Other cases in Florida

You know how bad things are getting at the Herald when you can get less lurid, more even-handed accounts from Miami’s Channel 7.

This post, added March 16, 2011, also is available as part of

            And now there are three.  Three recent cases involving deaths of children “known to the system” in Florida over the past month. 

            Sadly, in a state as huge as Florida, a state with more than four million children and more than 150,000 reports of child maltreatment investigated every year, that’s not unusual.  Just as it was not unusual back when Kathleen Kearney was running the Florida Department of Children and Families, and the overarching approach to child welfare in Florida was take-the-child-and-run.

            What’s unusual is that, because of the Barahona case, everyone is paying more attention.  And, of course, the Barahona case gave ammunition to Herald reporter Carol Marbin Miller and her BFFs, Andrea Moore, former executive director of Florida’s Children First and Cheleene Schembera, a former acting regional director of DCF in Miami once described by another Herald writer as “the ultimate DCF product” when that was no compliment.  It gave them the openings they needed to attack recent reforms, even though those reforms have resulted in less destruction of families and safer children.

            But now that there are three cases getting attention, Miller can label them a “series” or a “spate.”  Anyone care to take bets on when that happens?  Miller then can write in story after story about how the “series” or “spate” – which would be essentially a construct of Miller herself – “raises questions” about the reforms. 

Sadly, that kind of misrepresentation is not unusual among reporters pushing an agenda.  One such reporter in another state once defended using the term “series” when, in fact, there had been no change in the frequency of such tragedies, by saying: “It was a series, but not statistically.”

To give you an idea of how bad things have gotten at the Herald: Miami’s Channel 7, once known as the most lurid, sensationalistic television news operation in America, did  more careful, even-handed stories about these cases than the Herald.

            In fact, as more information about those other cases emerges, that information should be “raising questions” about news judgment at the Herald and the failure of editors to “raise questions” about Miller’s stories.

            To its credit, DCF is standing by its decisions in one of the two cases – a tragedy from Palm Beach County - refusing to throw anyone under the bus.  Because at this point, it appears that the decisions were wrong only with a combination of 20/20 hindsight, and information DCF and its partners never saw.  To its discredit, DCF is withholding information in the other case.


            The Palm Beach County case involves the murder of two children and their mother.  Though you’d barely know it from the Herald’s stories, the mother, Felicia Brown, was never accused of abusing either child.  Ever.  Period.  Rather, the mother herself was abused, first by her own mother, then in the Florida foster care system and then by the boyfriend who is now the only suspect in the murders of the children.

            Felicia Brown first gave birth at age 14.  DCF took Felicia away from her mother.  But the foster care system bounced her from placement to placement, where she became pregnant two more times.  One child was adopted.  The other two, Jy’Tyra and Jermaine were consigned to foster care.  Felicia’s parental rights to Jermaine were terminated. 

            Jermaine was sent out of state to a foster home where he was supposed to be adopted.  But the prospective adoptive parents changed their mind and sent him back because of what they said was Jermaine’s aggressive behavior.  Jermaine kept getting into trouble in foster care – quite possibly because of being bounced from placement to placement, and because he missed his mother.

            So at this point, Jermaine’s own guardian ad litem (GAL) must have feared that the boy would be doomed to a childhood bouncing from foster home, only to be kicked out at age 18 to face a future that almost certainly would be marked by poverty, homelessness, crime and despair.  The GAL saw one last chance to save Jermaine from that:  Perhaps Felicia herself should adopt Jermaine, something that is unusual, but not unprecedented, after parental rights have been terminated. 

Indeed, what really makes this case extraordinary is that the guardian ad litem program, which often fights tooth and nail against reunification in cases like this, was the one pushing for it.  Palm Beach County has an unusual GAL program in which every foster child under age 12 gets a GAL who is a lawyer, not just a lay volunteer, as in most of the rest of the state.

            By the time Jermaine was adopted, it appeared that Felicia had done everything right and totally turned her life around.  That’s something that happens tens of thousands of times every year across America as children are reunited with their parents.  But precisely because, in almost all of those cases, nothing goes wrong, understandably, they don’t make news.

            But what neither DCF, the GAL, the private lead agency in Palm Beach County or its subcontractor knew was that Felicia apparently had taken up again with an abusive boyfriend who had caused many of the problems in the home.  That boyfriend is now the only suspect in the murders of the children.  And Felicia was going to testify against the boyfriend in a criminal case at the time she was killed.

            Readers would get no idea of most of this from the Herald’s first big story on the case – except, of course, the fact that the boyfriend was back in Felicia’s life.  Miller even made a big deal of the fact that Felicia, like any adoptive parent, was getting the standard adoption subsidy to help her care for Jermaine.  Her dudgeon at its highest, Miller sounded like Ronald Reagan railing against “welfare queens.”

            To its great credit, DCF has refused to cave.  Representatives of DCF, the private lead agency and the GAL program held a news conference to defend their actions.  To really know what they said, though, it’s best to check the account in the Sun Sentinel.  And you can get a clear, straightforward account of how the presence of the boyfriend was missed in The Palm Beach Post.  You can even get a fairer account of all sides of the story from WSVN-TV, a station once known for having the most lurid, sensationalized newscasts in America.

            The Herald, in contrast, buried DCF’s defense in a story that largely rehashed its earlier account.

            And while Miller used this case combined with the Barahona case to suggest that DCF’s push to get children adopted was making them unsafe, there is nothing in the record to indicate anything of the kind.  On the contrary, the adoption was reviewed carefully and deliberately.  The failure was, once again, a failure of various agencies to communicate and share information – the same kind of mundane failure that played a role in the Barahona case.  And that is all that these two cases have in common.

            Had DCF or the private lead agency or the GAL’s office had this information, there’s no way the adoption would have happened.  But, as the Post story makes clear, it would have been very difficult for those involved in the adoption to get the information.

            NCCPR believes there has indeed been a rush to terminate parental rights and get children adopted and we believe it has done harm.  So, were we the kind of advocates who bend facts to suit our purposes, we would rush to endorse Carol Marbin Miller’s theory.  But neither of these cases are examples of a rush to adoption.  In addition, the harm done where there is such a rush does not include adoptive parents killing their children. Rather the harm involves terminating parental rights needlessly and adoptive parents giving up on the children.  

            Good journalists, and good advocates, know that when the facts don’t fit the theory, you throw out the theory, not the facts.


            A lot less is known about the third case, and that is partly DCF’s fault for refusing to talk about it.  But if the account in the Herald today is correct – and, of course, that is a huge “if” – it suggests DCF should have intervened by offering intensive help to the parents, including drug treatment and Intensive Family Preservation Services – which have a far better track record for safety than foster care.  Based on the available information, there was not cause to remove the children without trying that kind of help first.

            The Herald ignores that option, implying the child who died should have been confiscated at birth.  Once again, there is a more balanced account from Channel 7.

            But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the case is the appalling behavior of another of Carol Marbin Miller’s favorite sources, Judge Cindy Lederman, during a court hearing concerning custody of the surviving sibling. 

            It’s hard to imagine a situation more fraught with emotion than the first court hearing after the death of a child.  Yet when the mother and the girlfriend of the child’s father got into a shouting match, Lederman reacted by threatening to punish the child – she said she might refuse to place the child with any relative (presumably including those who were not shouting) even though the research is overwhelming that placement with relatives typically is better for children’s well-being – and safer – than placement with strangers.

            And Lederman went out of her way to excoriate the mother (who, at the moment, has been charged with no crime and who, like Felicia Brown is herself a product of the Florida foster care system) with cruel, cutting remarks that could not possibly accomplish anything except to worsen her grief.  But, of course, it plays really well with the “virtual lynch mob” on newspaper website comment boards and talk radio.

            This comes at a particularly unfortunate time for those who us who think Florida, and 16 other states, have been right all these years to open court hearings in child welfare cases to the press and public – though only Florida lets in cameras.  California is considering joining those states, and that would be a huge step forward.

            But notwithstanding the fact that open courts have been successful everywhere they’ve been tried, notwithstanding the fact that none of the fears expressed by critics has come to pass, and notwithstanding the fact that, in state after state, onetime opponents of openness have become converts (for details see NCCPR’s Due Process Agenda) all it takes is one grandstanding judge to ruin it for everyone.

            Now, opponents of open courts may be able to undermine the effort in California and elsewhere with just two words: Cindy Lederman.