Florida Politics

Judges who took sides in child welfare contract fight face reprimand

Barbara Toledo, with Our Kids, speaks to the entire Miami-Dade dependency court bench during a hearing in 2013.
Barbara Toledo, with Our Kids, speaks to the entire Miami-Dade dependency court bench during a hearing in 2013. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Five current and former circuit judges who weighed in on who should oversee child welfare operations in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties are now facing a possible reprimand from the state Supreme Court for taking sides in the $500 million contract fight, according to documents filed with the court Thursday.

An investigative panel of the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission recommended that the Miami-Dade judges, one of whom has since retired, be issued a written public reprimand for signing a letter to the state Department of Children & Families last year endorsing an agency re-bidding for the state contract. In it, they and two other members of the judiciary urged the DCF to re-award the lucrative, five-year contract to Our Kids, the longtime chief provider for foster children in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

Our Kids was unseated earlier this year by the competing non-profit agency Citrus Health, or Citrus Family Care Network, which had managed mental health services in the region.

The panel said the letter, signed and sent on official judicial letterhead, was “inappropriate, and damaged the public’s perception of impartiality in the judiciary.”

The panel’s recommendation pertained to five of the letter’s seven signers — Judges Marcia Caballero, Rosa Figarola, Teresa Pooler and Mavel Ruiz, along with retired judge Cindy Lederman — and said though they were “not motivated by any corrupt intent or design” that their actions “went too far in this instance.”

The letter, by advocating for Our Kids, “crossed the line from informational, to advocacy in favor of one competitive bidder over another,” the panel wrote.

The letter’s two other signers — Magistrate Steven Lieberman and former Judge Mari Sampedro-Iglesia — were not included in the documents filed Thursday. Sampedro-Iglesia left the bench in April; Lieberman serves in unified family matters.

Another document filed with the state Supreme Court said the five judges named in the recommendation “do not contest” the findings or the recommendation of discipline. The findings stated the five judges “accepted full responsibility for their actions, admitted that the letter was inappropriate, and otherwise fully cooperated with the JQC’s inquiry.”

The fight the judges weighed in on involved a half-billion-dollar contract from DCF to oversee services to approximately 3,000 foster children in Miami-Dade and Monroe. Child welfare is now largely privatized in Florida, run by sprawling fiefdoms of contractors and subcontractors.

Our Kids, which had the contract for more than a decade, drew Citrus as a competitor when the contract came up for renewal last year.

Though Our Kids had previously struggled to keep foster parents in the system and received middling results on the state’s scorecards for the quality of its services, the then-lead agency said it had improved under new leadership, after internal sniping and turnover. But Citrus contended it could bring a fresh start to child welfare in Miami-Dade and Monroe, without Our Kids’ history.

The battle over that contract, which lasted over a year, was roiled by accusations of conflicts of interest that the process was skewed in favor of Citrus, because of perceived ties between Citrus and people that sat on the first selection board. Critics also said Citrus also had ties to vendors that were associated with Our Kids’ past leadership.

In the fray, Caballero, Figarola, Pooler and Ruiz were among those who signed on to a letter written by Lederman last September, calling Our Kids “our community’s experts in child welfare policy and practice.”

“This model must survive” the selection process, they added in the letter, which did not mention Citrus explicitly. “We have worked with Our Kids and we have complete faith only in the Our Kids model of leadership. When you select the agency please keep our voices in your mind.”

Caballero and Sampedro-Iglesia later reversed course and approved a letter sent by Judge Orlando Prescott that said the judiciary would “stand ready to support and work alongside whichever agency that is selected.”

Citrus won in the months-long process last year by a 10-1 vote, but the allegations prompted the department to throw out the first vote and repeat the selection this spring, with Citrus again chosen as the winner this April.

DCF also started a management review into the first selection process, with a report on that review finding no violations of law or policy. It did acknowledge that “not all possible conflicts of interest were identified or vetted.”

This story has been corrected to note that Our Kids had the service contract for more than a decade, not just a decade.

Elizabeth Koh is a state government reporter in the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times’ Tallahassee bureau, where she covers the Florida Legislature with a focus on health care politics and policy. A Brown University graduate, she covered local politics for the Washington Post and national politics for the Dallas Morning News’ D.C. bureau before joining the Herald in 2017.