It was the kind of encounter that gives child welfare judges nightmares: A 25-year-old male “transporter” with all of three days on the job, and no real background check. And a 17-year-old girl who wound up in foster care partly because she had fallen victim to forced prostitution.
When the eight-hour drive was over, the foster child had been victimized yet again, and the driver was under investigation for rape.
It was also the kind of encounter that prompts child welfare judges to write scathing orders, which is what Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia did late last month, when she called the actions of a private social service agency borderline “reckless.”
“The Court feels impotent as to what actions or sanctions it can legally take,” Sampedro-Iglesia wrote in an order dated May 29. “Nothing that this Court can do or order the agency to do can fix all the wrongs this child has suffered. The agency is one more entity that has failed this child.”
Our Kids, the organization that oversees foster care and adoption services in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties under contract with the Department of Children & Families, declined to discuss the 17-year-old, whose case was being managed by the Family Resource Center, an Our Kids subcontractor. The Family Resource Center’s director, Oren Wunderman, at first agreed to discuss the girl, but, later, inquiries were referred to a Miami law firm, which also declined to comment.
“The alleged abuse this child suffered, at the hands of the employee of the Family Resource Center of Miami, is outrageous,” a spokeswoman for DCF said.
“Upon learning this information, the department immediately contacted law enforcement. We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to ensure they have what they need during their active investigation, in order to bring a just resolution to the issue.”
The girl, who is not being named by the Miami Herald to protect her privacy, first came to the attention of the Department of Children & Families in the winter of 2013. Court records say she was abandoned by her parents, struggled with mental health, and had been forced into prostitution by human traffickers — the term child welfare and other authorities use for pimps who prey upon children or vulnerable adults.
For about a year, the girl lived on the streets as a runaway. Currently there are about 226 such children in Florida — 62 of them from Miami-Dade or Monroe — who have fled their foster or group homes. Last March, records say, the girl returned to court from the streets and “begged” Sampedro-Iglesia to allow her to live with her mother, whose legal rights to the child had earlier been terminated.
“While with her biological mother, the child stopped running, was doing well and finally began to engage in services,” the judge wrote in her order.
But there was a small glitch, which led to a big mistake with colossal consequences: When the teen registered for school, she was told she had to first resolve an outstanding warrant with state juvenile justice authorities. And that required a trip to Palm Beach County.
The Department of Juvenile Justice took care of the first leg of the trip, records say. For the teen’s return to Key West, the privately run Family Resource Center sent a “transporter” to drive her.
What occurred during the eight-hour drive now is the subject of a criminal investigation by both the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI. The federal agency, a DCF report said, “would be filing charges” against the man.
The girl’s mother became concerned that something terrible had happened when she found “inappropriate sexually [explicit] text messages on her daughter’s phone [sent] by the ‘transporter,’” the judge wrote. In an interview with the State Attorney’s Office, the girl disclosed details of her encounter with the man.
The driver, the girl said, stopped at a Walmart along the way and bought Smirnoff Ice, a citrus-flavored malt drink, and cigarettes, which he shared with her. He “asked the victim how she would feel if he kissed her.”
After the two had sex, the driver dropped the teen off at home at 3 a.m.
“The Court finds that the actions of the agency are not only negligent, but border on reckless,” Sampedro-Iglesia wrote. “The agency is entrusted with caring for and protecting those most vulnerable to our society: the voiceless children. Clearly, the agency has failed to do this.”
For Sampedro-Iglesia, the incident itself was only part of the problem.
Though the four-county drive took place on May 1, administrators of the Family Resource Center, or FRC, did not disclose it to the judge until almost two weeks later — at a routine hearing. The judge has ordered child welfare authorities to report adverse incidents involving children under her jurisdiction “immediately.”
Sampedro-Iglesia said she suspected something was amiss when a number of “higher ups” from FRC and Our Kids, South Florida’s lead foster care agency, showed up for the hearing unexpectedly.
In her order, Sampedro-Iglesia called the event “criminal in nature.” Then, she blasted child welfare administrators, both for leaving a human trafficking victim alone with an unvetted young man and for failing to quickly disclose the results.
FRC did not help itself, the judge wrote, by suggesting that what an incident report called “sexual abuse” or “sexual battery” could have been prevented by better training. “It shocks the conscience of this Court that the incident report indicates ‘the issue in this case was not of negligence, but of one where additional training would have helped and guided process development,’” Sampedro-Iglesia wrote.
“It is insulting to this Court that the agency feels that any type of training would have educated a transporter that perhaps having sex with a child [who] was entrusted to him is inappropriate and criminal in nature,” Sampedro-Iglesia wrote.
“It is equally repugnant to this Court that the agency testified that, had it known ‘that the child was a victim of human trafficking, perhaps a male transporter would not have been the most appropriate person’’ for the several-hour drive. “The agency’s remarks make it sound as if the incident that occurred was actually the child’s fault and not the adult that the agency entrusted her to.”
Details of the 25-year-old driver’s background are unclear. The Herald was given his name by a source with knowledge of the investigation, but the name cannot be matched to a person in any available database. His name is not in court records reviewed by the newspaper. And FRC administrators did not quickly release the man’s employment records.
In her order, Sampedro-Iglesia said the agency’s “background check” on the man was confined to Miami — though he “had lived most of his life [in] Tampa” — and relied instead “on the fact that the ‘transporter’ was recommended [by] and related to one of FRC’s ‘good employees.’”
What is known about the man: He got his job driving kids partly upon the recommendation of another FRC employee, a case worker, to whom he is related, records say. The driver had been working for the foster care and adoption agency three days when he was assigned to transport the teen.
Said the DCF incident report, written by an employee of a Key West shelter that is working with the family: “Mother and myself do not understand how a 17-year-old girl with her background [redacted] was released to a single male transporter and why a female transporter was not accompanying her.”