Fla. agency under fire for death in toxic truck

Fla. agency under fire for death in toxic truck
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Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 6:27pm

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- For four days, Florida child welfare investigators searched for missing 10-year-old twins. They made home and school visits, called the children's father on his cell phone, talked to their mother and contacted relatives.

Now, agency officials are being slammed for one call they didn't make: They never reached out to police.

By the time police were notified, the little girl, Nubia, was dead, wrapped in plastic bags in the back of her father's exterminator truck parked alongside Interstate 95. Her brother, Victor, was in the front seat, coated in a toxic chemical with critical burns.

Their father was nearby on the ground, unresponsive and doused in gasoline in what he later told police was a futile attempt to kill himself.

Her death has reignited criticism against the state Department of Children and Families, an agency that overhauled its system a decade ago after a foster child was missing for more than a year before anyone realized.

A judge slammed investigators this week for not thoroughly working the recent case, and officials have called for an outside review.

Meanwhile, authorities focused their attention on the couple. Carmen and Jorge Barahona's home was considered a crime scene as authorities investigate claims the couple starved their 10-year-old daughter and locked her and her brother in the bathroom with their feet and hands tied as punishment. It's unclear how Nubia died, or how long she had been dead before her badly decomposing body was found Monday.

The couple, who adopted the twins from foster care in 2008, have been the focus of three abuse allegations in the past few years, but the agency said they were unfounded. State officials said the Barahona's home visits and other documents were "stellar."

Jorge Barahona, 53, appeared in court Thursday, charged with aggravated child abuse for dousing the boy with the chemical and loading his dead daughter in the back of his exterminator truck. He was held on $1 million bond and ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation.

When Barahona was told to get ready for the hearing, he tried to injure his head and became uncooperative, authorities said. The judge decided he didn't have to come to the hearing, and the father was later taken to a hospital for observation before returning to jail.

Victor is in critical condition. Doctors are unsure of what chemical caused his burns, most of which were below the waist.

Child welfare officials tried to deflect claims Thursday they missed opportunities at several turns, looking for the twins in vain for days without alerting local police. DCF first started looking for the twins on Feb. 10 after someone called the abuse hotline, saying the children were being tied and kept in the bathroom.

Child investigators called and visited the Barahonas' home that day but no one was home. The next morning, investigators learned the children had been removed from school and were being home-schooled.

Investigator Andrea Fleary then went to the home Friday night, but Carmen Barahona said that she was separated from her husband and didn't know where he or the twins were. Officials now believe she was covering for him and expect charges will be filed against her.

Fleary said she did not interview the couple's two other adopted children at the home because it was 9 p.m. on a Friday night.

On Saturday, DCF officials unsuccessfully tried to call Jorge Barahona on his cell phone. The mother told another investigator that day that her husband had the children and that she did not know their whereabouts - while Jorge had told a relative who spoke with investigators that the children were with their mother.

The conflicting stories created enough concern for DCF to call police after four days of searching, southern regional director Jacqui Colyer said. Nubia was already dead by then.

An autopsy was done, officials said, but detectives were reviewing the report and had not yet released details. Child welfare officials said Jorge Barahona admitted to starving the girl.

Colyer said investigators worked the case every day, and one even sat for hours waiting to speak with the parents outside the Barahonas' home.

Investigators would have contacted police sooner if Carmen Barahona had not lied, Colyer said.

"If we hadn't been lied to, then we probably would have immediately began the process of trying to locate the father," Colyer said.

When asked if child investigators should have probed further, Colyer admitted "the questioning may not have been as thorough as it should have."

"It's not an exact science. We do our best."

On Wednesday, Judge Cindy Lederman blasted Fleary for her hasty investigation.

"How could we have gotten a call to a hotline on Feb. 10 and a child died" a few days later, she asked at the hearing.

Carmen Barahona declined comment at Wednesday's hearing, shielding her face with a piece of paper and crying at times.

Newly appointed DCF Secretary David Wilkins called Thursday for an outside review of the case, which could be the biggest scandal to hit the agency since it was reorganized nine years ago. That's when officials found 5-year-old Rilya Wilson had been missing for more than a year before officials noticed - in part because a caseworker filed false reports saying the girl was fine.

An investigation found that workers routinely falsified reports and were overworked and received low pay. It also found workers did not check the backgrounds of caregivers before placing children. The head of the agency resigned.

The department has since increased transparency and requires caseworkers to carry a device that tracks their whereabouts and takes photos of children to ensure the required visits are made.

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Associated Press writer Terry Spencer in Miami contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
 

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