The Florida Department of Children and Families has settled a lawsuit with the guardians of a mentally disabled girl who repeatedly was molested by her foster father in Immokalee and ended up pregnant.
DCF has agreed to pay the guardians of Pierreisna Archille $1.3 million for ignoring complaints of abuse made by Pierreisna’s younger sister, Darlene Achille. Pierreisna’s foster father, Bonifacio Valazquez, repeatedly raped Pierreisna when she was an underage minor and Pierreisna ended up pregnant at 17.
When Darlene alleged abuse, DCF transferred her to another foster home and left Pierreisna in the Valazquez home. DCF didn’t take the abuse complaints seriously until it was discovered that Pierreisna was four months pregnant.
The failure of DCF to follow up on Darlene’s complaints was the crux of the lawsuit, which argued DCF caseworkers and investigators were negligent and allowed the rapes to happen.
It generally is Daily News policy not to publish the names of victims of sexual abuse. However, Darlene Achille gave the newspaper permission to identify her sister, for whom she is the legal guardian. The sisters’ last names are spelled differently, according to their birth certificates.
Valazquez and his late wife, Josephine, were registered foster parents in Immokalee. When Josephine died in 1999, DCF workers came in to re-evaluate whether Valazquez could care for all the children in the home by himself. They removed Pierreisna and other girls but recommended relicensing him to care for boys.
Five days later, Pierreisna’s new foster family found she was pregnant. This happened two years after Darlene accused Valazquez of abusing several children, including a girl who then was 2 years old.
The allegations were dismissed at the time they were first made, but a new investigation was conducted that led to Velazquez going to jail after it was discovered that Pierreisna was pregnant.
In addition to the rape, Velazquez attempted to smother Pierreisna, threatened to kill her, choked her and took photographs of her naked, according to records.
Valazquez, now 72, was sentenced in 2001 for sexual battery and in 2003 for indecent assault of a child under 16. He is scheduled to be released from prison in 2008.
Darlene is now the primary guardian of Pierreisna and the child she had. They live in Fort Myers.
Darlene is 22 and Pierreisna is 25, but Pierreisna has a mental disability that gives her the thought process of a 13 year old, court records show.
Pierreisna works at a Publix. Darlene is a full-time student at Florida Gulf Coast University who also works at a SweetBay.
This lawsuit had been bogged down in procedure for five years until it recently was settled.
Attorney Richard Filson, who represents Darlene and Pierreisna, said the key was Gov. Charlie Crist coming into office and installing former state Attorney General Bob Butterworth as the new secretary of DCF.
Butterworth pushed to settle the case, while previously DCF fought to delay the case indefinitely, Filson said.
“The state did dramatically change its position,” Filson said. “That made it much easier to have a good-faith settlement negotiation.
DCF spokeswoman Kristi Sonntag said Crist expressed a desire to settle these types of cases when he came into office.
“The attitude is they want these cases settled as quickly as possible,” Sonntag said. “It’s the best solution for both parties.”
Under the settlement agreement, Darlene and Pierreisna get $100,000 now. The other $1.2 million must be approved by the state Legislature by passing what is known as a claims bill. The Legislature must approve the settlement because state law caps judgments against government agencies at $100,000. Payments over that amount can only be awarded if approved by the Legislature.
A claims bill is expected to be introduced soon in the Legislature. Sonntag said DCF wouldn’t oppose the passage of that bill.
Filson said the money is needed for Darlene to take care of both Pierreisna and the child. A consulting firm had estimated that it would cost $4.5 million to care for Pierreisna and the child.
“This is the absolute minimum that we were willing to settle for,” Filson said. “If I’d had to take the case to trial my client would have had to testify. She didn’t relish that fact.”
Howard Talenfeld, an attorney who is president of Florida’s Children First, a confederation of lawyers who work on behalf of children, will be the point person in getting a claims bill through the Legislature on behalf of Pierreisna.
Talenfeld said he is talking to legislators now and expects to have someone in the House and Senate introduce claim bills by Aug. 1.
Talenfeld declined to say who would be sponsoring the legislation in the House and Senate because those discussions are ongoing.
The Legislature has approved requests like this before, but not for the past few years.
The most notable recent case involved Kimberly Goodwin, a developmentally disabled girl who was raped by the son of the director of a group care home in which she was living. Goodwin was awarded $8 million in 2002.
No significant claims bill has been passed by the Legislature since then, Talenfeld said.
The next regular session of the Legislature is in 2008. But it’s possible the bill could be approved earlier if a special session is called this year.
Former state Rep. Dudley Goodlette of Naples said getting a claims bill approved can be challenging.
“There are some legislators who believe the cap (on awards) exists for a reason,” Goodlette said, adding that those legislators oppose all claim bills.
When the leader of a committee that must approve a claims bill feels this way, or the leadership of the House or Senate has this philosophy, no claim bills make it to the floor for approval, Goodlette said.
Goodlette isn’t involved in this case, but has read news accounts of the lawsuit.
“From what I’ve heard this is the type of claim that would merit approval,” he said.