Florida

Gus Barreiro, ex-lawmaker and advocate for vulnerable children, has died

Gus Barreiro, then a state representative appointed to chair a House select committee on juvenile detention, spoke in front of the Miami-Dade lockup in August 2003. Behind him were representatives Marcelo Llorente, Yolly Robertson, Juan Carlos Planas and Wilbert “Tee” Holloway.
Gus Barreiro, then a state representative appointed to chair a House select committee on juvenile detention, spoke in front of the Miami-Dade lockup in August 2003. Behind him were representatives Marcelo Llorente, Yolly Robertson, Juan Carlos Planas and Wilbert “Tee” Holloway. Miami Herald staff

When Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber first met Gus Barreiro, the two politicians were gearing up to begin the 2000 legislative session in Tallahassee. Members of the Miami-Dade delegation had gathered, and were asked to say a few words about themselves.

Barreiro, who fled Cuba on a Red Cross flight at age 3, became overcome with emotion. “He said, ‘I would sweep the floors if that’s what they asked me to do,’ ” Gelber recalls.

Instead, Barreiro became one of the state’s greatest advocates for vulnerable children — and perhaps Florida’s most powerful voice for adolescents who were caught up in the juvenile justice system.

During his eight years in the Florida Legislature, and later as the public policy and community engagement liaison with The Children’s Trust, Barreiro fought lawmakers, state agency heads, bureaucrats — and even members of his own political party — to improve conditions for impoverished children, and kids in foster care and state custody.

He died unexpectedly Friday morning of a massive heart attack, said his half-brother, Bruno Barreiro, who served on the Miami-Dade Commission from 1998 to 2018. He was 60.

“A lot of oppressive policies and inhumane conditions would have continued in the shadows, if not for Gus,” said Gelber, who had joined with Barreiro through the years to advocate for juvenile justice reform, though the two had to cross the political aisle to do so. “He was not afraid to shine a light on it and to speak out against it in the most forceful of ways.

“The thing that I loved about him was that he always spoke in such an unvarnished way, and from the heart. He was always speaking out for folks who didn’t have a champion, and, frankly, would never have a champion. No one was lining up for kids in custody, and he was always the first to do so.”

Though Bruno Barreiro was born in Miami, his “big brother” fled Cuba as a child.

Gus lived with his mother for most of the school year, Bruno said. But the two spent most of their summers together in childhood.

As adults, they shared a passion for politics and civic engagement. When Bruno left his District 107 legislative seat in 1998 to run for the County Commission, Gus ran for the open seat, and won.

Bruno said he spoke with his brother two days ago, mostly about their health. Bruno had just undergone hernia surgery, and was recovering. “We also spoke a little bit about politics,” he said. “Somehow that wound its way into our conversation.”

Gus had been pondering a run for the School Board, his brother said. “He would have fit perfectly into the school system. I always envisioned that for him. It was the perfect position for his passion.”

Barreiro had attended a small Wisconsin liberal arts college, called Mount Senario College, on a football scholarship, playing linebacker. The school specialized in criminal justice, public administration and business administration degrees.

Robin Gaby Fisher wrote a book about Barreiro’s efforts to gain justice for a group of men who had been abused as children. In an unpublished chapter for her book, “The Boys of the Dark,” she described what drew him to working with troubled kids.

“As a youngster,” she wrote, “he had been drawn to football as much for the opportunity to bond with men as for the physicality of the sport. He remembered how much it meant to him when a coach patted him on the back and told him he was proud, and how much acceptance from men had made him feel the kind of security he could not get from his mother.”

Barreiro wrote a term paper “on the premise that positive reinforcement by male role models went a long way with boys who had reached a turning point in their lives,” Fisher wrote. His professor was so moved by the report that he sought a grant to pay for a program for delinquent boys, and asked Barreiro to run it.

The Wisconsin Living and Learning Center, and Barreiro’s career, were launched. In 1989, Barreiro took a job as co-director of the Dade Marine Institute, and returned to Miami.

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Two cellmates of Omar Paisley, a teen who died in a juvenile detention facility from a ruptured appendix, spoke in September 2003 before a House committee on juvenile justice that met in the Miami-Dade Commission chambers. On the dais were, from left, Chairman Rep. Gus Barreiro, staff member David De La Paz and Rep. Gus Bilirakis. Barreiro, a champion of vulnerable children, died of a heart attack Friday morning, August 16, 2019. Miami Herald file

When Omar Paisley, an Opa-locka teen who had been charged with battery, died of a ruptured appendix at the Miami lockup in 2003, Barreiro was outraged. Records showed the 17-year-old had suffered for three days, begging lockup workers to take him to a hospital. Barreiro, a Republican, convinced then-House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, also a Republican, to allow him to hold hearings.

Barreiro and Gelber were briefed about Omar’s death at a private meeting, Gelber recalls. Juvenile justice administrators asked the two lawmakers to keep quiet about what they had learned. “Gus was so offended. We held an impromptu press conference when we went out the door.”

The hearings were an embarrassment for Gov. Jeb Bush and the majority party, resulting in the resignation of Bush’s juvenile justice chief, and dear friend — but Barreiro kept pushing until a host of reforms were imposed.

“Jeb was mad at us. We put [then-Juvenile Justice Secretary William ‘Bill’ Bankhead] through the ringer,” said J.C. Planas, a Republican lawmaker from Miami who also served on the investigative panel.

“It’s probably one of my proudest moments,” Planas said of the group’s oversight of DJJ. “Three people quit rather than testify before us.”

Barreiro broke ranks with his party again three years later when 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson was restrained to death at a military-style boot camp in the Panhandle. The events leading up to Martin’s death were recorded on video at the Bay County Boot Camp, but the Bush administration had refused to release it.

Barreiro secured a private viewing of the video, and invited Gelber to join him. His quotes to the Miami Herald that day — he said Martin had been “flung around like a rag doll” — set in motion a chain of events that prompted lawmakers to shutter all military-style camps in Florida.

After viewing the video, “I said to him, ‘Gus, I think people need to know this’,” Gelber said. “Gus said ‘Damn right they’re gonna know it. Everybody’s gonna know it.’ ”

Barreiro’s most critical crusade — and the most costly, for him — began when two middle-aged former delinquents approached him seeking help gaining attention to what had happened to them decades earlier at a hellish youth prison in Marianna called the Dozier School for Boys.

Michael O’McCarthy said he had been beaten mercilessly with a leather strap inlaid with metal. Robert Straley had been beaten, too, in a squat, whitewashed, weather-beaten cottage called the White House, where discipline was meted out.

Straley also recalled being assaulted in what youths called the Rape Room. They had found each other on the Internet, and now they wanted justice for what they believed to be hundreds of other men who had suffered at Dozier.

“The horrors of what went on at Dozier would never have been exposed had it not been for the bravery of Gus,” said Fisher. “I know for Robert and Michael, Gus was literally a lifesaver. Before Michael found Gus and Gus became their advocate, Robert had lost his will to live and Michael was deteriorating mentally.

“Gus’ belief in them, his belief in their story, gave them breath again,” Fisher added.

An administrator at the juvenile justice department at the time, Barreiro convinced his bosses to hold a ceremony at Dozier, now shuttered, to recognize the gravity of what occurred there. The event seemed cathartic for Straley and O’McCarthy, and the other White House Boys who returned.

Both men now also are deceased.

Since then, investigators have discovered what are believed to be scores of bodies on the Dozier campus, assumed to be the remains of imprisoned boys. The name Dozier has become synonymous with cruelty toward children. But the campaign took a toll: Barreiro lost his DJJ job after investigators claimed to have found pornography on his work computer — a charge he emphatically denied, saying he was punished for his advocacy.

For a decade, Barreiro was the go-to guy for community leaders in Miami-Dade and elsewhere who needed state dollars to fund or improve a children’s program. But Barreiro didn’t just find the money, said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen.

When judges in Miami were trying to create the Girls Alternative Program, or GAP, a mentorship program for female juvenile offenders, they asked Barreiro to find seed money from lawmakers.

“Not only did he get the money from the Legislature, he came over into the detention center and sat down with the girls and talked with them,” Cohen said.

“This is not something that came to him late in life,” Cohen said. “He had an abiding commitment to helping children and adolescents through troubled times. He has been a tremendous champion. We lost one of the great children’s advocates in the state.”

Planas, who served with Barreiro in the Legislature beginning in 2002 — he retired in 2010 — said his former colleague was a champion for kids virtually nobody else cared about.

“The public doesn’t give a crap,” said Planas. “A lot of people want to write off these kids.”

Added David Lawrence Jr. , retired Miami Herald publisher and chairman of the Children’s Movement. “I am stunned by his loss. Gus was simply among the finest people I have ever known. Loved people, and they loved him. A heart and soul for service. He often would call me ‘Dad.’ For me, he was a much loved son.”

Barreiro is survived by his wife, Rosie, two daughters, Natalie and Nicole, his brother, Bruno Barreiro, his father, also Bruno Barreiro, his mother, Iraida, and his granddaughter, Isabel.

Viewing will be Monday from 5 p.m. to Midnight at Memorial Plan Westchester Funeral, 9800 SW 24th Street, Miami, Florida 33165. Funeral procession will be leaving on Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. to St. Brendan Catholic Church for Mass Service at 12 p.m. After the service, procession will head to Flagler Memorial Park, 5301 West Flagler for burial services at 1 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, the Chiildren’s Trust has designated a memorial fund in Barreiro’s name at Voices for Children.

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