Fred Grimm

Florida shrugs off responsibility for an adopted child’s stint in hell

Nubia Barahona
Nubia Barahona

Who remembers Victor Barahona anyhow?

The unspeakable cruelty inflicted on Victor seems to have faded from memory, five years after he was rescued — drugged, doused in toxic chemicals, convulsing, barely alive.

Who remembers his murdered twin sister, Nubia, age 10, whose burned and decomposing body was found that day stuffed in the back of a pest-control truck?

The state of Florida was plenty complicit in the horrors these adopted siblings were allowed to suffer, but that hardly musters a shrug in Tallahassee lately. Another legislative session is passing without a compensation bill for Victor getting a vote.

Allow me to remind Floridians of our collective negligence. Of how a state agency, acting on our behalf, so profoundly failed these children.

The twins were 3-year-old toddlers when the Florida Department of Children and Families removed them from the custody of their drugged-out wreck of a mother. Eventually, the twins were placed with Jorge and Carmen Barahona in Miami.

For a half-dozen years, DCF had received warning after warning that they were being abused and neglected. Their guardian ad litem had tried, futilely, to intervene. Their teachers, in 2006, 2007 and 2010, warned DCF that they had seen alarming signs. Bruises. Hysterical crying. Chronic absences. A 2007 call to the DCF hot line warned, “Nubia’s hunger has been uncontrollable. She sneaks and steals food, steals money, has hair loss, is very thin . . . nervous and jittery.”

Four days before they were discovered in that pest-control truck parked off Interstate 95, DCF received a call warning that the twins were being kept bound, stashed in a bathtub in the Barahona house.

Yet, DCF did nothing. A state investigation called the agency’s serial inaction “a failure in common sense, critical thinking, ownership, follow-through, and timely and accurate information-sharing.” DCF case workers somehow missed that these kids had been sexually abused, starved, forced to eat cockroaches. Until Nubia was murdered and Victor, now 15, was left with profound psychological damage.

Apparently these hurts weren’t enough. For the second year in a row, Victor’s $3.75 million claims bill is going nowhere.

The Barahona compensation adds to a grotesque list of claims bills for deaths and injuries caused by negligence acts of state and local governments that can’t get a vote. And without a vote, compensation in these cases remains severely limited by the state’s sovereign immunity statute.

My colleague Mary Ellen Klas reported that key legislators eschew claims bills because they object to lawyers or lobbyists taking a cut. Indeed, a Miami attorney would received $1.25 million if the Legislature ever approves the entire claims bill. But that’s exactly how things get done in Tallahassee. That’s why businesses and local governments in need of legislative largess hire lobbyists and lawyers and public relations experts to lavish attention on legislators.

It’s their damn system. No one punishes the hotel industry or the airlines or casinos or theme parks or charter schools for hiring lawyers and lobbyists.

Our state agency consigned Victor Barahona to a childhood in hell. We owe him.