A Miami judge lashed out at child-welfare administrators this week after they asked her to leave three small children in a South Miami-Dade home in which their 3-year-old cousin had just died -- his body marked by bruises, welts and a human bite mark.
Gerardo Perez arrived unresponsive at Homestead Hospital over the weekend with bruises to his elbow, back and legs, and telltale bite marks on his upper back. He also had a mouth full of severely rotten teeth. On Monday, he was dead.
Child-welfare authorities surveyed the toddler's injuries and considered removing his first cousins from the home Gerardo shared with them, saying nothing less could "keep the children safe" as police tried to determine who hurt the boy.
But later, the Florida Department of Children & Families changed course: The agency asked a judge to leave the three youngsters -- ages 3, 2 and 1 -- with their father, Gerardo's uncle, on his written pledge to keep their mother and Gerardo's mother, considered abuse suspects by police, out of the house.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rosa Figarola, who called DCF's handling of the case "troubling," refused the request Tuesday, and instead ordered the children into foster care. The next day, Figarola shot off a blistering email to agency administrators, accusing them of seeking to leave three small children in harm's way.
"The handling of this case illustrates that the same systematic failures that have plagued the Department and given rise to the devastation we recently observed are still being executed," Figarola wrote.
Among Figarola's concerns: She accused DCF lawyers and investigators of trying to return the children to a man who had not yet been cleared as a potential child abuser. She also suggested the agency was naive to believe the children were safe just because they were "clean and appeared 'well taken care of,' apparently ignoring the fact that a three year old baby . . . had died that morning from that same home."
Interim chief defends agency
Authorities Thursday did not know the cause of Gerardo's death, which remains under investigation by Miami-Dade police. His mother, Selena Perez-Perez, 18, was charged Tuesday with child abuse and child neglect, and remains in jail. A police report said Perez-Perez acknowledged she had struck the boy in the back with a belt, resulting in bruising. She also acknowledged the boy had not seen a doctor, or a dentist to treat his rotting teeth.
DCF's interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, defended her agency's handling of the case Thursday, though she was unable to discuss it in detail due to the confidentiality of DCF investigations.
DCF has been harshly criticized in recent weeks by judges and children's advocates for failing to bring serious abuse cases before child-welfare judges for oversight and review. In its series Innocents Lost, the Miami Herald reported that at least 49 children perished across the state since 2008 after agency lawyers ruled they lacked cause to seek judicial involvement with a troubled family.
"In this case," Jacobo said, "the system absolutely worked. The department made a decision, and immediately sought judicial involvement. The judge was able to make a decision based upon all the evidence that was before her."
Referring to Gerardo's three cousins, Jacobo said: "The kids are safe."
Gerardo lived with his mother, his aunt and uncle and their three children in the 1300 block of Northwest 10th Street in Homestead. Family members had moved there from their native Guatemala, and were working with immigration lawyers toward securing residency documents.
On March 28, less than a month before Gerardo died, he had been taken to the hospital with a head injury that doctors were told resulted from a fall in the bathtub.
The mother of the three children told DCF investigators she was aware of the abuse Gerardo suffered, and had heard Gerardo's mom strike the boy with a belt at night. Perez-Perez told DCF investigators she would "sometimes slap the child with her belt" when he woke her up at night because she had been attacked by a relative in Guatemala, and sometimes suffered from "flashbacks."
Gerardo was unconscious and his muscles were clenching in a manner common to victims of brain damage when a child-abuse investigator saw him at the hospital on April 18. Rescue workers reported seeing human bite marks on the boy's shoulder and back, as well as a hand-shaped welt, bruising and a small abrasion on his right forehead.
Gerardo's aunt, records say, was considered a suspect in the boy's abuse. Records suggest DCF did not consider Gerardo's uncle to be a suspect because, among other things, he "began to cry uncontrollably" when told of the boy's death, while his wife "did not display any emotion."
"It was determined that the children could not safely remain in the home with either woman," DCF records say.
At first, agency administrators considered removing the three children, who are not being named to protect their privacy, from their parents.
But, with an eye toward keeping the kids in "the most home-like conditions possible," they did an about-face: DCF asked Figarola to approve a "safety plan" in which Gerardo's uncle retained custody of his three children, with the aid of a young sister. Perez-Perez and the three children's mother would be required to leave the house and have no unsupervised contact with the siblings.
"I cannot underscore enough how troubling the department's position is in this case," Figarola wrote in her email, a day after ruling the children could not stay with their father.
Though DCF had told a relative, an aunt who was to take partial custody of the children, to appear in court along with the youngsters, she failed to show up, Figarola wrote. "In spite of the failure to adhere to this directive, the department still maintained that placement with the aunt and the father was appropriate."
"The department proposed placing the children with an aunt who was 'judged too young' to take sole custody of the children, and the children's father, who was living in the home when the other child, his nephew, received the injuries," she added.
The Herald has reported similar cases sometimes end badly: Several children have died, including one last year, after DCF returned them to families without knowing which parent or other family member was responsible for serious abuse. Other children died after a parent, presumed to be abusive, was given access to them after being ordered to stay away.
One such child was Lucas Daniel Machin-Torres of Miami-Dade. Lucas' mother suffered from bipolar disorder, and sometimes failed to take her medication. She also could become violent, DCF reports show.