managers and supervisors have been accused of lying or omitting information from their case files, a USA TODAY review of records from the DCF Office of Inspector General shows.
The workers lied about completing abuse investigations. They lied about interviewing parents, children and even alleged molesters. They falsified home visits, embellished details, and lied again when confronted.
The system is built on lies, said Jaquetta Johnson, an attorney who represents biological parents in the Panhandle. “When they realize it’s OK (to lie), that’s when the level of services start to get dropped because now they know they can get away with it.”
Former investigations supervisor Beverlie Hyacinthe signed paperwork falsely claiming that investigators had assessed the safety of all the kids in a home after receiving a hotline call when they hadn’t. As a result, a third child was left in the home and was abused over the next 10 days until DCF received a second hotline call.
“Provisions were not made to provide for the safety of the children and the initial case was not fully investigated,” a DCF training manager concluded.
In 2014, a child told case manager Pearl Araque that he was suffering from dental pain during 13 separate home visits, according to allegations in a lawsuit filed on the child’s behalf. But Araque never wrote about his pain in her case notes. She also never obtained treatment for the boy and never informed her supervisors. Her inattention to his health and welfare triggered a pain disorder that still “affects his trigeminal nerve causing episodes of severe, sudden and shock-like pain in one side of the face.”
The case was dismissed in 2019.
At least a dozen child welfare workers who confessed to lying or omitting important information from reports blamed their poor judgment on being stressed out.
Tiffany Leone, a case manager in the Sarasota area, told state investigators in February 2017 that she lied about visits with at least five children because she had more than 100 kids in her caseload and was required to see them all at least once a month.
Christine Olivieri said she falsified information in a child protection investigation because she was “overloaded.” The child protective investigator in Palm Beach County said she was dealing with 29 cases, sheltering about 20 children, conducting home studies and appearing in court, all while continuing to receive new abuse allegations to investigate.
Even management felt the pressure. Brandy Canada, a supervisor of case managers for Youth & Family Associates in Hillsborough County, said she falsified case notes because she was overwhelmed from overseeing as many as 18 workers at a time, each with their own overgrowing caseloads.
“Many people were quitting or being transferred … resulting in a high stress and hurry up and get it done mindset,” Canada told IG investigators in 2018. “I was not only supervising more than my unit, I was also on call, doing home visits and attending court hearings.”
The heavy workload also led to high rates of churn in critical jobs, according to a half-dozen DCF reports over the past six years. Caseworker turnover averaged about 37% a year, Florida TaxWatch reported in November 2015. In some counties, virtually everyone quit.
In Brevard, as many as 9 in 10 caseworkers left between July 2014 and May 2015, according to a DCF funding report. In the 12th Circuit, which covers Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties, turnover among child protective investigators hit 78% in October 2016.
The churn even affected whether a child could find a permanent home. A 2005 study found children in Milwaukee with one case manager over 21 months had a 75% chance of reuniting with family or finding an adoptive home. That rate plummets to 18% with two caseworkers. With four caseworkers, it is 2%.
“I never had a good experience with a caseworker. Never,” said Shakyiah Cargill, who entered the foster care system at age 11 and lived in both foster and group homes over the next seven years. “The caseworker is going to go into court and not be truthful so they can meet their deadlines and get their checks.
“They try to make it seem like everything’s okay and they’re doing their jobs,” Shakyiah said. “But they’re not.”
The 17 nonprofits charged with managing child welfare dealt with the surge in removals and rapidly rising costs in different ways.
Some spent far more than they received from the state and begged DCF and the Florida Legislature to help them cover their shortfalls. Others tried to go it alone.
When Jackie Gonzalez took over as chief executive of Our Kids in September 2014, the agency, which services Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys, was experiencing an influx of more than 400 kids and had run up a deficit of $10.6 million.
Determined to get the company’s finances in order, Gonzalez slashed Our Kids’ payroll by a fifth.
Our Kids subcontractors were left with insufficient funds to cover their burgeoning expenses, according to a study compiled by DCF. Caseworkers were forced to take on more children, prompting an exodus of experienced employees. More than 3 in 10 left their jobs in 2014.
Spending on foster parents declined by $1.5 million between June 2013 and June 2016.
“Jackie (Gonzalez) cut foster parent mentoring,” said Denise Beeman-Sasiain, a foster mother who heads the South Florida Foster & Adoptive Parents Association. “She cut our support staff. She didn’t seem to personally care if foster care went to nothing.”
Gonzalez, who declined to talk to USA TODAY, said in an email to the newspaper that “services were not cut for any of the children we were serving at the time.”
But lawsuits and DCF studies examined by USA TODAY and conversations with South Florida child welfare experts show the nonprofit struggled to provide foster children with safe homes and adequate oversight.
As a result, at least one child was molested. Two others didn’t get specialized care and wound up killing themselves.
Our Kids was able to add only 19 foster homes between June 2013 and January 2016 to cope with an influx of more than 420 children.
In Key West, Our Kids placed a 3-year-old boy, identified only by his initials of L.B., in a crowded emergency shelter where he was sexually abused by an older boy.
The March 2014 assault took a toll on L.B.’s mental health, according to claims in a lawsuit filed on his behalf, and Our Kids compounded his problems by insisting on placing him with Raquel Fuentes.
Only a foster mother for five months, Fuentes already had a bad reputation. Children’s Home Society of Florida, an Our Kids subcontractor that approved her license, expressed concerns about her ability to care for foster kids and refused to send her more kids. In turn, court-appointed guardians for foster children in the Florida Keys reported that Fuentes used inappropriate punishment methods and “made foster children placed in her care feel like a burden.”
Our Kids ignored those red flags. It also paid no attention to Fuentes’ preference to be given children older than 5. When L.B. went to live with Fuentes in April 2014, she would be responsible for four children, all of them younger than 5.
The lawsuit alleges that Fuentes caused L.B. to miss multiple therapy appointments needed to address his sexual victimization. As he continued to act out, she punished him by bathing him in cold water, putting him in time-out “for very long periods of time,” and wearing masks to scare him.
Within months, the boy began having vomiting episodes tied to stress, according to his doctor.
Our Kids removed L.B. at the beginning of August 2014. Our Kids did not have a chief executive at that time. Fran Allegra, who preceded Gonzalez, left at the end of March and Gonzalez did not come on board until September.
L.B.’s behavior and mental health continued to get worse over the ensuing months. His psychological evaluation called for a specialized therapeutic foster home, that he be the only child in that foster home, and that he receive medication, behavioral management and individual psychotherapy.
Our Kids was never able to provide that level of care.
Without therapeutic or behavioral training for his impulse control, L.B. began “tearing things off the walls in the classroom, knocking things off the teacher’s desk, not listening to directions drawing on the walls at home, and tearing apart his clothes and bedding,” the lawsuit says.
By November 2015, at just 5, he was placed in a mental hospital.
The lawsuit was settled last year.
In 2018, Our Kids and its subcontractors still weren’t providing enough therapeutic foster homes and other services to help children to cope with the abuse and neglect they suffered, according to claims in a lawsuit filed by Robert Latham, associate director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami.
“The dramatic increase of children into the system after 2014 wasn’t the problem,” said Latham, who reached a settlement in the case last year. “The lack of follow-up, community services and support was the problem.”
Lauryn Martin-Everett and Naika Venant were both troubled teens who never got the intensive therapy they needed, according to the lawsuit.
In December 2016, Lauryn tied a blue scarf around her neck and hung herself from a doorway at the Florida Keys Youth Shelter.
A month later, Naika – in front of a Facebook audience – took her own life in the same way.
BY MICHAEL BRAGA, PAT BEALL, DAPHNE CHEN & JOSH SALMAN, USA Today