Opinion

Florida’s latest assault on transparency: sealing names of foster parents | Opinion

Nubia Barahona died after years of abuse by her adoptive parents.
Nubia Barahona died after years of abuse by her adoptive parents.

When detectives asked Michael Beer’s young daughter to demonstrate how Beer handled the toddler state child welfare authorities placed in his care, the girl took a stuffed animal by the arm and hurled it to the floor.

The teddy bear survived. Two-year-old Trystan Eli Frank Adams, the unfortunate foster child, did not. Beer’s career as a foster parent ended when Trystan succumbed to “severe lacerations” to his liver, along with bruising to his kidney, gallbladder, pancreas and rib cage.

In 2014, the Miami Herald reported that Beer, a Palm Beach County substitute teacher, had been licensed by the state Department of Children & Families as a foster parent after workers failed to account for a 1993 investigation that concluded Beer had neglected his then-girlfriend’s daughter. Beer had told DCF the 2-year-old had a “bump” on her head. The bump turned out to be a skull fracture, a hematoma under her eye, a broken leg, bruising to her ears, as well as “several bruises and welts.”

Even after DCF “found” the 1993 case, and concluded Beer had failed to disclose it on his foster care application as required, the agency renewed his license — and then sent Trystan and his two siblings to live in Beer’s home.

Last year, when Beer was convicted of aggravated manslaughter in Trystan’s death, a West Palm Beach prosecutor noted the obvious when he said that “people don’t abuse children in public; they do it in privacy and secrecy.”

A bill before the Florida Legislature that is supported by the chronically troubled — and notoriously silent — DCF is designed to intensify that secrecy. The bill would exempt from public disclosure the names of all foster parents. Even the ones like Jorge and Carmen Barahona, the Miami couple accused of unspeakable abuse to their twin foster children, Nubia and Victor, before the couple adopted them. In 2011, Nubia was found beaten to death inside a black garbage bag. Victor was nearly dead.

The bill is sponsored by Tobin Rogers Overdorf, a Palm City Republican, in the House, and Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat, in the Senate. It has sailed through committee votes in the House, and enjoys overwhelming support among foster parents, most of whom, of course, do not abuse the children in their care.

DCF says the bill is necessary to protect foster parents from violent and vindictive parents angry at the removal of their children. As evidence, the agency points to Candi Johnson, who, according to police, shot a Northwest Miami-Dade foster mother last year while snatching her children. DCF would have us believe that Johnson obtained a list of Miami-Dade foster families through a public records request, and searched them until she found her children. No small feat considering that the addresses of foster homes already are exempt from disclosure.

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Naika Venant Miami Herald file photo

Such a story is fiction. Johnson never asked for public records relating to where her children were living. And foster parents who testified before the Florida House’s Oversight, Transparency and Public Management Subcommittee Monday acknowledged that none of the birth families they felt had menaced them had obtained information through a public record’s request. Much more likely, Johnson and other parents who lost custody of their children simply asked their kids, or followed them after a public court hearing.

No, this bill is not intended to protect foster parents. Like most such legislation, it’s designed to protect the state. From you.

An amendment, sponsored by Overdorf, withdraws the exemption if a foster parent, foster parent’s spouse, or an adult living in the foster home is charged with a crime against a foster child. But what if a foster parent is charged with abusing or raping his or her birth child, or a neighborhood kid? What if there are credible allegations of abuse that do not result in criminal charges? Claims of cruel and despicable abuse, some from schoolteachers, hounded Carmen and Jorge Barahona before they were accused of killing Nubia and trying to kill her twin.

Toxic Truck Family
Jorge Barahona Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office

And what about Naika Venant? The 14-year-old foster child tied a scarf around her neck two years ago and hanged herself from a shower door inside a Miami Gardens foster home — livestreaming her death on Facebook. Months earlier, mental health professionals had recommended that Naika live in what’s called a specialized therapeutic foster home, where she could have received the kind of intensive services she needed. But there was no bed available, so she was sent instead to live with a rookie foster mom who had virtually no experience dealing with profoundly troubled kids. Should that failure have remained hidden forever?

DCF is endorsing the bill that would hide the names of all foster parents. But the agency has been acting as if this is the law already. It refuses to release such names — even though it lacks the statutory authority to do so.

“This legislation is contrary to the public interest,” said Barbara Petersen, who heads Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. “Foster parents are licensed — and paid — by the state to care for the most vulnerable members of our society, our children. As we know all too well, we can’t count on DCF, the agency that licenses those foster parents, to police itself. There is a slew of protections for foster families currently in law; providing anonymity goes too far.”

Virtually since its inception, DCF has been allergic to oversight.

Five years ago, the Herald published an exhaustive study of why more than 500 children with a history of abuse or neglect lost their lives. The series, called “Innocents Lost,” sparked immediate action by the Legislature. A unanimous reform bill, among other things, required DCF to report on its website when it fails youngsters by listing the deaths of all children and making child fatality investigations readily available.

Carmen Barahona
Carmen Barahona Miami-Dade Corrections Miami-Dade Corrections

DCF’s response: It overhauled its death review procedure. When such reports frequently were 10 or 20 pages, they now seldom take up more than three, and almost never include any information that is critical or introspective. After being ordered to push open the windows to let in the sunshine, DCF installed black-out blinds.

Why does this matter? You can’t fix what you won’t acknowledge is broken. And you can’t find mistakes if you refuse to look for them.

That’s where you come in. As citizens and taxpayers, you have the right to demand transparency from your lawmakers and public agencies.

Florida was among the first states in the nation to endorse government transparency with a strong public records law in 1909. In 1992, Floridians enshrined the statute into the state Constitution by passing overwhelmingly a voter referendum that made Florida’s open government laws among the strongest in America.

Since then, lawmakers have chiseled away at the statute every year, choosing special interests and self-protection over openness and accountability. Since 1995, the Legislature has passed 269 bills creating exemptions to our open-government laws. To date, there are 1,122 discrete exceptions to our constitutional right of access.

Petersen, who is one of the state’s open government champions, is tracking 105 bills this year alone that have the potential to shield government activity from public scrutiny.

When a child dies under particularly egregious circumstances — as did Trystan Eli Frank Adams or Nubia Barahona — agency heads and lawmakers wring their hands, scratch their chins, issue self-serving statements, and vow to do better. But, invariably, it is the work of Florida media and advocates that uncovers the truth.

Floridians have made clear, again and again, that they do not wish to be governed in darkness. Their leaders just aren’t listening.

Miami Herald investigative reporter Carol Marbin Miller has been covering Florida’s juvenile justice system and DCF for years.

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