Neglect and abandonment landed the girl in foster care. But it’s what happened next, she said, that nearly destroyed her.
In a hushed courtroom in Miami’s gleaming new downtown Children’s Courthouse, a teenage foster child inventoried the traumas she had endured at the hands of those who were assigned to protect her: She had been starved and beaten, molested and forced to fight during her two years in foster homes and group care. As a runaway, she was trafficked into prostitution.
And, just as her life appeared to be mending, the girl was raped by a driver in whose care she was entrusted by a privately run child welfare group, records say. Earlier this week, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia allowed the girl to read a long letter in court, detailing her many grievances against the state.
The Department of Children & Families “has messed me up mentally and emotionally. I know I can never get my childhood back,” the girl said in court, reading from the letter she had written to Sampedro-Iglesia, who is overseeing her case. “But I refuse to let my past take my future.”
The girl arrived in court Monday afternoon dressed in a crisp patterned dress, clutching a teddy bear. She hugged Sampedro-Iglesia, calling the judge “the only one working for the state who has ever looked into my care, and who has ever tried to fix the errors others have made.” She then told the judge she wanted to fire her court-appointed lawyer, and chided the state for failing her still.
The teen, who is not being identified by the Herald to protect her privacy, came into state care in the winter of 2013. Records say her parents abandoned her, which left mental and emotional scars. In her remarks to the court on Monday, the girl did not talk in detail about what sent her to foster care. “By the age of 14, I had already been through the worst,” she said, adding: “so I thought.”
As to what followed, the girl had plenty to say. “Since my involvement in DCF, I have always been a throwaway case, and I knew it. I personally didn’t think I’d even make it.”
In one foster home, the girl said, parents “starved us, and turned off the electricity for punishment at night. No air, no light. We couldn’t open windows or doors; they were locked.”
“So, that’s usually how fights started.”
In another group home, the caregivers themselves “instigated” fights among the children. “It’s literally a war over who’s gonna make it out alive or not.”
So the girl ran.
As a runaway, she told the judge, the girl sold and abused drugs. She called her caseworker to report she’d been “trafficked” into prostitution — “having guns pointed to my head and having to put guns to [other] people’s heads.”
A DCF spokeswoman said on Friday that the agency was investigating both the teen’s accusation that she was raped in May, as well as other allegations of mistreatment while in state care.
“The horrors described by this young girl are absolutely intolerable,” said Michelle Glady, a spokeswoman for DCF, which contracts with a private foster care agency in Miami, called Our Kids, to oversee child welfare in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Our Kids, in turn, subcontracts with another agency, the Family Resource Center, in whose care the teenager had been placed.
“DCF opened an investigation immediately following the allegations of sexual abuse by an employee of Family Resource Center of Miami. All additional allegations of abuse or neglect will be investigated. DCF is reviewing her case history and will work with Our Kids … on providing her the care she needs to support her recovery.”
A spokeswoman for Our Kids said the agency “is working diligently with all parties to carefully address the matters raised in court on Monday. In doing so, Our Kids wants to ensure the child receives the best available care and services, while also making sure the child is, and feels, safe in her surroundings. The safety and well-being of every child in our care is the only acceptable outcome for us — as is the case here.”
Sampedro-Iglesia scheduled Monday’s hearing after child welfare administrators reported in May that the girl had been raped by a 25-year-old “transporter” hired by the Family Resource Center to drive her from West Palm Beach to the Keys. The judge was outraged: “The Court finds that the actions of the agency are not only negligent, but border on reckless,” she wrote in a tartly worded order.
The transporter, who recently moved here from New York and had been hired by FRC three days before he was assigned to drive the teen, quit days later. He now is under investigation by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI. The girl told authorities that he stopped at a Walmart during the eight-hour odyssey to buy Smirnoff Ice, a citrus-flavored malt drink, and then began to kiss her.
Records obtained by the Miami Herald show he had been recommended for the job by a relative of his who then worked for the foster care agency, and the relative’s spouse. Both references appear to have been written by the same person. The driver has not been charged with any offense.
Tensions between the teen and DCF persisted throughout Monday’s hearing. The girl told Sampedro-Iglesia she was willing to see a female psychologist to address mental health issues, but was opposed to speaking with a male therapist. Her current caregiver said she had found a counselor the girl liked. DCF, however, was reluctant to retain the therapist, because the state’s insurance carrier couldn’t pay her.
And the teen began to weep when DCF’s lawyer suggested she might have to move from her current home because it wasn’t appropriately licensed.
“I’m not moving,” the girl shot back. “You try to move me and I’m running.”
The girl’s current caregiver urged the state to let her remain where she is finally happy. “She is a victim here,” the caregiver said. “If everyone can just remember she’s a victim. She feels stable now, and we ask everyone to remember that.”
Sampedro-Iglesia reassured the girl: “I think I’ve proven to you,” she said, “that I’ve kept what you want in mind. They are not going to move you without court approval.”
What’s left, the girl said, is to somehow craft a happy ending. She likes where she is living. She is making plans to go to college, and maybe law school, with scholarship money the state will give her. “I am a reborn [person],” she said, “and I have rewritten my story. I gave my life to the Lord and I have goals and dreams to accomplish.”
“I don’t look for sympathy. Nor do I want a pity party,” the girl said. “Actually, all I’m worried about is the other children’s safety who have been labeled ‘a lost case.’”