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Caseworker who visited Nubia Barahona's home says parents are to blame

Andrea Fleary, the child abuse investigator who visited Nubia Barahona's home in February after allegations that the girl and her twin brother were being bound and confined to a bathroom, said Thursday that she made no mistakes in her investigation, even though Nubia was found dead four days after the visit.

A tearful Fleary, speaking for the first time since she was fired last month by the state Department of Children and Families for "poor performance and negligence" in handling the Barahonas' abuse investigation, said criticism of her response was unwarranted.

The only ones to blame for Nubia's death, she said, are her adoptive parents, Carmen and Jorge.

"I treat all of my cases the same," Fleary told The Palm Beach Post. "All of my cases are a priority to me."

Carmen and Jorge Barahona are in jail, facing first-degree murder and child abuse charges in the death of Nubia. They adopted Nubia and her twin brother, Victor, in 2008.

A grand jury indictment accused the couple of repeatedly locking Nubia and Victor in a bathroom with their hands and feet bound, and hitting and torturing them with a shoe, broom and whip.

DCF Secretary David Wilkins proposed dozens of changes to fix a "total systemic failure" of the child welfare system after Nubia's death.

Fleary, a 22-year DCF employee, said that during her first visit to the Barahona home on Feb. 10, Carmen "lied to me" when she said the twins were living with their adoptive father and that she and Jorge were separated.

On Feb. 14, Nubia's body was found in the back of Jorge's pickup in West Palm Beach. Victor was in the front seat, covered in toxic chemicals, and is recovering from burns.

Although Fleary did not want to comment on the details of her visit, citing the ongoing criminal investigation, her letter of dismissal from DCF states that she told officials she "never attempted to go into the bathroom of the home ... or look for the children in the bathtub area."

Fleary said she tried to find the children the next day, but she did not continue her search through the weekend because she had not requested overtime from her supervisor and already had scheduled time off for having filled in for a co-worker on a previous weekend.

Asked why she did not ask a fellow investigator or a supervisor to follow up that weekend, Fleary said DCF did not have a mechanism to transfer cases to other investigators.

"If you get a case on Friday, and you don't see that victim on Friday, and you are off Saturday and Sunday, it's up to the individual to decide whether or not they want to go and make that attempt," Fleary said.

During her first court appearance after Nubia's body was found, Fleary told a judge she was not allowed to work weekends.

Fleary has not been charged in the incident.

DCF spokeswoman Lisette Valdes-Valle said any investigator who has concerns about the safety of a child can ask a supervisor to bring in another investigator to handle the case when employees are ill or on vacation.

"You need to communicate responsibly with your supervisor," Valdes-Valle said. "And someone who is a seasoned investigator knows what the procedure is, which is to contact the supervisor, explain the situation and it will be authorized."

Fleary is appealing her dismissal before the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission.

Fighting back tears, Fleary said she wants her job back, even though DCF "isolated" her after Nubia's death.

"I received no support from the department," Fleary said. "I considered the department and all those people as my family."

But concerns for her employment are far less important to her than the death of Nubia, said Fleary, who admitted she did not sleep the night she found out the girl was dead.

"I cried at home when I found out that she was found in the back of the truck," she said.

Fleary's handling of the Barahona abuse allegation was not the first time her performance was criticized by the department, according to records.

She was given a "final counseling notice" on Feb. 15, 2010, when she failed to find a home for a child removed from her biological family within a 24-hour deadline. In 2003, the department issued her her first "final counseling notice" after she took 11 days to interview a person who had reported the abuse of six children.

Other documents, however, describe Fleary as a dependable and dedicated worker who excelled at working with others. Her 2009 evaluation noted that former DCF Secretary George Sheldon had commended Fleary for her dedication.