Lawyers for the state’s shaky child welfare agency assured a Miami judge Wednesday that it was a “simple mistake,” rather than a deliberate lie, when they gave her incorrect information about a girl who might have witnessed the suicide of a foster sibling.
The mistake was important, Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia said because it might have hindered the state’s ability to provide counseling to the girl, who was in the same foster home as Naika Venant, a troubled 14-year-old who hanged herself with a scarf from a shower rod — while livestreaming on Facebook.
Sampedro-Iglesia ordered the Department of Children & Families’ top Miami lawyer to appear in court Wednesday and defend herself against the judge’s claims that DCF might have provided the court with erroneous information, and lied to her, about whether a foster child was receiving needed care. Sampedro-Iglesia had threatened in a Feb. 28 order to hold DCF lawyers in contempt of court — and possibly jail the agency’s top Miami attorney, Clarissa Cabreja — depending on the answers she got Wednesday.
Sampedro-Iglesia concluded her hearing without announcing her intentions.
Sampedro-Iglesia’s ire stemmed from a mix-up over the identity of one of two girls living in the same foster home as Naika. In a court filing, DCF lawyers gave the judge information about a girl identified as J.W., but it was the wrong J.W. — a different foster child in a different home. That meant another judge couldn’t begin her effort to ensure the real J.W. — the one who might have witnessed the hanging — was getting counseling.
Sampedro-Iglesia suggested lawyers demonstrated no sense of “urgency” in getting the girl help.
Under questioning by the judge, Cabreja said she was given information about J.W. (to preserve anonymity, foster children are referred to by their initials) by underlings, who obtained it from the region’s privately run foster care provider, Our Kids. Cabreja acknowledged she failed to confirm the information her staff gave her.
The hearing was contentious from the outset.
In her Feb. 28 order, Sampredro-Iglesia implied Cabreja, who heads Children’s Legal Services in Miami, was not telling the truth when she wrote in a court pleading that the judge in J.W.’s case had been informed that she was in the Miami Gardens foster home with Naika.
“No one thought it was important that this child had been in the home where another child had taken her own life?” Sampedro-Iglesia said to Cabreja.
Children’s Legal Services attorneys have insisted that they told J.W.’s presiding judge at a Feb. 22 hearing that J.W. was one of Naika’s foster siblings. But Sampedro-Iglesia said she listened to a recording of the hearing, and heard no mention of the traumatic event. “That’s not the audio I heard,” the judge said.
The judge said she also reviewed a transcript of the hearing. “I did not see any mention of that in the transcript,” she said.
Cabreja’s lawyer, Sheridan Weissenborn, brandished a copy of a hearing transcript, pointing out one particular line: “This is the child that lives in the house with that incident,” she read.
Sampedro-Iglesia wondered aloud if the wording was a clear enough sign that a child might be in emotional danger.
Children’s Legal Services said J.W.’s judge was also informed in a “status report” after the Feb. 22 hearing, but in her order, Sampedro-Iglesia said such a document hadn’t been filed.
Weissenborn gave the judge a copy of the report CLS submitted to J.W.’s judge, which made clear that J.W. was in Naika’s foster home, and was receiving therapeutic services for any trauma she endured.
Sampedro-Iglesia, who heads Miami’s foster care and adoption bench, grilled Cabreja for about 20 minutes, beginning with a series of questions about the purpose of child welfare court, such as “What would you say is the ‘golden rule’ of” children’s law. Cabreja’s lawyer objected. Sampedro-Iglesia persisted.
Sampedro-Iglesia asked Cabrejo if she was familiar with the legal profession’s rules of conduct. “Some of them,” she answered.
Her lawyer then suggested the judge had exceeded her role.
In her closing remarks, Weissenborn was emphatic that Sampedro-Iglesia could not hold Cabreja or CLS in contempt of court, saying the agency never meant to mislead the judge, or other judges.
“While mistakes happened with regard to a case number,” Weissenborn said, “the real issue here is the court’s concerns about these children, and they are getting the services they needed. That’s been taken care of by those judges.”
“There is no contempt,” Weissenborn added.