The Miami child abuse investigator who resigned under pressure last May after an infant she declared “safe” was later baked to death in a sweltering car had been working for two years without required certification — a violation of state law.
Shani Smith, a Department of Children & Families child protective investigator in Miami, was accused in May of concocting the results of a substance abuse evaluation that concluded the mother of Bryan Osceola did not have a drinking problem. The mother, Catalina Marista Bruno, had been found in February passed out at the wheel of her car — after striking several buildings — with an unsecured Bryan sprawled on her lap in the front seat of the vehicle, which was still running. The Florida Highway Patrol had called DCF’s abuse hotline to report the incident.
Smith is apparently not the only DCF abuse investigator or supervisor who lacks the required certification. A department email refers to Smith as “one of the individuals” who had maintained a full investigative caseload while failing to complete the requirements for certification.
Smith’s lack of credentials came to light this week after the Miami Herald obtained hundreds of pages of agency emails under the state’s public records law.
Training and credentialing in the child welfare arena is codified in state statute. Lawmakers wrote: “It is the intent of the Legislature that each person providing child welfare services in this state earns and maintains a professional certification from a professional credentialing entity that is approved by the Department of Children and [Families].”
Prospective child protective investigators, or CPIs, must register with the Florida Certification Board, which places employees under the board’s Code of Ethics while they complete a rigorous certification process. The board also investigates alleged ethical breaches.
To obtain the credential, applicants must document a minimum of six months of direct, on-the-job experience, complete six field visits with follow-up supervisory consultation, and undergo at least 30 hours of group and individual oversight . Prospective investigators are given a provisional certification while they complete all the required training, said Neal McGarry, who is the certification board’s executive director.
When all requirements are met, McGarry said, employees are certified for a two-year period.
In a May 28 email to DCF’s child welfare training director explaining the deficiency in Smith’s credentials, Amy Peloquin, the board’s director of certification, wrote: “If someone wanted to make an issue of this, they could, since the law regarding certification and caseload-carrying responsibilities has been broken.”
She added: “I really, really, really don’t want to go down that path. I’ve just been around the department long enough to see some of the strangest things become key issues.”
Smith’s attorney, Dave Kubiliun, said DCF administrators were well aware that his client lacked the necessary credentials. In fact, he said, she had inquired about the deficiency to those up the chain of command.
“Miss Smith attempted numerous times to find out the status of her certification both in person and via email to her supervisors,” Kubiliun said in a statement. “She was given a variety of reasons as to why her certification was still pending, including it being linked to her then-supervisor, Duray Smith’s, supervisory certification. Miss Smith again expressed her concerns to her supervisors after a co-worker with the same hire date was certified in early 2013. In the weeks leading up to Miss Smith’s departure from the agency, there was an unexplained rush to certify the [child protective investigators] in the Quail Roost office.