The Florida agency responsible for supervising the foster care of 10-year-old brother and sister twins – one of whom was found dead in February, the other badly burned – says it is making numerous changes in its operations in an attempt to prevent anything similar happening again.
Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, a contract agency in charge of monitoring the care of Victor and Nubia Barahona as foster children, has come under intense scrutiny for not recognizing warning signs that the twins were not being cared for adequately by the couple who would become their adoptive parents.
Nubia was found dead in the back of her adoptive father’s pickup truck and Victor was found in the front seat of the truck, suffering from severe chemical burns, days after reports to a child abuse hotline indicated the twins might be being abused by their adoptive parents.
The adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, are charged with first-degree murder and child abuse in the death of Nubia and the injuries to Victor.
Changes planned by Our Kids focus better, more organized documentation of foster children’s lives, including the documenting of medical, school, Guardian ad Litem (GAL) and abuse reports made in between and during home visits.
A report prepared for the state after the death of Nubia Barahona stated explicitly that if better documentation of all case files had taken place, it could have helped the courts, caseworker, supervisor and Our Kids identify the problems occurring with the foster family and could have prompted immediate action to rectify the situation. For example, there was no documentation that the Barahonas had failed to tend to the children’s routine medical and dental needs. And there was no documentation of a psychologist’s discussion of a possible second evaluation of Nubia. Our Kids officials would not comment on any recommendation of another evaluation for Nubia.
More than 900 pages of court documents involving the two children were released after Nubia’s death and they contain reports of repeated questionable behavior by the Barahonas, both when they were the foster parents and as the adoptive parents, that should have prevented them from having custody of the children. In the months before Nubia’s death, there also were repeated abuse reports fom neighbors and parents of children in the same school the two children attended.
Dave Lawrence, a former Miami Herald publisher and one of three panelists who investigated the case said, “One hopes that all the facts, and as close to the truth as possible, emerge in the court case.”
He went on to say that he is convinced that there is real evil in this case, and that there were so many missed signals in the case that never were connected.
“Nubia’s death is simply tragic – and was preventable,” Lawrence said. “May we all learn something from this so there is a meaningful legacy to her life.”
According to court documents released in late May, Jorge Barahona told police he thought the twins were trying to harm him and their siblings with rat poison. He also said he was worried that Nubia and Victor were sexually abusing the other children in the family, an 11-year-old autistic boy and a 7-year-old girl, both of whom were also adopted. The other two adopted children are no longer in the Barahona’s custody.
An older girl, the couple’s biological daughter, also lived with the couple and the four adopted children in a three-bedroom, one-bath suburban Miami home. Dense shrubs and palm trees obscured the home’s windows; there were numerous security cameras and a four-foot tall entry gate.
Jorge Barahona also reportedly told police he believed Nubia was attempting to harm him by putting baby oil in his drinks.
Brother heard fatal beating
According to the arrest affidavit for Carmen Barahona, Nubia was beaten to death by her adoptive father on Feb. 10, which is the same day that a therapist called the DCF Hotline to advise workers that Nubia and her twin brother Victor were being tied up and locked in a room on a regular basis. The warrant states that Nubia was repeatedly punched and beat while she cried and screamed, until she was dead.
In addition to Nubia’s injuries, Victor, who was treated for a cleft palate when he was born, did not receive the necessary medical care while with the Barahonas, and as a result, he had incurred additional injury to his face and disfigurement.
Victor told police that days before his sister’s body was found, he heard his adoptive father punching Nubia and Nubia screaming for “a long time.” He also said that both his adoptive parents told him that Nubia had gone to California to visit her grandmother.
Nubia died on Feb. 10, and her body was discovered in Jorge Barahona’s pickup truck on Feb. 14. In that same truck, which Jorge Barahona used for his extermination business, Victor was found soaked in chemicals used for extermination. He is recovering from severe burns in another foster home, officials have said.
The Barahona’s 11-year-old autistic son told police that Carmen Barahona “is a nice woman but deep in the dark side, she’s mean.”
Officials of Our Kids said in a statement: “We take [the Department of Children and Families’] comments very seriously and are using the suggestions to drive improvement.”
Our Kids is a Miami-based nonprofit created in response to the privatization of foster care in Florida. Its sole function is to lead and oversee a coordinated care system for abused, neglected, and abandoned children and their families in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties in Florida.
Our Kids monitored the welfare of Victor and Nubia Barahona before their adoption in 2009. They received the case from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in 2005 – after the children had been placed in the Barahona home. The agency’s supervision ended when the children were adopted.
Our Kids’ new plan of action, which was approved by DCF after Nubia’s death, also involves the guardian ad litem office in Miami, DCF, Children’s Legal Services (CLS), police departments, and judges, among others, It primarily emphasizes the need to integrate services among all of the groups.
The Our Kids plan relies largely on new training procedures, including comprehensive training for both case managers and private investigators, including new training on how to interview children and families.
The twins were placed in foster care with the Barahona family by the Department of Children and Families and were transferred later to the supervision of Our Kids. Our Kids’ officials said that because the agency did not place the children with the Barahona family, they were unable to scrutinize the initial placement as it would if the agency had handled the initial placement.
“We will do our very best and will work tirelessly to do everything in our power to prevent such tragedies from ever happening,” said Kadie Black, government and community affairs liaison of Our Kids.
Our Kids’ plan also refers to implementation of what is called the Structured Decision Making (SDM) model in this work. The purpose of SDM is to provide child welfare case workers with the best tools and information possible in order to help make critical case assessments and decisions. The SDM incorporates the use of research-based risk assessment, which distinguishes it from other decision making models.
Proponents of the method contend that when properly used, SDM increases the validity and consistency of specific case actions, reduces subsequent child mistreatment, and also speeds up permanency. They also say SDM provides data and information that helps agency personnel plan, evaluate and monitor case operations.
The SDM model was implemented by Our Kids in November 2009. SDM is now being used by the DCF as well.
In addition to the changes being made by Our Kids, DCF is also making changes to its Florida Abuse Hotline and the way in which their child abuse investigators deal with specific child abuse cases. Changes DCF has made include improving essential services offered by the Hotline, strengthening communication among programs, and increasing accountability from families.
DCF will modify the Abuse Hotline procedures to give a greater priority to calls from school district employees, and from community-based care agencies and their contracted providers. DCF will also take steps through training and quality control to ensure that intakes from the Hotline are properly identified as either an immediate response need or a 24-hour response. In addition, DCF plans on working with law enforcement to ensure an appropriate joint effort response when children are not located quickly.
A DCF worker who attempted to follow up on calls about the Barahona children went to the home but were told the children were not there. No immediate attempt was made to locate them.
In addition, a supervisor will monitor calls to the Hotline in real time to ensure that there is a proper emergency response. DCF also plans to update technology used by the Hotline within the next year and provide additional training for the abuse hotline operators.
DCF has hired an additional 115 investigators, including 50 in Miami. Although budget cuts have forced 500 DCF employees to be laid off, official said the dismissed employees were in administrative positions that did not directly affect children’s services.
The fact that hotline calls are handled by the state can create a problem for private organizations such as Our Kids. If hotline investigations are closed by DCF without finding any proof of abuse, often times the private agencies charged with supervision do not learn of the investigation or that calls were made to the hotline.