Miami-Dade County

After tragedy, judge clamps down on DCF

Reeling from the brutal death of a 2-year-old boy he was entrusted to protect, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael A. Hanzman is peeling away much of the authority state child welfare officials normally enjoy in his courtroom — and taking more matters into his own hands.

Hanzman had agreed to allow 28-year-old Angel Luis Villegas to care for his 2-year-old son, Jayden Villegas-Morales, after administrators with the Department of Children & Families assured him Villegas had passed a “home study” designed to gauge his fitness as a parent. Jayden had been taken from his mother’s custody on June 18 after Lourdes Morales was charged with child abuse.

A month later, Jayden was dead. Villegas told Miami-Dade police he “became frustrated” with the little boy, who had been vomiting for much of the day on July 17, and threw the child, striking his head against a wall, a police report says.

Though DCF had declared Villegas’ home study to be “positive,” it included a handful of facts that some children’s advocates call troubling: Villegas was unemployed, living in a one-bedroom home with eight other children, had been repeatedly accused of domestic violence and had admitted to child-welfare authorities that he had “an anger issue.” Investigators also documented alleged marijuana use in front of the children, the presence of cockroaches in the home and instances where children were hemmed up in dirty diapers.

Following a long hearing, Hanzman concluded that DCF had based the home study — which he described as “reasonable” — on an “adequate investigation” of Villegas’ home and other family members. But, he added, agency home studies typically are “rushed” by investigators, who often have only 24 hours to recommend a substitute caregiver for a child who has been removed from his or her parent.

“The fact remains,” Hanzman wrote, “that these initial home studies, the one here being no exception, are typically expedited — or some would say rushed — so as to be available at a shelter hearing” that must occur within 24 hours of a child’s removal from his or her parents. “And for reasons not always due to ‘fault’ on the part of the department, some have proven unreliable.”

Hanzman’s solution: In an at-times strongly worded order, he said he will now hold full-blown hearings before approving a caregiver DCF recommends each time a child is placed in the department’s custody. He also will require DCF to provide significantly more information on each family’s history with the department.

“In each case,” Hanzman wrote, “the party advocating the placement shall present evidence sufficient to establish — to the Court’s satisfaction — that the putative caretaker will provide the child a secure, safe environment. Absent such a showing, the parties are forewarned that the child will be placed — or remain — in a licensed [foster] care facility.”

Esther Jacobo, DCF’s top Miami administrator who is now interim secretary of the agency, took no issue with Hanzman’s order Friday, describing it as reasonable measure to help oversee at-risk children.

“I applaud Judge Hanzman for his detailed analysis and proactive steps to protect the children that come before him,” Jacobo said. “We are always thankful to our juvenile judges for their passion and commitment to this difficult work.”

Long troubled, DCF has faced particularly withering criticism recently in the wake of a deadly summer that claimed seven very young lives. Since May, seven youngsters who had been the subject of at least one investigation by DCF died of abuse or neglect at the hands of a parent or caregiver. Former DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned abruptly last month amid the controversy, and at least one lawmaker, state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Abuse Committee, has called for hearings into DCF’s fitness.

Hanzman was at times philosophical in his order, acknowledging the intractable nature of child abuse. “There always have been — and, unfortunately always will be — tragic cases, he wrote. “The best we can hope for is to minimize their frequency by insisting that qualified professionals follow procedures and take whatever measures are necessary to ensure the safety of our at-risk children.”

But the judge was, at times, highly critical of DCF, as well, suggesting that recent criticism of the agency might be “deserved” if media reports involving the recent child deaths were “accurate.”

“These cases should no doubt be investigated so the cause of whatever mistakes, if any, [that were] made are identified and measures are taken to reduce the risk of repetition. There is no excuse for allowing a child to remain in — or to be placed in — what is known, or reasonably should be known, to be a dangerous custodial arrangement, and a single death or injury resulting from such a reckless decision is one too many.”