Miami-Dade County

DCF worker tied to child death lacked credentials

The Miami child abuse investigator who resigned under pressure last May after an infant she declared “safe” was later baked to death in a sweltering car had been working for two years without required certification — a violation of state law.

Shani Smith, a Department of Children & Families child protective investigator in Miami, was accused in May of concocting the results of a substance abuse evaluation that concluded the mother of Bryan Osceola did not have a drinking problem. The mother, Catalina Marista Bruno, had been found in February passed out at the wheel of her car — after striking several buildings — with an unsecured Bryan sprawled on her lap in the front seat of the vehicle, which was still running. The Florida Highway Patrol had called DCF’s abuse hotline to report the incident.

Smith is apparently not the only DCF abuse investigator or supervisor who lacks the required certification. A department email refers to Smith as “one of the individuals” who had maintained a full investigative caseload while failing to complete the requirements for certification.

Smith’s lack of credentials came to light this week after the Miami Herald obtained hundreds of pages of agency emails under the state’s public records law.

Training and credentialing in the child welfare arena is codified in state statute. Lawmakers wrote: “It is the intent of the Legislature that each person providing child welfare services in this state earns and maintains a professional certification from a professional credentialing entity that is approved by the Department of Children and [Families].”

Prospective child protective investigators, or CPIs, must register with the Florida Certification Board, which places employees under the board’s Code of Ethics while they complete a rigorous certification process. The board also investigates alleged ethical breaches.

To obtain the credential, applicants must document a minimum of six months of direct, on-the-job experience, complete six field visits with follow-up supervisory consultation, and undergo at least 30 hours of group and individual oversight . Prospective investigators are given a provisional certification while they complete all the required training, said Neal McGarry, who is the certification board’s executive director.

When all requirements are met, McGarry said, employees are certified for a two-year period.

In a May 28 email to DCF’s child welfare training director explaining the deficiency in Smith’s credentials, Amy Peloquin, the board’s director of certification, wrote: “If someone wanted to make an issue of this, they could, since the law regarding certification and caseload-carrying responsibilities has been broken.”

She added: “I really, really, really don’t want to go down that path. I’ve just been around the department long enough to see some of the strangest things become key issues.”

Smith’s attorney, Dave Kubiliun, said DCF administrators were well aware that his client lacked the necessary credentials. In fact, he said, she had inquired about the deficiency to those up the chain of command.

“Miss Smith attempted numerous times to find out the status of her certification both in person and via email to her supervisors,” Kubiliun said in a statement. “She was given a variety of reasons as to why her certification was still pending, including it being linked to her then-supervisor, Duray Smith’s, supervisory certification. Miss Smith again expressed her concerns to her supervisors after a co-worker with the same hire date was certified in early 2013. In the weeks leading up to Miss Smith’s departure from the agency, there was an unexplained rush to certify the [child protective investigators] in the Quail Roost office.

“This is another example of the incompetence and lack of professionalism DCF exhibits,” Kubiliun added.

Duray Smith, who resigned shortly after Shani Smith resigned, had failed to tell his bosses, as agency rules require, that he had been moonlighting as a substitute teacher — sometimes on the same days he supervised abuse investigators, according to DCF.

A DCF spokesman said Tuesday that every DCF abuse investigator has achieved at least “some level of certification.” Lisette Valdes-Valle said Shani Smith had been working with a supervisor to complete her requirements. “Had the process continued,” Valdes-Valle said, “it would have been completed within the next few weeks as she only needed six hours.”

“Certification is something DCF takes very seriously for our CPIs. The process begins the day the person is hired,” said Pete Digre, DCF’s assistant secretary for operations. “I am confident that all of our CPIs get properly registered when hired and enter into a program to complete the required certification process to get certified within their first year. This is something that is tracked by a point person in each of our regional offices. I am aware of no exceptions to the rule.”

Whitney Ray, an agency spokesman, said certification “isn’t like a license to practice law or medicine. It’s ongoing. Our CPIs continue their education throughout their careers.”

The issue of credentials arose in late May when the certification director of the Florida Certification Board, alerted DCF that Shani Smith lacked required credentials. This was after her name was published following the death of Bryan. “We have searched our database and hard copy records and do not have any record of her applying for certification,” Peloquin wrote.

Since Smith had first been given a caseload of abuse and neglect reports two years ago, she had never completed the necessary process, Peloquin wrote. “On the good side, [Smith] completed the training and passed the written test. On the bad side, she has been on the job for well over two years without earning any kind of certification.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the manner in which Duray Smith, a former Department of Children & Families supervisor, left the agency. Smith resigned after it was revealed he had a second job as a substitute teacher. Smith also says he had DCF's permission to hold a second job.