In the aftermath of a shocking child death, Florida officials announced Friday that they will now immediately contact law enforcement agencies when they receive an allegation that a child may be in imminent danger.
The announcement of the new policy follows revelations that the Department of Children and Families failed to notify authorities of a hotline allegation that 10-year-old twins adopted from foster care might be victims of abuse. Agency workers conducted their own four-day search.
The girl's body was found last week, stuffed in plastic bags in the back of her father's truck along a busy interstate highway. Her brother was found in the front seat, doused in a toxic chemical, and he was hospitalized with serious burns. Officials said Friday he is expected to be released soon.
Their adoptive father, Jorge Barahona, has pleaded not guilty to attempted first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse for allegedly pouring chemicals on his son. DCF officials said they expect charges will also be filed against Carmen Barahona. No one has been charged in the death of the girl twin, Nubia Docter.
DCF officials said they had notified law enforcement agencies about significant child abuse allegations collectively, typically once a week.
"We have already implemented change to that process and will now provide notifications electronically through a system developed with (law enforcement)," DCF regional supervisor Jacqui Colyer said.
A three-person panel assigned to investigate Nubia's death grilled Colyer and other state officials and private contractors Friday about the twins' case, one of the most high-profile since the agency was overhauled after a foster child went missing for nearly a year before anyone noticed.
Nubia's death has confounded child welfare officials, who said the Barahonas appeared ideal foster parents. Yet case files show the agency had received several abuse allegations about the twins.
One private contractor suggested getting a summary of all police calls to a foster home before a critical decision, like an adoption, is approved.
That is not currently required and could be difficult in large counties, such as Miami-Dade, which has a few dozen law enforcement agencies, said Fran Allegra, CEO of Our Kids, a private contractor for the state.
Investigators questioned Friday whether adoptions are hastily pushed through to bump up numbers. Florida has been a national leader on adoptions out of foster care in recent years.
"(The Barahonas) fought hard to adopt these kids," Allegra said. "It seems like there was an awful lot of eyes on these kids...again this was something that was not rushed to or done lightly."
Child welfare officials have released hundreds of documents this week detailing the life of the twins, Nubia and Victor Docter, who were born to a drug-addicted mother. They were placed in foster care in 2004 after their biological father was arrested for allegedly fondling a neighborhood child, officials said, and he was later accused of sexually assaulting the twins. Agency officials said they did not know if he was convicted of a crime in either case.
Caseworkers, psychologists and therapists gave glowing reports about the Barahona home, saying the children were thriving there and had bonded with the family.
But school officials reported that Nubia was often dirty and hungry and appeared afraid of Carmen Barahona. A nurse also said Nubia would be better off in a medical foster home that could deal with her condition. Nubia was born with both male and female parts and underwent a corrective surgery.
From birth, doctors said Nubia would require significant medical attention. The Barahonas were licensed foster parents, but their was not considered a medical foster home. They had two other foster children, including one with autism. Those children have been removed from their care.
"I don't see anything yet that would indicate those foster parents were going to be particularly competent at dealing with children who are going to have significant challenges to overcome," said child advocate David Lawrence, a former Miami Herald publisher.
Child advocates said Nubia's death was the perfect storm of official incompetence and failure to follow procedure and communicate with other agencies.
Roberto Martinez, who is on the 3-person panel, questioned whether too many procedures are "giving us a false sense of security."
"Obviously something happened...someone was at fault here," said Martinez. "If you look at the checklist too much, you forget to look at the fact that you're crashing into the mountain."
A judge last week lambasted child protective investigator Andrea Fleary's hasty investigation in this case. Her personnel file released this week show she failed to take action after sheltering a teenage girl who had been found naked in bed with her father. Fleary interviewed the girl without police present.
She was also disciplined for ignoring a court order and leaving a child in the care of the mother even though she did not have legal custody, state files show. She also failed to interview someone until 11 days after an abuse call came to the hotline in 2003, according to her file.
Fleary also acknowledged hitting a co-worker in 1992 after saying he purposefully bumped her, an act for which she was reprimanded.
She has been placed on administrative leave involving the most recent case with the twins. She declined to comment on the twins' case in court last week, and could not be reached for comment Friday about her personnel file.
Caseworkers often take the hit on high-profile cases because they are the first line of defense in the system. But as in most states, Florida's caseworkers have a high turnover rate and are juggling large caseloads with often little experience and meager salaries. Fleary earned $1,548.90 every two weeks, or an annual salary of about $40,000.