TALLAHASSEE — - Frustrated lawmakers grilled the head of Florida's Department of Children and Families Tuesday and expressed doubt about whether he's doing enough to make the state's children safer in the aftermath of the alleged Barahona child abuse case.
DCF Secretary David Wilkins' appearance Tuesday morning before the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee was his first since the July 25 release of a Miami-Dade County grand jury report that found that child welfare workers failed to properly monitor Nubia Barahona's adoptive parents as highlighted by her alleged torture and slaying this winter.
Wilkins was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott shortly before 10-year-old Nubia's body was discovered in a plastic bag in the back of her adopted father Jorge Barahona's truck alongside Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach on Valentine's Day. Her twin brother, Victor, was found drenched in chemicals and convulsing in the front seat.
Jorge Barahona and his wife Carmen, the children's foster parents for five years before adopting them, have been charged with first-degree murder and child abuse in Nubia's death.
Since then, the agency hired 100 child protection investigators, conducted additional training session for caseworkers and increased the number of foster children who are getting regular medical and dental care, Wilkins said. The department has also stopped measuring how long hot line operators spend on the phone with tipsters, he said. The abuse hot line received at least two calls in the days preceding Nubia's death.
"But we've still got a long way to go," Wilkins told the committee, acknowledging there was a "big breakdown" in the Barahona case.
The non-binding grand jury report recommended that child welfare workers have full access to databases containing reports of allegations about at-risk children, something that Wilkins said he was still trying to put into effect.
But he drew fire from Committee Chairwoman Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, when he blamed the tragedy on Andrea Fleary, the DCF child abuse investigator fired in March who allegedly repeatedly signed off on the children's welfare without making contact with them.
"Our assessment is that the number one symptom of the problem was the case manager was not owning the case," he said.
To which Storm said, "I don't know what the heck that means. What the blankety-blank does that mean? The little girl was practically peeling paint off the wall to eat and they were afraid of these people and everybody at the school was saying it and the most we can come up with was the case manager was not owning the case?
"I think you should be more direct to say this was a human failure for humanity for this person. That's a human failure. I don't know how else to say it."
Wilkins also said that all foster children are now being seen by caseworkers every 30 days but that he wanted an extra $25 million for additional visits "any time a major event" occurs in the child's life.
Caseworkers should already have been visiting the children monthly, Sen. Nan Rich said, because lawmakers initiated that requirement after the disappearance a decade ago of Rilya Wilson, a 4-year-old foster child who has never been found.
"We're going right back to the same kind of situation," Rich, D-Weston, said.
The disconnection of the Barahonas' telephone, the children's problems at school, hot line reports and an inability to make physical contact with the twins apparently went ignored, Rich said.
"Normally I would say we don't need legislation. But to me something is dramatically and drastically wrong if all of these red flags are not seen. This to me is just crying out for us to do something," she said.
Wilkins suggested that the agency keep tabs on adopted children for up to one year, especially in the case of special needs children.
But Storms, a lawyer, said she believed that would be unconstitutional.
After Wilkins' hour-long testimony, lawmakers appeared uncertain what, if anything, they could do.
"It's a source of enormous frustration. It can be very discouraging to continue to hear some of the same things," Storms said after Wilkins testified. "All I can do is keep trying and keep hoping that we get a different result. But we can make all the laws that we want to make and pass all the statutes and if people will not do what they're supposed to do then I don't know how you fix that."