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Child welfare agents investigate claims abused and neglected kids are being held like prisoners

The gated entry to the institutional campus that includes His House, a home for foster children.
The gated entry to the institutional campus that includes His House, a home for foster children.

Child welfare administrators are investigating a report that adolescents in a Miami Gardens shelter for abused and neglected children are being treated like virtual prisoners in a compound with a fence and a locked gate.

The allegations were made by a court-ordered guardian for children in the child welfare system, Evin Daly, who said he reported his concerns to Florida's child abuse hotline. They involve the His House Children's Home, which houses foster kids who haven't been able to find a more traditional home. Currently, 76 children and adolescents live at the shelter.

Daly, who is a volunteer for the Guardian-ad-Litem Program in Miami-Dade, said several teens in the foster care system for whom he advocates have complained in recent weeks that administrators at the complex have enforced strict rules that limit their freedom of movement. The teens are in care due to child abuse, neglect or abandonment. The home is not a detention center for delinquents.

Daly said he also reported concerns that the shelter's food was particularly unappetizing, and that caregivers sometimes have sex with each other while on duty.

"How do we do that to children," Daly said. "We are warehousing them."

"I asked one of the kids, 'Can you go for a walk around the property?' He said, 'Not without a staff member present.' That is a lockup standard," Daly said. "These are children who are in foster care, and they're in a group setting due to a lack of housing. That's the only reason they're there. They should be permitted to walk around campus.

"They can't go out. They can't leave the campus," he said.

His House's top administrator, Executive Director Silvia Smith-Torres, said allegations that youths were being imprisoned in the shelter were a misunderstanding of the home's complex discipline system, in which children earn, or lose, privileges based on their behavior. Some of the teens have had contact with the juvenile justice system, or experienced trauma, and can be difficult to manage and keep safe.

"We have a behavior modification system in place," Smith-Torres said. "We restrict their passes, and they don't like being restricted in their passes."

Discipline can be imposed for such things as breaking curfew, running away, skipping school, introducing contraband or smoking weed, said Smith-Torres, who added that a particular youth at the center of the investigation has had "some behavioral issues he's been dealing with."

Smith-Torres said concerns over the home's menu similarly have been overblown. "We hired a new cook recently," she said. "Some kids want take-out. Some want Chinese every night, or pizza every night. We provide a balanced menu. But these are teens. They have plenty of food and fresh fruit. We can't give them Chinese or pizza every night."

And she said she had not been apprised of allegations that staff members had been having sexual liaisons while on duty. On Tuesday, staffers asked investigators whether they believed the allegations were true, Smith-Torres said. So far, she said, none of the His House youths have confirmed them, she said she was told.

"We have taken this very seriously," she said.

"We have cameras everywhere," Smith-Torres said. "This has not been brought up. I'd have been horrified. They would have been terminated."

George Sheldon, the head of Our Kids, recently returned from Illinois, where he was in charge of that state's child welfare agency. Chicago Tribune

George Sheldon, who is the director of Our Kids, Miami's privately run foster care and adoption provider, confirmed Tuesday that the agency is looking into Daly's allegations.

"These are serious concerns," Sheldon said. "We sent staff out there immediately. I know the department is clearly looking at it, as well," Sheldon said of the state Department of Children & Families, which funds and oversees Our Kids, and other local child welfare lead agencies.

Sheldon said administrators still are looking into the allegations, and don't want to undermine His House operations by jumping to conclusions.

"Until we have fully explored some of the concerns that were raised, I don't want to prejudge what we find," Sheldon said. "We are taking it seriously."

Since he arrived in Miami last year from the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services, Sheldon has made it his mission to bring down the number of children in congregate living settings — as opposed to traditional foster homes, which more closely resemble family life.

In the past nine months, he said, Our Kids has reduced the number of kids in group homes from about 280 to 181. The lion's share of such children are adolescents.

Among youths currently in a group setting, 100 are aged 13-17, Sheldon said.

"It's not normal for kids to have different parents every eight hours," Sheldon said. "No matter how great the staff is, it's very tough to provide what a home can provide."