Child welfare

Probe into Kendall boy’s death uncovers lie by DCF investigator

 

cfrank@MiamiHerald.com

Child welfare administrators and prosecutors are looking into allegations that Shani Smith, a child abuse investigator, fudged the substance abuse screening of a Kendall mother who later left her baby to die in a sweltering car.

As a result of her fictitious report, child welfare administrators concluded it was not necessary to take any actions to protect 11-month-old Bryan Osceola or his older siblings or provide oversight for his parents. Six months later, Bryan’s mother, Catalina Bruno, drove to her Kendall home and left him behind in the car, along with her purse and a can of beer.

By the time anybody asked “where’s Bryan?” the boy had a 109-degree temperature. He was declared dead at the hospital.

“We will never know if the services we could have offered would have made a difference for Bryan’s mother or changed the tragic outcomes of this case,” said David Wilkins, secretary of the Department of Children & Families, at a Thursday news conference. Bruno has been jailed since the May 16 death of her son.

One day last November, Bruno was found just before midnight, passed out drunk behind the wheel of her vehicle, its transmission still in drive, with Bryan sprawled beside her in the front seat. She was charged with driving under the influence and child neglect.

After that incident, Smith was assigned to assess Bruno’s fitness to continue caring for her children.

During that November investigation, Smith wrote that an independent substance abuse expert had evaluated Bruno to determine if she needed alcohol treatment services, which is DCF protocol, Wilkins said.

The report found that Bruno did not pose a danger to her children. No additional services were offered, Wilkins said.

After Bryan’s death, DCF officials reviewed the case file and came to believe that the substance abuse evaluation never occurred.

“There is no evidence that the protective investigator contacted the independent expert and that an evaluation was formed,” Wilkins said. “Or that any recommendation was ever made by an expert.”

Smith denies falsifying the documents, according to Wilkins.

DCF referred Smith’s case to the state’s inspector general’s office and the state attorney’s office. The agency also served notice of intent to terminate her, and placed her on administrative leave for 10 days as required by law, Wilkins said. Smith’s supervisor is being placed on administrative leave as well, while DCF determines if any additional action needs to be taken.

“We take falsifying documents extremely seriously,” Wilkins said. “We have a stringent policy that any employee that falsifies documents will be immediately terminated.”

It is not the first time that a DCF worker has been accused of falsifying records, with tragic results.

Ten years earlier, a foster care worker was fired and later prosecuted after documenting visits to the home of foster child Rilya Wilson that never occurred. The visits could not have occurred because Rilya had disappeared months earlier. Her foster mother was later convicted of kidnapping, and will be retried on a murder charge on which the previous jury could not agree.

Smith has been with DCF since April 2011 and was responsible for more than 100 child abuse investigations in the past year. Wilkins said DCF is currently reviewing all of them and several will likely be reopened in light of the allegations.

Smith’s alleged actions are particularly upsetting, Wilkins said, because the agency has made strides since 2011, when the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona brought the agency withering criticism.

The state’s child abuse hotline had received multiple reports of neglect or abuse concerning Nubia and her twin brother, Victor, former foster children adopted by their foster parents, but DCF either dismissed them or was slow to react.

Days after one such report, Nubia was found dead in the bed of her father’s pest control truck along Interstate 95, her body stuffed in a plastic bag filled with caustic chemicals.

Her adoptive parents are charged with beating and torturing her to death.

Wilkins said the Barahona incident led to an overhaul of the organization, with the average caseload of each child protective investigator cut in half.

He added the yearly turnover rate among investigators has dropped from 67.3 percent to 6 percent, and investigation response time has improved.

The overhaul included replacing half of the investigators with new employees, and improving department salaries, Wilkins said. He added Smith was one of the new hires.

“We did not account for the human nature of a person who behaves as if they are above the rules and the processes and procedures that we have put in place to protect the most vulnerable,” Wilkins said.

The probe into Bryan’s death has been assigned to another DCF investigator.

“We will continue to coordinate the care that this family needs to get through this difficult situation,” Wilkins said.

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