The real roots of tragedy

Did a law pushed by Florida’s Children First influence a judge’s bad call?
This page also is available as part of a printable .pdf document here.
And see the response from Florida's Children First after the endnotes

            As the Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commission that’s always named in the wake of a particularly high-profile child abuse tragedy seeks to find out what went wrong in the case of Nubia Docter and her brother, Victor, they appear to be looking only at recent events.

            But the roots of this tragedy go much, much deeper.

            They are rooted in the foster-care panic, the huge surge in the number of children torn from their homes that swept Florida in 1999 because of the policies of disgraced former DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney.  The panic did not end until 2006.  This tragedy also may be rooted in the misguided actions of the current Florida Senate Minority Leader, State Sen. Nan Rich (D-Sunrise), the group that calls itself Florida’s Children First (FCF) and the group’s former executive director, Andrea Moore – specifically, their misguided response to another high profile case – a custody dispute  between relatives and strangers in Volusia County in 2006. 

            Of  course, the people at FCF, Moore and even Kearney care deeply about children.  Moore, for example, has done good work exposing the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on foster children.  None of them wanted this to happen; all are as shocked and saddened as anyone over the latest tragedy.  But too often in child welfare, good motives still produce bad outcomes.  And that appears to be what happened in this case.

            And it is deeply disturbing to see Florida’s Children First rush to point fingers elsewhere – even issuing a statement demanding to know why relatives got short shrift – when the answer may lie with a law pushed by FCF itself.


            Nubia and Victor were first placed in foster care with the Barahonas in 2004.  Immediately, members of their extended family in Texas came forward seeking to take in the children. 

            Study after study has shown that placement with relatives, called kinship care, is better for children’s well being and more stable than what should properly be called “stranger care.”[1]  For example, in the wake of another tragedy, the suicide of Gabriel Myers, DCF looked for patterns in the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medications on foster children.  As The Miami Herald itself reported, DCF found that if the child was in a group home or institution, 26 percent were on such drugs.  If they were in a stranger care home it was 21 percent.  But if the child was placed with a grandparent or another relative it was only four percent.[2]

            It’s not hard to figure out why.  Grandparents and other relatives are more likely to love the children they take in.  So they will put up with behavior strangers will not, before turning to the prescription pad.

            And, most important, studies show that kinship care is safer than stranger care.[3]  Again, because relatives are more likely to love the children they take in, the rate of maltreatment in kinship foster care is lower.

But when Nubia and Victor were placed, the relatives were turned down.  At the time, DCF was profoundly hostile to birth families and the hostility extended to extended families.  In addition, placing a child across state lines requires using what amounts to a treaty among the states called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children.  The ICPC is a dreadful document which mires the simplest of tasks in needless delay and complexity.

            So DCF, already overwhelmed with children who never needed to be in foster care and profoundly hostile to relatives, had a choice: Do more work to place children with relatives, to whom the agency was hostile anyway, or take the easy way out and place the children with strangers.  Naturally, they chose the strangers.

            Thanks to the very reforms now under attack by The Miami Herald that kind of bad decision is less likely today.


            At about the same time DCF chose the Barahonas over Nubia and Victor’s relatives, a protracted custody dispute was unfolding in Volusia County, involving a little boy named Christian.

            Christian was taken from his mother at birth in February, 2002. Within days a second cousin, Tiffany Delk, living in Tennessee, and her husband came forward seeking custody.  DCF ignored her.  In fact, they ignored at least 100 phone calls from Tiffany Delk over the next several months.[4]  She was not allowed to see Christian until May or possibly October (news accounts differ).

            Instead DCF placed Christian with Denise and Ivar Baklid, strangers who wanted to adopt him. 

In October, 2002, for reasons that never have been explained, DCF changed its position and supported placing Christian with the Delks.  A series of court rulings led to Christian being moved to the Delks and then briefly back to the Baklids until finally the Delks were allowed to adopt Christian.

Even though Christian wound up spending more time living with the Delks than the Baklids before finally being adopted, backers of the stranger-care parents kept playing the bonding card, arguing that the child was “bonded” to the strangers, and that was far more important than blood ties.

No one pushed this idea harder than Andrea Moore, then the executive director of Florida’s Children First.  Thanks in part to Moore, the case was characterized as pitting “bonding of foster parents [against] blood ties…”[5]

As the Orlando Sentinel reported at the time:

Andrea Moore, executive director of Florida's Children First, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for children, said choosing relatives over foster parents may not always be the best choice.

"Children don't know the difference between a foster family and a biological family. They just want to be loved and safe," Moore said. "If you disrupt the bonding of a child to a current caregiver, you traumatize the child."[6]

The fact that, at the very time she made the statement, the “current caregivers” were, in fact, the relatives, apparently was irrelevant.

"Each time there's a high-profile adoption case where the court overturns an adoption, it has an impact," said Andrea Moore, executive director of Florida's Children First. "All respective [sic] adoption parents have a natural fear that something could happen to the adoption."[7]

Moore neglected to mention that in this case there was no adoption, neither family had adopted the child, that’s what the disagreement was about.


But Moore didn’t stop with inflammatory quotes to newspapers.  She was a key supporter of a bill introduced by Sen. Rich.  In its original form the bill would have granted strangers who had custody of a child for at least a year a rebuttable presumption that they get to adopt.  That is a very high legal barrier for anyone else to overcome.  The proposed law specified that the fact that someone else wanting the child was a relative was not enough to rebut the presumption.[8]

As the Daytona Beach News Journal reported:

Andrea Moore, executive director of Florida's Children First, who adopted a child from foster care more than 20 years ago and is pushing Rich's bill, does not think blood relations are more important than years of stability.

"I would argue that families are made by time together and caring about each other. They are not made through genetics," Moore said.[9]

            As NCCPR pointed out at the time in an op ed column opposing the bill,[10] by that logic, if I kidnap a child at birth, flee to Mexico, take really good care of him, and then return two years later, presumably Moore would argue I should be allowed to keep him.

            Moore’s reasoning is part of a general denigration of blood ties that has dominated American child welfare for nearly 40 years and defies both common sense and some more recent research.  Most important, it ignores the better track record of kinship care over stranger care.  The very term “biological parent” was coined with the specific intent of being pejorative – conveying the idea of a parent no more important to a child than a test tube.  (That’s why the preferred term is the value-neutral “birth parent.”)

            The bill Moore originally supported was significantly watered down.  But the law that passed in 2006 still put a thumb on the scales of justice, tilting them further against birth families.  The 2006 change added a provision to existing law that originally said only that once a child was in the legal custody of DCF placement changes should be decided based on the “best interests of the child.”  The 2006 change added this sentence:

When applying this standard, the court shall consider the continuity of the child’s placement in the same out-of-home residence as a factor when determining the best interests of the child.[11]

            Continuity of care is the only criterion mentioned.  There is no instruction for judges also to consider things like the better track record of kinship care.

            So Andrea Moore, who has crusaded against the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on foster children helped get a law passed that curbs the use of the best weapon against such misuse and overuse – grandparents and other extended family members.

            More to the point, the change in the law was in effect in 2009, when the Barahonas fought Nubia and Victor’s relatives over who would adopt the children.

            And in fact, according to the attorney for the relatives, Steven Grossbard, a supposed bonding between the children and the Barahonas triumphed over blood ties:

"Unfortunately,” Grossbard told CNN, “the expert opinion suggested that there was a significant bond and the courts are inclined to go with experts' opinion."[12]

Especially, one assumes, when state law encourages it.

[1] Studies cited in Mark Testa, et. al., Family Ties: Supporting Permanence for Children in Safe and Stable Foster Care With Relatives and Other Caregivers, University of Illinois School of Social Work, Children and Family Research Center, October, 2004, available online at, and Generations United, Time for Reform: Support Relatives in Providing Foster Care and Permanent Homes for Children, March 2007, available online at  See also, Marc A. Winokur, et. al, “Matched Comparison of Children in Kinship Care and Foster Care on Child Welfare Outcomes,” Families in Society, Volume 89, No. 3, 2008, available online at and  David M. Rubin et. al., “Impact of Kinship Care on Behavioral Well-being for Children in Out-of-Home Care,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 162(6):550-556. Published online, June 2, 2008, at
[2] Carol Marbin Miller, “More Florida foster kids than thought are given mental-health drugs,” Miami Herald, May. 28, 2009.
[3] See studies cited in note 1, supra.
[4]Ken Ma,  “Boy to Return to Orange City,” Orlando Sentinel, March 2, 2006. Available online at
[5] Deborah Circelli, “Ruling may flip child in custody battle back to Tenn. couple,” Daytona Beach News Journal, June 16, 2006.
[6] Ma, note 4, supra.
[7] Ken Ma and Rebecca Mahoney, “Christian returns to Tennessee Family,” Orlando Sentinel, June 16, 2006, available online at
[8] The exact language of the bill, SB 1732, was: “If a child has resided in the same out-of-home placement for more than 1 year and the custodian of the child in that out-of-home placement requests and is eligible for consideration as a permanent custodian for the child, a rebuttable presumption arises that continuing the out-of-home placement is in the best interest of the child. This presumption may not be rebutted solely by the expressed wishes of a parent or by placing the child with a person who is biologically related to the child but who is not living with a parent.” (The bill is available online at
[9] Deborah Circelli, “Lawmakers want to stop fights over foster kids,” Daytona Beach News Journal, Feb. 26, 2006.
[10] Richard Wexler, “Legislation to favor foster parents would, in effect, abet kidnapping,” Orlando Sentinel, March 19, 2006. Available online at
[11] Laws of Florida, Chapter 2006-86, Sec. 39.522(1), available online at (Scroll to page 30).
[12] John Zarella, “Ten tough years for adopted twins,” CNN, February 16, 2011. Available online at

Florida's Children First has asked that we post their response to the item above. Unlike Carol Marbin Miller and The Miami Herald, we are not afraid of dissent, so we present it below, as written (including their regrettable use of exactly the pejorative term cited in our original post: "biological parent.")

As our name implies, Florida's Children First focuses on the rights of children.  The policies adopted by our board and advocated by our board and staff (current and former) reflect our belief that the child welfare system should employ evidence-based practices and adopt policies that provide decision makers with a thorough understanding of each child's unique situation in order to make the best decision possible. (Sadly, the Barahona case demonstrates the devastating consequences of the failure to share pertinent information with decision makers and the experts they rely on.)

There is no "one size fits all" answer to the decisions that have to be made when placing children with relatives or licensed foster parents. Best practices say find relatives as soon as possible and ascertain whether they are suitable caregivers.  In fact, in 2006 FCF strongly advocated for a change Florida law that requires courts to inquire about relatives at the shelter hearing so they can be immediately located and involved.

But finding relatives early is just the beginning of the process. Their willingness and ability to safely care for children must be examined. Just because someone is related does not mean they can automatically provide good care.  And there is often the wrenching question of whether to send children out of state if there is a goal of reunification.  Successful reunification includes maintaining and improving the parent/child relationship - something that is difficult to do when they can't see each other frequently.

But even if a determination is made that the relatives cannot provide adequate care or live too far away, that does not mean that they should be excluded from the child's life.  Children cannot have too many people that love them!  And rather than pitting foster parents against biological family in competing for children, we need to focus on building strong caring communities for each child.

We applaud DCF's Quality Parenting Initiative and move to implement family-centered practice.  When substitute caregivers (be they foster parents, relatives, or non-relatives) and biological families work together, children will benefit.

In sum, we suspect that FCF's position on the key issues of child welfare reform raised by the Barahona case is not very different from those of NCCR [sic]. Although NCCR is critical of the Florida law that requires that the amount of time a foster child lives in foster home be considered as a factor related to placement and adoption, we believe that the two governmental and three private corporations involved in the lives of the children did not share and act on critical evidence in multiple abuse reports that should have required their removal from the Barahona home regardless of the amount of time these children spent in the home. But in any event, we believe the public dialog is best focused on the facts and actions of the agencies and entities involved in the provision of care and services to the children.
Christina L. Spudeas, Esq.
Executive Director
Florida's Children First, Inc.
"Fighting for Children's Rights"
1801 University Drive, 3B
Coral Springs, Fl 33071
(954)-796-0860 Office
(954)-796-0862 Fax
(954)-326-8923 Cell