West Miami-Dade

Mom charged with keeping autistic son in Sweetwater ‘dungeon’ says she tried to get him help

Lately, Gladys Jaramillo’s idea of caring for her adult son with autism was locking him in a squalid, sweltering room, which got her arrested and charged with aggravated abuse, neglect of a mentally disabled adult, and false imprisonment.

But she apparently did once try to get son George Portugal real help from Florida’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Portugal was on the agency’s waiting list when police found him with his mother in their Sweetwater trailer on Thursday evening.

He’d been on the list for 13 years.

Jaramillo, 56, who is Peruvian, is in a Miami-Dade lockup pending an immigration hold. Her son, thought to be 30, is in the care of Florida’s Department of Children and Families.

Melanie Etters, a spokeswoman for APD, said about 22,432 people are on the waiting list for services.

Last spring, lawmakers set aside $36 million in new dollars to help reduce the wait. Since then, APD administrators say they have offered services to 944 new clients, 190 of them foster children with disabilities.

Esther Jacobo, DCF’s interim secretary and the agency’s regional director in Miami, confirmed that DCF got an abuse or neglect report involving Portugal in March, but said she “cannot legally discuss the specifics of that investigation’’ because of state privacy laws.

A source said that DCF closed its investigation — which involved allegations that Jaramillo had pushed Portugal months earlier — as unfounded, because too much time had passed between the alleged incident and the report.

The agency did, however, check with APD to confirm that Portugal was on the waiting list.

“I can say that we are very concerned about the reported conditions in which this young man was found’’ at the Li’l Abner Mobile Home Park, 11250 NW Third St., on Thursday, Jacobo said in a prepared statement.

“We will continue to work with our partners to address his long-term needs. The Department is taking appropriate court action on behalf of the victim.’’

Portugal’s rescue from a urine-soaked room with nothing but a bare mattress comes at a particularly sensitive time in Florida, as state leaders struggle to explain how seven small children with child protection histories have died of either abuse or neglect since May.

Another child nearly died of a severed liver weeks after DCF had investigated the circumstances under which he broke his leg.

Jim DeBeaugrine, who oversaw the disabilities agency for three years under former Gov. Charlie Crist, said human service administrators take enormous risks when they allow vulnerable adults and children to languish without state assistance.

“Bad things happen when people go years and years without getting the supports and services they need — and especially when families can’t’’ provide the help, DeBeaugrine said.

Some families “are very ill-equipped to care for a disabled person’s needs on their own. It’s a shame, but this didn’t have to happen,’’ DeBeaugrine said.

But now that Portugal is in “crisis,’’ DeBeaugrine added, “I guess he’ll get enrolled’’ for aid.

DCF was expected to file a petition in Miami-Dade probate court seeking a court-appointed guardian to oversee Portugal’s care and placement. An initial hearing could be held by Thursday.

Etters said privacy laws prevented her from discussing a specific case, but confirmed that her agency was working with DCF “to help resolve the situation … We want people with developmental disabilities to live in a safe environment.’’

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, said Floridians like Portugal are forced to endure long waits for services because caring for people with disabilities and mental illness is “not a priority’’ in the Legislature.

“No one really talks about funding,’’ Sobel said. “I think that needs to be part of the conversation.’’

Sobel, disgusted by Portugal’s circumstances, said that “each case is worse than the last. This is just awful and unacceptable in this age of enlightenment.’’

Jaramillo admitted that she kept her son locked in a room that police called “dungeon-like’’ when they arrived on Thursday on an anonymous tip.

Sweetwater police spokeswoman Michelle Hammontree-Garcia said Portugal was taken to Kendall Regional Medical Center in the care of DCF staffers Thursday.

She said he sat on a couch next to his mother silently, looking down with his hands in his lap. His room had “no light, no air conditioner, with a rusted iron deadbolt on the outside of the door,’’ she added. “I wouldn’t keep my cats in those conditions.”

She said he looked “very pale and very thin,’’ and that the trailer reeked of human waste.

Hammontree-Garcia said neighbors told police they’d seen Portugal roaming in a diaper, eating dog food and raiding a neighbor’s outdoor freezer for frozen fish.

She said Jaramillo asked police, “ ‘Are you going to help us?’ She looked really worried … and was crying in the jail cell.’’

According to the arrest report, Jaramillo told police she sedated her son and then left him locked in the room to go out with her boyfriend.

It’s not known when Jaramillo came to South Florida or how she supports herself. Public records show she’s been married three times in Miami-Dade, and has an adult daughter, Alexia Portugal, who was deported two years ago. Javier Perez, the father of Alexia’s child, said that in recent years he saw Jaramillo hit Portugal with a kitchen cutting board, and once saw Portugal with a mouthful of excrement.

Lisette Montes de Orca, a spokeswoman for the partnership that owns Li’l Abner park, said she didn’t know the family, and that park personnel have no authority to enter the privately owned homes. She said about 4,000 residents live in trailers on 908 rented lots in the 101-acre park.

“We are very surprised and hurt that someone was living like that in the park.’’

El Nuevo Herald reporter María Pérez contributed to this report.