More than 70 caseworkers lied about efforts to protect children

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During the past two years, more than 70 Florida child-welfare workers have been caught falsifying records -- lying about their on-the-job efforts to protect children, according to state and county records reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel.

As a consequence, the Florida Department of Children and Families temporarily lost track of at least six children, sometimes for months. Fourteen children were left in unsafe homes, the Sentinel found in a review of agency records.

Despite passage of a state law intended to punish cheaters, dishonest caseworkers remain a persistent problem in Florida's system to protect at-risk children:

•The day after a caseworker reported that she had inspected a foster home in Wildwood, police found its four foster children living in tents in the yard. The house had no running water, no food and no clean clothes.

•After a Hardee County social worker lied about making home visits, one child wound up living with an uncle awaiting trial on child-rape charges.

•Two children in Hernando County lived, for a time, with a grandfather who had been arrested two years earlier and accused of physically abusing his own child.

No child was hurt or killed because of phony paperwork, DCF said. But an investigation into the 2007 death of a neglected Jacksonville newborn revealed that his caseworker had falsified records in four other cases.

Once they were questioned about false records, workers time and again complained that they had been assigned too many children to watch, records show.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon, a former lawmaker who has run the agency since last year, said he has no sympathy for workers who lie.

"If you're overworked and can't get to cases, go to your supervisor and say that, but don't say you made the visit when you didn't make the visit," Sheldon said. "If you falsify, you're not going to get away with it, and there's going to be a cost to doing it."

The agency's Office of Inspector General, its internal watchdog, investigated most of the falsification cases reviewed by the Sentinel and provided data and reports about them. The agency watches for employees who dummy up reports, fires most of them and hands over information to state attorneys for prosecution, DCF officials say.

Few workers end up punished, however, beyond losing their jobs.

Child advocates said they were not surprised by the cheating.

The cases identified by theSentinelare most likely "the tip of the iceberg," said Gerard Glynn, a law professor at the Barry University law school in Orlando. He runs a legal clinic that represents children, many of them DCF clients.

"I'm happy they don't sweep this under the rug and hide the facts," he said, "but it still means the system is failing these children, and one failure is too many."

How caseworkers lieOf the 70-plus workers who lied in children's cases, half were DCF staffers, according to department data. The others worked for private organizations hired by DCF to supervise child-safety cases.

Offenders generally falsified two kinds of records: those documenting mandatory monthly visits with foster children and those showing that child-abuse investigators had chased down every lead. Some also forged signatures to cover their tracks, according to court and department records.

Many problems came to light by accident, when workers doing follow-up interviews or investigations discovered inconsistencies in case files. Sometimes, foster parents or family members complained, prompting an investigation. Other times, supervisors spotted suspicious paperwork.

However it happened, the false documents often reported that children were safer than they truly were.

In the Wildwood case, the foster children living in tents were assigned to case manager Angie L. Diaz, who worked for one of DCF's biggest contractors, Children's Home Society of Winter Park. She filed paperwork saying that on Jan. 2, 2007, she went to the house, checked it inside and out, and found everything fine.

The next day, however, police went to the house and arrested the foster mother on child-neglect charges.

The home, which also housed the foster mother's three biological children, had a broken water pipe and an inch of water standing on the floor. There was no electricity on the first floor, no working refrigerator and no food, according to a police report.

Officers said they found piles of dirty clothes, trash and rotting food scattered around, along with rooms crawling with roaches.

DCF immediately took custody of all seven children. The agency concluded that Diaz had gone to the house the day before but had not gone inside, a violation of agency policy.

Four times, Diaz fabricated details of what she saw inside the house, DCF's inspector general concluded. The foster mother also accused Diaz of forging her signature on one form — the woman's name was misspelled.

Children's Home Society fired Diaz a few weeks later, DCF reported.

Diaz now lives northwest of Ocala and is named Angie Rivera, according to the department. Contacted by phone recently, she said she left Children's Home Society voluntarily and doesn't remember anything similar to what the police or the inspector general described.

She said she did not believe those things happened.

The vanished caseworkerLenore Charles, 61, of Belleview, near Ocala, has helped raise more than 20 foster children. Three years ago, she took in a 5-year-old boy who was disabled and couldn't talk or dress himself or use a toilet.

The child made progress in her home, Charles said, but with almost no help from the social worker in charge of his case.

Merrie Hanmann, who worked for a DCF contractor, came to the house just once in nine months, Charles told the agency's inspector general.

"She was supposed to come every month, and she didn't," Charles told the Sentinel.

After Charles complained, Hanmann was placed under investigation and resigned. DCF's inspector general concluded she was guilty. She was prosecuted by Sumter County authorities, pleaded guilty to making a false report and wound up paying a fine.

She did not respond to a letter from the Sentinel, seeking comment.

One of the most prolific offenders, according to DCF, was Andrew Joseph Jr., 37 of Riverview, who worked for a DCF contractor in Hillsborough County.

Prosecutors charged him with 33 counts of falsifying records. He pleaded guilty to seven falsehoods and was placed on three years' probation.

Among the things he did wrong, according to the DCF inspector general: He falsely reported that he was making home visits to a foster child. He did drop the girl off for a visit with her aunt one weekend but never returned, leaving the girl stranded for three or four months.

The department considered leaving her there but, in the end, did not. That's because every adult in that home had a criminal record.

Joseph did not respond to a letter from the Sentinel seeking his comments.

In Orange County last year, Erica A. Johnson, 31, a child-abuse investigator, claimed she worked overtime one Saturday, visiting the homes of two local children.

But DCF became suspicious and checked her agency cell phone, which had a satellite link that showed where it had been. Instead of working in Orange County, Johnson had gone on an overnight trip to Fort Pierce, agency records show.

Johnson resigned within the week. She now lives in Fort Pierce.

"It was a bad decision," she said. "It's something I really regret."

Rilya Wilson, lost childFlorida overhauled its child-welfare system after authorities discovered in 2002 that a Miami foster child, 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, had been missing for 15 months without DCF knowing. Her caseworker had stopped making face-to-face visits.

The child has never been found.

In response to the scandal, the agency began outsourcing much of its child-safety work to private contractors.

What's left today is a much smaller government agency with limited oversight of the companies in charge of child safety.

In general, DCF still sends out its own employee-investigators when it receives a hotline call about a child who might be in danger, but once a case advances beyond that, children who've been neglected or abused or need foster care are tended to by private companies. Many of them, in turn, hire subcontractors to deal directly with the children.

DCF requires that contract workers who do "case management" — oversee children — have a bachelor's degree in social work. They also must undergo weeks of training.

But the agency does not limit the number of cases workers can be assigned.

The Child Welfare League of America, the nation's oldest organization dedicated to at-risk children, recommends that social workers handle no more than 12 to 15 foster children at any one time. DCF, by contrast, does not mandate caseload caps for contractors or its own staff.

In 2007, its inspector general was worried about caseworkers being overloaded. It had discovered that Ruben Bouissa, who worked for a Palm Beach County nonprofit, had lied about checking on four foster children, according to DCF documents.

Bouissa's supervisor admitted that she had piled on the work. Because Bouissa was the only Spanish-speaker in the office, he was forced to handle 40 to 50 cases, double the usual, his boss told the investigator. Bouissa resigned, was charged with a misdemeanor by Palm Beach County prosecutors and wound up in a pretrial-diversion program.

The inspector general's office presented DCF senior management with the facts of that case and pointed out the welfare league's caseload recommendation, but Assistant Secretary for Programs David L. Fairbanks said the agency should not impose those or any caseload limits on contractors.

Judi Spann, the agency's deputy chief of staff, wrote the Sentinel in May that caseloads are an important issue to the department, one it monitors, and the statewide average workload was 14 to 22 cases per foster-care caseworker.

The cases reviewed by the Sentinel, however, show that workers DCF identified as cheaters routinely complained about unmanageable caseloads.

Samuel Orejobi, who worked for a Fort Myers-area nonprofit hired by DCF, told the department that his caseload was 63 foster children. He said he worked 13-hour days, did not have time to see his own children and endured constant complaints from his wife about his long hours.

He was fired after DCF concluded he had falsified records in one case.

Neither Bouissa nor Orejobi returned phone calls.

"Are workers continuing to be overworked? Too few workers? Too many children? Yes," said Glynn, the child advocate at Barry University.

DCF contends that any caseworkers who feel overworked need to speak up and ask for help.

Search for cheatersAs part of the reforms that followed Rilya Wilson's disappearance, Florida legislators passed a law making it a felony for child-welfare workers to falsify records.

Nearly half of the DCF employees and contract workers who falsified records in 2007 and 2008 were prosecuted, according to state and court records.

The most common sentence: probation. More than a dozen others were placed in pretrial-diversion programs. In the overwhelming majority of cases that were prosecuted, judges withheld an adjudication of guilt, meaning there's no official record that workers were convicted of a crime.

Almost all were fired or quit. Agency managers decide what to do on a case-by-case basis, the department reported.

The number of confirmed falsifications amounts to about half a percent of the department's total caseload, said John Cooper, acting assistant DCF secretary for operations.

However, "When an employee does falsify a record," Cooper said, "they betray the sacred public trust that we instill in them."

Sheldon said the agency plans to police workers more closely. DCF has $9.8 million in funding to outfit workers with hand-held global-positioning units.

The idea is to enable workers to write up notes in the field — not require them to return to the office and type them into a computer. But the same technology will allow the agency to confirm that a home visit took place at a certain time and place, Sheldon said.

Hundreds of the units are being tested in Miami. But a dispute over who should provide software for the system has stalled the effort.

Longtime child advocate Jack Levine of the 4Generations Institute in Tallahassee, a family-policy advisory group, said DCF clearly is policing itself, firing bad workers and trying to make children safer.

But the state also has a legacy of failing to meet its goals.

"Florida is a state that has always had among the finest child-protection laws and among the most paltry budgets to pay for those good intentions," Levine said.

Scott Powers of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Rene Stutzman can be reached at rstutzman@orlandosentinel.com or 407-650-6394.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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