A boy who was stabbed nearly to death by his own father during a 2012 rampage at a Deerfield Beach trailer park has sued Florida child welfare administrators, claiming the state returned him to his parents, who had been accused of repeatedly molesting him, despite mounting evidence the boy was terrified of them.
The boy, who is not being named to protect his privacy, survived a February 2012 attack that claimed the life of his autistic, 9-year-old brother, as well as that of a Canadian snowbird. The boy’s father also stabbed his wife and held the snowbird’s girlfriend hostage before killing himself.
The boy later told police his mother “watched the attacks” and did nothing to protect her sons, the lawsuit says.
On Monday, the now-9-year-old boy sued the Department of Children & Families, along with four other privately run foster care agencies under contract with DCF, for negligence. The 24-page suit was filed in Broward Circuit Court. The boy was removed from his mother’s care after the rampage, and authorities announced they would seek to permanently sever his mother’s rights to raise him.
Advocates view the tragedy as symptomatic of larger issues within Florida’s child protection system, which has emphasized preserving and reunifying troubled families as a way to keep caseloads down and save taxpayer money. This summer, after four children known to DCF later died from abuse or neglect, then-DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned amid mounting pressure. His interim replacement, Esther Jacobo, announced the department would study the four death cases, and many others, as well as a controversial child welfare “transformation” Wilkins was spearheading.
A DCF spokeswoman declined to discuss the lawsuit Monday.
Weeks after the 2012 bloodbath, DCF’s top lawyer issued a short report saying the department acted correctly, and that the agency had no choice but to return the two boys to their parents. The parents had completed a laundry list of tasks that were intended to improve their parenting skills, and there was no legal justification for keeping their children from them.
The lawsuit says the department overlooked a mountain of warning signs that the boys would never be safe with his parents.
State child welfare authorities “ignored multiple red flags and still returned [the boy] and his brother to their father, who already had been determined to be a dangerous pedophile,” said Joel Fass, a Fort Lauderdale attorney whose firm filed the suit.
Added Fass’ partner, Howard Talenfeld: “This is one of the most egregious cases in DCF history. Instead of learning valuable lessons that may have prevented one or more of the recent deaths, DCF whitewashed their reviews of this case.”
The two boys’ contact with state child protection authorities began in September 2007, when the father choked his wife and punched a hole in the wall during an episode of domestic violence. He had been violent with his wife before, she told police, choking, pushing, and stabbing her. DCF offered the family services, but did not shelter the two boys.
DCF received another report on the family in February 2008, alleging the father had been sexually abusing both his sons. His wife confirmed to police the abuse had occurred, and added: “The mother said she acted alongside the father” as the boys were molested, the suit says. Both sons were placed in foster care, where they remained until June 17, 2010, when they were returned to their parents. The mom had recanted her molestation claims.
The lawsuit claims the state erred terribly in reunifying the boys with their parents because the agency had learned child welfare authorities in New York had confirmed allegations that the father had molested a son in that state; both of the couple’s sons in Florida exhibited clear signs of having been molested; the surviving son had previously written a note expressing fear of having to return to his father; the child suffered recurring nightmares, including one involving a “monster” under his bed that he acknowledged was his father; and the positive home study DCF gave to a judge in support of the reunification had “recklessly” omitted several facts that were inconvenient.
“The reasons for removal have been remedied, and the safety, well-being and physical and emotional health of the children is not endangered by allowing the children to be reunified or [to] remain in the custody of the parents,” a legal pleading said.
After the reunification, the younger boy had told a therapist that his father had locked him in a bathroom, and forced him to sleep there overnight. The boy’s therapist told him “not to tell lies that could affect his parents,” the lawsuit said. The therapist never reported the child’s claim to the state’s abuse hotline.