Child welfare investigator Shani Smith broke the law when she concocted reports about a Kendall woman who later left her baby son to die in a sweltering car, authorities said.
The allegations against the former Florida Department of Children and Families employee first surfaced in 2013. On Wednesday, she surrendered to face six felony counts of official misconduct.
The investigation of Smith had been yet another black eye on the state child welfare agency. The boy’s death was one of several in the fall of 2013 that eventually led to the resignation of then-DCF Secretary David Wilkins.
At the time of her resignation, it was revealed, Smith had been working without the proper state credentials. In interviews with the press, Smith had always maintained she did nothing wrong.
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Her attorney, David Kubiliun, said Wednesday that she will fight the allegations.
“I feel she’s being made a scapegoat for the department,” Kubiliun said. “They’re trying to use her as a fall guy.”
The alleged misconduct was uncovered by DCF’s Inspector General, and forwarded to prosecutors and FDLE.
“This former employee violated the public trust and did not uphold the standards we expect for those entrusted with the duty of protecting children in our community,” DCF said in a statement Tuesday.
Smith is not the first Florida child welfare employee to come under scrutiny for bogus reports in recent years.
Last year, police in Seminole County arrested Jonathan Irizarry, a case worker with the Children’s Home Society of Florida, for falsely claiming in reports that he had visited and examined a healthy child. The child had been tortured and beaten to death.
In Broward County, foster care caseworker Jabeth Moye reported that a 12-year-old named Tamiyah Audain was doing fine. Actually wasting away of starvation and neglect, the girl died in September 2013.
Last year, Moye was charged with child neglect. Moye worked for a foster care agency under the umbrella of Broward’s privately run child welfare agency, ChildNet, which has a contract with DCF.
Most infamously, Miami DCF case worker Deborah Muskelly was found to have lied in reports over a decade ago, saying she was visiting foster child Rilya Wilson. The child went missing for 15 months — presumed murdered by her caretaker, who is now in prison.
Muskelly resigned from DCF and was criminally charged with official misconduct and grand theft for falsifying her time sheets in an unrelated case. She got five years’ probation.
In Smith’s case, the chain of events began in November 2012, when a Kendall woman named Catalina Bruno was found passed out drunk behind the wheel of her car, its transmission still in drive. Her infant son, Bryan, was sprawled beside her in the front seat.
Bruno was charged with driving under the influence and child neglect.
Afterward, DCF assigned Smith to assess Bruno’s fitness to continue caring for her children.
In case notes filed in an internal DCF computer system more than a month after Bruno’s arrest, Smith wrote that she earlier had referred the mother for a substance abuse and mental health evaluation.
She immediately noted that an evaluation center, Spectrum, found that Bruno “showed no evidence of substance misuse or mental injury,” according to a FDLE arrest warrant.
The case was closed. But the Spectrum center had no records of any requests for an evaluation for Bruno. Smith’s own e-mails showed no such evaluation. And Bruno herself told FDLE Agent Kristen Hoffacker that she never met with Smith after her November 2012 DUI arrest.
Bruno was still in jail when Smith dropped by her house and left a business card. When Bruno was released from jail, she “called Smith several times and left messages” but never got a call back.
Six months later, Bruno drank again — with deadly consequences. She drove to her Kendall home and left the toddler behind in the car, along with her purse and a can of beer. He spent hours inside the car and was later declared dead at the hospital — his body temperature measured at 109 degrees.
The boy’s death shattered his father, Amos Glen Osceola.
Two days before the anniversary of the son’s death, Osceola killed himself by plunging his car into a canal.
Last year, Bruno pleaded guilty to manslaughter and child neglect after she spent more than one year in jail. She was ordered into rehabilitation.
Bruno’s attorney, at the time, blasted the agency for failing to get Bruno help for alcohol abuse.
“If DCF had done their job, they would have taken Bryan away, most likely given him to his grandmother, his mother would have gone to treatment, and Bryan would be alive today,” attorney Lonnie Richardson said then. “His father would also be alive today, and Catalina would be celebrating a year of sobriety.”