The state of Florida failed young Victor Barahona so often and in so many ways that his sad situation cries out for justice. Yet justice is something Victor Barahona has been denied by the Florida Legislature, specifically by the Senate under the indifferent leadership of Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
Details of Victor's suffering are so horrifying as to require a warning before they are recounted. Victor and his twin sister, Nubia, entered the state's child-welfare system as infants and were placed in a criminally abusive adoptive home.
Both children's lives were degraded in every way possible. They were sexually abused, severely beaten, made to soak in ice-cold water for hours, starved and then forced to eat insects and even feces.
The state Department of Children and Families missed warning after warning of the abuse and intervened only when Victor was found near death next to Nubia's body in their adoptive father's truck.
Knowing the boy would need immediate and probably lifelong psychological treatment, DCF agreed to a settlement of $1.25 million initially and an additional $3.75 million with the Legislature's approval. That latter process, known as a claim bill, is required under sovereign immunity laws that limit the amount of damages anyone can collect from a governmental agency without legislative approval.
Last year, 32 people (including Victor) sought compensation, yet no claims bill got out of the Senate. Victor's case even failed to get a hearing from senators.
The reason? Gaetz, who as Senate president exerted control over the process, let his general counsel quash Victor's claim by saying it would weaken the state's legal standing in other cases involving the same abusive couple, reported Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas. DCF meekly acceded to the stalling tactic.
Despite Gaetz' heavyhanded ways, a bipartisan group of lawmakers vowed to prevail on Victor's behalf. "DCF is trying to go back on (its agreement) now,'' said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who sponsored Victor's claim bill, "and, as far as I'm concerned, there is no word that describes how major this injustice is." Any legal concerns can easily be addressed in the bill's wording, the group says.
Now, Victor's case and dozens of other compelling claims await new leadership as Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, assumes the Senate presidency. One of the cases hits close to home. Among the dozens of people seeking compensation last year was a severely mentally handicapped woman, identified as J.D.S., who was raped by an operator of an Orlando group home.
Impregnated, she gave birth to a baby that suffers from cerebral palsy, as does the mother. Any money lawmakers grant would go toward the woman's care.
Gardiner has a challenging task ahead: to prove that the Senate still has a heart. He should act boldly, and quickly, before vulnerable victims lose hope.