DCF says tot’s death not a sign of systemic incompetence

 

cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com

The child welfare investigator who resigned under fire after an 11-month-old Kendall boy was left to die in a sweltering car by his mom had a history of sloppy paperwork and slipshod investigations, Department of Children and Families administrators said Thursday.

But the head of the oft-criticized agency, David Wilkins, insisted the investigator’s failures were an aberration, not a sign of systemwide dysfunction.

Since the death of Bryan Osceola on May 16, DCF has been rooting through the case files of Shani Smith. Months earlier, the investigator had deemed it unnecessary to take steps to protect Bryan after an incident in which his drunk mother fell asleep behind the wheel of her car, with the unsecured Bryan sprawled in the front seat. The car was still in drive.

As child welfare bosses struggled to explain the latest death of a child on DCF’s radar, members of the Community-Based Care Alliance, a Miami oversight board, wanted to know what the state was doing to prevent future tragedies.

Some were skeptical that the problems at DCF are limited to one investigator.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen. who chairs the group, said that Smith “was obviously a liar and extremely unethical,” but that proper supervision was lacking as well.

“This is not just one instance; it’s a systemic problem,” she said.

Bryan was 5 months old last November when Catalina Marista Bruno was found passed out behind the wheel with her car in drive at midnight in the vicinity of Krome Avenue. The unsecured child was next to her in the front seat.

Despite the subsequent DUI arrest, Smith determined that Bruno did not have a drinking program. She cited the opinion of an unnamed substance abuse evaluator. DCF now believes the opinion was never solicited and that Smith concocted the consultation.

On May 16, prosecutors say, Bruno left Bryan to die in a hot car, alongside her purse and a can of beer, a death that has triggered one of the DCF scandals of the past few years.

A review of Smith’s 113 cases by DCF investigators showed that Smith had performed “minimal investigative activity” on a disturbing number of them, had poorly assessed the risk to many children — or had completed no risk assessment at all — and had a higher average than her counterparts across the state of finding no evidence that children had been abused or neglected.

Of the 113, 30 percent are requiring some kind of “corrective action,” DCF’s top Miami administrator, Esther Jacobo, told the alliance. That 30 percent included 28 files that had to be revised to reflect some concern that a child was at risk. Thirteen cases required the agency to visit youngsters who were previously believed to be risk-free, “to determine if the children were safe and whether the families needed services,” Jacobo said.

Wilkins, who also appeared before the oversight board, said: “When things go wrong, we have to figure out what went wrong and do our best to improve it.”

Wilkins recalled coming to Miami two years earlier to explain to community leaders how another child had died despite being on the agency’s radar screen on multiple occasions.

In the case of Nubia Barahona, whose adoptive parents are facing murder charges, the failures were system-wide, including lapses in investigation, supervision, the court system, and foster care and adoption case managers, Jacobo acknowledged.

She called it “a complete and utter failure of the stakeholder system.”

In Bryan’s death, the DCF administrators said, the mistakes were limited to the work of Shani Smith and her supervisor, Duray Smith, who failed to detect Shani Smith’s shortcomings.

Both Duray Smith and Shani Smith, who are not related, resigned last week.

For her part, Shani Smith said the agency “made me a scapegoat for Bryan’s tragic death even though I followed DCF protocol and my investigation was approved by the supervisors.”

“Rather than DCF responding to this tragedy by correcting its own protocol, DCF went on television to slander my good name and reputation,” she wrote in her May 30 resignation letter.

Wilkins told the alliance that Shani Smith’s ability to conceal poor casework may be an unfortunate and unintended consequence of a recent initiative he supports: “empowering” front-line workers like Smith to take on “additional responsibility and authority.” Though adding greater supervision may be helpful, Wilkins added, “what I don’t want to do is go back in time with additional levels to the bureaucracy so that we’re overseeing everything the front line does, which will increase the cost of the program by millions.”

At Thursday’s meeting, several children’s advocates took issue with Wilkins’ characterization of the agency’s missteps preceding Bryan’s death as isolated.

Charles Auslander, a former top Miami DCF administrator who is now a leader of The Children’s Trust, said Wilkins was correct in wishing to avoid a system of supervision that forces the agency to “replicate” every move by investigators. But, he added, DCF needs to do a better job of looking for patterns of performance or behavior that might signal trouble.

Patrick McCabe, who has cared for about 60 area foster children, said he was “shocked” that the agency had allowed Smith to do sloppy work for as long as she did.

McCabe said he was there “representing the ghost of Rilya Wilson,” a cherubic Miami youngster who disappeared from her state-approved caregiver, and was not discovered missing for more than a year. Her caregiver, Geralyn Graham, was convicted earlier this year of kidnapping, and will be retried on a murder charge over which a jury disagreed.

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