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Law license suspended for former judge, DCF boss Kearney
Law license suspended for former judge, DCF boss Kearney
December 12, 2003
TALLAHASSEE -- Former Department of Children & Families Secretary Kathleen Kearney had her law license suspended Thursday after failing to answer a bar complaint filed during her divorce proceedings.
The Supreme Court suspended Kearney's license for 91 days after she failed to respond to a complaint filed over her behavior during divorce proceedings in May 2002.
The bar send her a copy of the complaint three times from July 17 to Sept. 13, 2002 and received no response. During that time, Kearney resigned her position at DCF as it underwent scrutiny for the disappearance of Rilya Wilson, a 5-year-old Miami foster child who was missing for at least 15 months before the department noticed. The girl was never found.
``We were quite concerned. We just couldn't get her to respond,'' said Miles McGrane III, president of The Florida Bar.
``She was a very well respected judge. It's just sad.''
Kearney is now a professor at Florida State University. She did not immediately answer a message left for her at the school.
Before being appointed to head the DCF in 1999, Kearney was a juvenile court judge in Fort Lauderdale, presiding over child abuse and neglect cases.
During her divorce proceedings, Kearney was accused of charging thousands of dollars in credit-card debt in her ex-husband's name.
Because Kearney's suspension is longer than 90 days, she will have to prove she ``rehabilitated'' herself before her license can be reinstated, McGrane said.
Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted on Thu, Dec. 04, 2003
DEPARTMENT OF JUVENILE JUSTICE. Hundreds with rap sheets work for agency
About 350 of almost 2,000 of the department's detention workers and supervisors have arrest records, including four superintendents.
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
In Broward County, a woman who pleaded no contest to child-abuse charges supervises youngsters who are locked up in the state's detention center.
In Collier County, the superintendent of a detention center has a criminal record sealed by a judge.
And in Miami, a detention center supervisor's criminal record includes 15 separate charges, including a concealed-weapon conviction from two years before he was hired and a battery arrest six months later.
In all, about 350 of almost 2,000 state Department of Juvenile Justice detention workers and supervisors have arrest records, including four superintendents and another four assistant superintendents.
'The department professes to changing kids' lives by punishing them for their misdeeds,'' said Roy Miller, president of the Florida Children's Campaign, a Tallahassee-based advocacy group for delinquent children, ``but they allow those same misdeeds to go unpunished by their own employees.''
According to department records, employees currently working for the DJJ hold convictions for perjury, contempt of court, aggravated assault, assault and battery, drunken driving, hit-and-run driving and ''terrorist threats.'' One officer, convicted of aggravated stalking, was recently deported.
VARIETY OF CHARGES
Among the arrests -- as opposed to convictions -- on employee records: domestic violence, homicide, attempted rape, kidnapping, cruelty to a child, stalking, contempt of court, aggravated battery, prostitution, lewd and lascivious behavior, nude dancing, welfare fraud and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Before 2000, DJJ administrators could not hire employees with certain criminal convictions, such as violent felonies, for three years after a conviction. That year, William ''Bill'' Bankhead, DJJ secretary, asked legislators to extend the period to 10 years; they agreed to seven.
Detention officers are not sworn law enforcement officers, as are deputies or police officers. However, they can't be hired without obtaining certification.
Bankhead attributes much of the problem to his agency's history. The DJJ was spun off in 1994 from the Department of Health & Rehabilitative Services, a notoriously troubled state agency that was once the largest social service department in the nation. A former state senator, Bankhead took over in January 1996.
''We have taken measures, overt measures, to toughen up our hiring practices,'' Bankhead said.
But critics of the department say administrators have not been nearly tough enough in weeding out employees who have demonstrated lapses in judgment or could pose a threat to children.
After Omar Paisley's death from a burst appendix that went untreated at the Miami-Dade County juvenile lockup, The Herald reported that two of the men in charge the night the youth died had arrest records and spotty personnel files.
Victor Davidson, who was in charge of the lockup the night Omar died, was charged between 1978 and 1985 with marijuana and cocaine possession, possession of ''dangerous drugs,'' aggravated assault and domestic violence. None resulted in convictions. His personnel file contained reprimands for actions that included physical abuse of detainees.
Supervisor Jack Harrington had been arrested twice, including once at the Juvenile Detention Center for obstruction of justice. He has been the subject of at least three internal investigations and was reprimanded once for using unnecessary force against children in his care.
State Rep. Gustavo ''Gus'' Barreiro, a Miami Republican chairing a DJJ oversight committee formed to look into conditions at state lockups, said Bankhead squandered opportunities to ''weed out'' employees like Davidson -- who resigned last month -- and Harrington.
Bankhead could implement a zero-tolerance policy for employees he inherited with criminal records and terminate them as soon as they display poor judgment, Barreiro said.
''If any of these individuals asked for a job today, would he hire them?'' Barreiro asked.
Current detention employees include:
• A 53-year-old Broward officer who was hired in 1988 despite arrests for carrying a concealed weapon, robbery and burglary. Since his hiring, the officer has been charged with disorderly intoxication and battery. In all, the man's record includes 12 charges.
• A 51-year-old supervisor at the Miami-Dade lockup has a rap sheet with 15 separate charges, most dating back to the 1960s and '70s. His convictions include resisting an officer, aggravated assault and robbery.
Two arrests are from the 1990s, however, including a conviction for carrying a concealed weapon two years before he was hired in March 1996 and a battery charge, for which he entered a pretrial diversion program, nine months after he was hired.
Bankhead said the man has announced his retirement.
• Eddie Roberts, the superintendent of the Pasco County lockup, had been arrested four times in the 1970s before he was hired in 1987. His convictions include drunken driving and drunk and disorderly conduct. Arrests that did not result in conviction included possession of stolen property and assault and battery, records show.
Bankhead said the superintendent has acknowledged having a drinking problem in the 1970s after he left the military.
''He has done a good job in Pasco,'' Bankhead said.
Roberts declined to comment through an agency spokesman.
• The superintendent of the Jacksonville lockup, Stepheny Durham, has been arrested three times, on drunken driving, aggravated battery and sale of cocaine charges since he was hired in May 1989. Only a September 1995 DUI charge resulted in a conviction, records show.
Bankhead said Durham's 1995 drunken-driving arrest occurred ''on the same day as a family trauma.'' The battery charge, said Larry Lumpee, the DJJ's assistant secretary for detentions, occurred when Durham confronted a man who shot and killed Durham's brother. The charge was dropped.
Durham, who declined to speak to a reporter, turned around two North Florida lockups -- in St. Johns and Duval counties -- that were in disarray, Bankhead said. ''He has done a good job, and we don't have a problem with him as an employee,'' he said.
© 2003 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
February 2003. Five months after he took the reins of Florida's beleaguered social service agency, Department of Children & Families Secretary Jerry Regier announced a new ''vision'' for the department: a more streamlined agency that protects children by preserving families. Former DCF head, K. Kearney, ( also a former Broward County juvenile judge!) believed that it was essential to take kids away from their parents — an unprecedented number of children were taken from their parents during her watch. She habitually and blatantly ignored false charges made against parents by state lawyers and corrupt and incompetent DCF workers. Regier's reform plan is based on a philosophy that radically departs from that of his predecessor —he favors allowing at-risk children to remain with their parents, if at all possible, as well as outsourcing services to other groups, such as sheriffs' departments. Whether sheriffs' departments would be willing to take on abuse investigations remains in question. But it is too late for Ashleigh who was given to her mother, a convicted child abuser who cannot offer the same love, richness of life and amenities that her father did. Paul Scott Abbott is not allowed to see his daughter who he had raised since birth until the state incarcrated her from the ages of 3 to 7 by placing her in an emergency shelter where the youngster was sexually abused.
There is no way of knowing how many children the Department of Children & Families spared from injury or even death at the hands of their caregivers. Conjecture about what didn't happen because children are removed from harm's way can't be turned into statistics.
Posted on Wed, Feb. 05, 2003
Regier: DCF needs to shrink
Says agency tried to do too much
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
Five months after he took the reins of Florida's beleaguered social service agency, Department of Children & Families Secretary Jerry Regier announced on Tuesday a new ''vision'' for the department: a more streamlined agency that protects children by preserving families.
His overarching theme: Florida erred in the past by trying to do too much for too many children.
Instead, Regier will seek to reduce the number of children in state care by 25 percent before the summer of 2004, and to increase the number of foster children who are adopted into families by 36 percent. The plan also calls for slashing the caseloads of all child welfare workers to 15, an average recommended by national experts.
Regier also said he wants to speed up the shift of all child abuse and neglect investigations to state law enforcement agencies, and all foster care casework to private management.
In announcing his plan, Regier sharply departs from the priorities of his predecessor, former Broward juvenile judge Kathleen Kearney, who believed it was of paramount importance to protect children, even if it meant removing more from their homes.
Many child welfare scholars believe Kearney's approach was a failure. Indeed, an unprecedented number of children were taken from their parents during her watch. Nevertheless, more children who were already the subject of at least one abuse or neglect report died in 2001 than ever before.
In the past few months, Regier had decried the logjam of child welfare cases, saying the Family Safety program had become ''clogged'' with children in care.
''The overall goal that I'm trying to achieve is a department that is responsive, a department that is credible, a department that has thought through the details and linkages and utilizes the money that we have effectively,'' Regier said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.
One of the agency's most persistent critics immediately hailed the new initiative. ''This is the approach we have been urging the state of Florida to take for more than three years,'' said Richard Wexler, executive director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. ''Every child welfare system in America that has succeeded in protecting children has embraced a vision like this one,'' he added. ``The question is whether the vision can be made a reality. Will [Gov.] Jeb Bush put his money where Jerry Regier's mouth is?''
Regier had sought a $473 million boost in his budget, much of it to pay for higher salaries and to hire 1,000 additional employees -- both of which were recommended by the governor's own Blue Ribbon Panel for Child Protection. The panel was created after one of the state's worst scandals -- the disappearance of a 5-year-old Miami child in state care, Rilya Wilson. Rilya remains missing.
The budget Bush submitted to lawmakers last month cut his secretary's request by half.
''Now [Regier] has to figure out with his team where to slice that half a loaf,'' said Jack Levine, president of Voices for Florida's Children. ``We are looking at a legislative process which is asking this department to do a great deal without the resources that we have documented that they need.''
Regier, too, has expressed concerns that his staff has been stretched too thin. In a statement to DCF employees released Tuesday, Regier stated his commitment to ''realigning, refocusing and reducing'' the department's administration, and continuing to forge partnerships with private companies and community groups.
''With change and vision comes opportunity,'' Regier wrote in the private message to 24,300 DCF employees. ``All of us have a chance to look at our job with a renewed vision, a tangible goal that we can work toward together.''
Some of the employees probably will not work for the DCF in two years, with the shift of abuse investigations to state law enforcement agencies, and foster care casework to private organizations by the summer of 2004.
Currently, foster care services in 12 of Florida's 67 counties are being provided by private community-based agencies, although neither Miami-Dade nor Broward counties has finalized such plans. Five sheriff's offices perform child abuse and neglect investigations for the DCF, including Broward.
Regier acknowledged that Tuesday's moves were largely in response to ''recent departmental struggles. ``I will also say that it is designed to strengthen our ability to support you, our staff,'' he said in his message to employees.
At a separate news conference Tuesday morning, Regier also unveiled a new computer system designed to track children who run away from foster care or otherwise go missing. Called LOCATER, the system allows agency caseworkers or police to call up or generate pictures of missing children and keep track of leads that might help find them.
The project was funded by a $15 million grant from the federal government, Regier said, and has been in testing for most of the last year by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The system was installed in the past week or two in Pensacola, Panama City and Tallahassee. Regier said Florida would become the first state to unveil the computerized child-tracking system.
''We are the guinea pigs here and we are going to have to see over the next couple of weeks how this thing plays out,'' he said.
Herald staff writer Tina Cummings contributed to this story.
© 2001 miamiherald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.miami.com
-Posted on Fri, Feb. 07, 2003
DCF must pay teen who was raped
Total a record for agency here
By ASHLEY FANTZ
A teenage girl, repeatedly raped and psychologically tormented while under the care of the Department of Children & Families, has received one of the highest individual settlements in the agency's Miami-Dade bureau's history.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra awarded 14-year-old ''Elaine'' $558,000 on Wednesday. She will receive a lump sum of $225,000 when she turns 18. The remaining amount will come in monthly installments until she is 30. The state will also pay for $80,000 in federal Medicaid liens for services the girl is already receiving.
Elaine was raped and threatened by one of her foster parents. And, at age 12, terrified after being told by her Miami-Dade caseworker that she was about to be hospitalized, Elaine ran away from her foster home only to be picked up minutes later by a group of teenage boys. The boys took her to a secluded place and drugged and raped her over a period of days.
According to court documents,the department had approved Elaine ''inappropriate and excessive psychotropic medication,'' such as Rispirdol and Haldol to treat bipolar illness. That was a misdiagnosis. The girl actually suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, said Elaine's attorney, Karen Gievers.
Best known for winning a $4.4 million jury award on behalf of teen sisters who were sexually and physically abused for years at foster homes, Gievers said it took her almost a year and a half to obtain Elaine's records from DCF, despite a judge's order to hand them over.
''I don't know why it took that long,'' Gievers said. ``We had to fight at every level.''
Those records showed Elaine and her sisters were placed in 1997 with Carlos Estrella in Miami, despite his conviction for child endangerment.
Estrella repeatedly raped Elaine and threatened her and her sisters if they told anyone, court records state. He pleaded guilty to abuse charges stemming from the accusations and spent a year in jail. He has since died.
Gievers said she was never given an explanation from anyone at DCF handling the girl's case, of why Estrella's record was overlooked.
DCF did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.
Elaine's sisters have been adopted by a family but the family refuses to allow them to see Elaine.
Now in a locked psychiatric hospital in Dade, Elaine is off psychotropic medication but is taking antidepressants.
Another aspect of the teen's tragedy is the possibility that her academic progress will be be stunted. A few years ago, Gievers said, Elaine was testing in math and science at a twelve-grade level.
At the time she was staying at a Broward foster care facility offering a college-course program that Elaine wanted to participate in. But DCF moved her again -- this time to a facility that did not offer the program.
''Most of the places she was in, some teacher would come in and give lessons to the lowest common denominator,'' said Gievers. ``She's now performing at a ninth-grade level. For a regular foster care kid, that would be all right. But for her, it's a serious step back.''
© 2001 miamiherald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
More news below.
Posted on Tue, Apr. 22, 2003
County weighs handling child-abuse calls
BY LUISA YANEZ
After the recent beating deaths of three young boys, allegedly at the hands of their caregivers, Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas wants the county to consider taking over initial child abuse investigations.
That job now belongs to the maligned Department of Children & Families, but several of Florida's 67 counties have given that role to their local police. Penelas said Monday he will ask the County Commission today to discuss doing the same.
''As a mayor, I feel I need to do something,'' Penelas said on Monday.
Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who will run today's meeting, said the mayor will be allowed to make ''a short presentation,'' but she offered little support.
''I'm not sure this is a county issue,'' Sorenson said. ``I know DCF needs all the help it can get, but the county's plate is full.''
Also Monday, Penelas asked the advice of a group of child advocates at a County Hall meeting, then later quizzed Samara Kramer, the DCF's interim Miami administrator, about the deaths last week of 19-month-old Deondre Bondieumaitre and Zachary Bennett, 5.
Zachary's death led to the resignation of two DCF workers after the agency acknowledged placing Zachary with his father without checking the man's criminal background. Christopher Lamont Bennett, whose record includes arrests for drug sales and assault and violating a domestic violence restraining order, has been charged with first-degree murder.
In March, 8-month-old Kelton Wright was allegedly beaten to death by his father, a man whose past includes mental illness and the repeated molestation of a disabled family member. Despite that, the DCF rated the risk of placing Kelton with his father as ``low.''
They are only the latest problems for the agency, which became a nationwide target of derision last year when it acknowledged losing track of Rilya Wilson, a Miami-Dade foster child who would be 6 today if she is alive.
Penelas' preliminary proposal requires that calls to the DCF's abuse hot line be received and handled by Miami-Dade police or local agencies. Currently, DCF social workers field the calls, then decide whether the case needs to be passed on to police.
''I know it will cost money,'' Penelas said. Manpower and training would also be an issue. Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez could not be reached for comment Monday night.
David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, said early police participation may help. ''I think this is probably a good idea, but you better have the funding to do it,'' said Lawrence, one of the child advocates who met with Penelas on Monday.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said she supports the idea ``as long as there is financing in place.''
Said the DCF's Kramer: ``I think every county has to assess how they wish to handle the child abuse calls.''
A three-year study in 2001 examining four Florida counties where sheriff's offices conduct child-abuse investigations suggested the effects on children and families were negligible. A state audit the same year reached similar conclusions.
Sheriff's offices in Broward, Pinellas and Manatee counties weren't doing any better or worse than their counterparts in counties where the DCF continues to perform its own investigations, according to University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Gelles, who conducted the study. There was insufficient data from Pasco County to draw many conclusions.
Penelas, who intends to run for the U.S. Senate next year, said he was ''outraged'' by the boys' deaths, which made headlines over the weekend.
''After Rilya Wilson, we were led to believe there would be improvement,'' Penelas said. ``The tragic events of the last few days would lead one to believe otherwise.''
Herald staff writer Carol Marbin Miller contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
Posted on Sun, Apr. 20, 2003
Enough of DCF's
We are told the death of 5-year-old Zachary Bennett was an isolated incident.
We are told this isolated incident does not represent the fine efforts of Gov. Jeb Bush and Jerry Regier, the secretary of the Department of Children & Families, to reform that troubled agency.
We are told this by none other than Jeb Bush.
''What happens when these things occur is it lessens the positive things that are going on inside the department,'' Bush said.
One hopes Zachary understood the bigger picture as he felt and heard his ribs breaking from a beating the coroner said was ''consistent with having been stomped on,'' a beating that caused his liver to rupture and his brain to bleed.
The thought that he was simply an unfortunate aberration of an otherwise improving system may have given the child some solace as he slipped into unconsciousness and died.
Last week, the police arrested Zachary's father and charged him with first-degree murder. The DCF had taken Zachary away from his mother because she allegedly abused drugs and did not properly care for the child. The agency decided the father, who barely knew Zachary, should take custody.
Before making the decision, the DCF caseworker failed to run a criminal background check on Zachary's father. If he had, the caseworker would have seen an arrest record that included charges of selling cocaine, assault and battery, and a restraining order against the father from a former girlfriend.
And later, when DCF officials did find out about the father's dangerous past, they did not share that information with the judge who had agreed to turn Zachary over to his father.
Zachary remained an isolated incident for 24 hours.
Then along came Deondre Bondieumaitre.
Nineteen-month-old Deondre was beaten, as well. The man DCF officials had chosen to care for the child admitted hitting the toddler in the head, police said, after the child had defecated while taking a bath. The child's mother claims that concerns she had about the man mistreating Deondre were ignored.
And each of these isolated incidents occurred a little more than a month after the isolated incident named Kelton Wright.
The boy's father admitted to killing the 8-month-old by punching him in the back when he would not stop crying, according to the police. The blow caused Kelton's lungs to collapse.
Three weeks before Kelton was killed, DCF workers had been warned that Kelton's father was violent toward the boy, and were told that on one occasion the father had actually stuffed a sock into the child's mouth to keep him quiet.
Despite these reports -- as well as the fact that the father was believed to be mentally ill and had repeatedly molested a disabled family member -- the DCF decided to let Kelton remain with his father and ranked the risk to the child as ``low.''
The DCF is once again the Department of Child Fatalities.
Yet while these children were being left to die in the hands of unfit guardians chosen by the DCF, the agency's secretary, Jerry Regier, was mounting a witch hunt to fire six competent DCF employees because the grandmother of state Sen. Rudy Garcia wasn't immediately escorted to the front of the line to receive her welfare benefits at a service center in Hialeah.
Regier claims the six were fired because the center's receptionist was rude to Garcia's aide -- who had driven Garcia's grandmother to the office. Regier's rationale for firing these six workers is nonsense.
They were fired because Garcia's grandmother wasn't given preferential treatment and because Garcia sits on the committee that determines the budget for Regier's agency.
Too bad Zachary, Deondre and Kelton didn't have a relative in the state Legislature to help them. Their cases might have received real attention. They might even be alive today instead of being other isolated incidents.