The 3-bedroom home where two abused twins lived resembles a fortress — cloaked in shrubs, protected by cameras and secluded behind a gate.
By Carol Marbin Miller and Diana Moskovitz
Jorge and Carmen Barahona had custody of fraternal twin foster children for three years and were moving slowly toward adoption when they hit a formidable obstacle: a stubborn court-appointed guardian.
Paul Neumann, a volunteer guardian-ad-litem, had seen something in the West Miami-Dade couple that scared him, and he said so to everyone in the child welfare system who would listen.
The Barahonas sought help from an administrator with the foster care agency that oversaw their case. And when that fell short, they prevailed to a higher authority: then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
In a series of three letters spanning the summer of 2007 through early 2008, the Barahonas accused Neumann of conspiring with employees of the Miami-Dade school system, “tampering’’ with witnesses and trying to snatch the twins from their custody. Neumann, they wrote, was violating their civil rights.
“They have been deceitful with us all along,” the Barahonas wrote in a June 4, 2007 letter to Crist, “and we feel that we have been taken for fools.”
Florida child welfare administrators now claim that they were the ones who were deceived.
On Feb. 10, the Department of Children & Families’ child abuse hotline received a report that the Barahonas were binding the twins, Nubia and Victor Doctor, hand-and-foot and forcing them to stand in a bathtub for hours at the family home in West Miami-Dade. Investigators had yet to find the twins when Victor was discovered in a pickup truck on the side of Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach doused in chemicals and in the midst of seizures. Hours later, police found Nubia’s body in the truck’s flatbed, stuffed in a bag and drenched in chemicals. A source said Friday the children may have been sprayed with pesticides.
DCF administrators have declined repeatedly to release records on the couple, though they say some documents may be forthcoming.
But several records obtained last week by The Miami Herald, along with interviews of neighbors and child welfare workers, paint a portrait of a couple determined to raise their adoptive family their own way, shielded from the prying eyes of child-welfare workers, in a house cloaked by thick, overgrown shrubs.
“All roads lead back to that house,” DCF’s top Miami administrator, Jacqui Colyer, said last week.
Jorge Barahona was born in Nicaragua; Carmen in Cuba.
They married on Jan. 19, 1996, in Coral Gables. She was 45; he was 38.
Carmen Barahona has worked for several years at a Miami-Dade County pediatrics practice. Her husband owned a pest control company, and operated out of a red pickup truck that carried lethal chemical in plastic jugs.
The couple had another, rather substantial source of income: state subsidies for the four foster children they adopted. In court last week, Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman ordered that the roughly $950-per-month in adoption subsidies for the three surviving children be immediately discontinued. The amount likely reached $1,200 when Nubia was alive.
The Barahonas lived in a typical western Miami-Dade suburb, close to a hospital, a public school and filled with families whose children move easily between English and Spanish.
The Barahona home, a three-bedroom, one-bath, at first glance passes for the best-kept home on their suburban block, with a gleaming front driveway of fresh pavers, a coat of light-colored paint and a lawn full of lush landscaping. But look closer, and it resembles a well-manicured fortress, armed with heavy shrubbery to keep away glancing eyes and cameras that peered out at visitors, showing those inside whoever came near the front door.
A black metal gate, more than four feet tall, keeps passersby from setting foot on the front yard. Tall wooden planks on the side of the house, bearing Beware of Dog signs, obscure any view from the side. Palm trees and tall shrubs line the front of the house, obscuring the windows.
Thick shrubs grown so tall they brush against the roof guard each side of the front doors like centurions. The heavy tangles of branches and leaves on both sides of the front entrance mean that neighbors like Leida Alonso, who has lived next door for more than five years, can glance over and not even see if the door is open.
What went on in the house was a “family secret’’ that was never to be discussed, one of the Barahonas’ surviving adoptive children — as well as the couple’s biological granddaughter — told investigators in recent days.
‘NEVER SAW A KID’
In all her years in the neighborhood, Alonso said, she saw Jorge Barahona maybe five or seven times. She never saw anyone else at the house at all, she said.
“I never saw his wife, never saw a kid,” Alonso said
Across the street, Hilda Duque said in five years in the neighborhood she only saw children with the couple once. About six months ago, she saw two small children. She thinks they were coming or going to the beach because a little girl was wearing a bathing suit.
But Duque said she never even knew the family’s name. When Duque went outside to water her plants, she would occasionally see Carmen Barahona, but Barahona kept quiet. She guessed Carmen worked as a nurse, based only on seeing her from afar in what looked like a nurse’s uniform.
Even the letter carrier was kept at bay. The couple placed their mailbox at the front gate, so mail could be delivered without a person stepping on the lawn.
The Barahonas became licensed foster parents in 1999, and had adopted their first child, a boy, by 2001. By 2004, the Barahonas had custody of four foster children, including the twins.
Within the next three years, Florida’s child abuse hotline received three reports on Nubia — all of them initiated by someone at the girl’s school. Several school employees testified at the Barahonas’ adoption hearing that they had serious concerns about the couple’s custody of the kids.
Under Florida law, teachers and guidance counselors are defined as “mandatory reporters” of child abuse and neglect, and they can be prosecuted for failing to report their suspicions. State policy grants professionals such as teachers, coaches and therapists great deference when they report suspected abuse, and investigators are taught to assume such reports are credible.
The first report arrived in January 2005: “My father is touching me,” Nubia reportedly disclosed to someone at school. Child welfare supervisors could not determine whether Nubia was referring to her birth father, who had lost custody at least a year earlier, or Barahona, although they suspected the girl meant her birth dad. They took no action on the report, The Miami Herald was told.
A little more than a year later, in February 2006, DCF received a second report. Nubia, the hotline was told, had bruising on her chin and neck and her teachers suspected she had been abused. DCF ordered the Barahonas to take the girl to the Department of Health’s Child Protection Team in Miami, but the couple did not arrive for the appointment for a week, The Herald has learned. By then, the bruising had largely disappeared. The state doctors concluded the bruising was consistent with the Barahonas’ contention that Nubia had fallen, and that no abuse had occurred.
In March 2007, DCF received a third report, that Nubia was dirty and unkempt, constantly complained that she was hungry and smelled badly.
School workers filed a strikingly similar report to the hotline again in June 2010, noting that Nubia was so “uncontrollably” hungry that she was stealing food. The 2010 report also included this detail: Nubia was losing her hair, and had become “nervous” and “jittery.”
In comments to reporters Thursday, DCF Secretary David Wilkins — who did not address the 2007 and 2010 reports directly — said agency investigators’ efforts were critically hindered by the Barahonas’ insistence that what appeared to be poor hygiene was actually the effects of a medical condition that affected the girl’s endocrine system. “The medical condition,” Wilkins said, “complicated the decision-making of investigators.”
The contention, Wilkins said, was one of several ways in which the couple had misled investigators, perhaps for several years.
“It’s always hard to deal with deception,’’ Wilkins said. “There are some assumptions we made that, in hindsight, we would look at differently.”
Sources say DCF did not refer the family back to the Child Protection Team either in 2007 or in 2010 for an independent opinion on the girl’s condition.
It was in 2007, records suggest, when the volunteer guardian, Neumann, became extremely concerned for the twins.
Though Neumann could not be reached for comment, the letters written by the Barahonas in 2007 and 2008 say the guardian had discussed Nubia’s welfare several times with employees of the girl’s school, including an assistant principal.
The school, they said, gave Neumann “a room alone with the children for the entire lunch time,” and allowed the guardian to interview them. “When we picked up the children from school they told us everything.”
Neumann also interviewed relatives of the twins who lived in Texas. A lawyer for the children’s aunt and uncle appeared in court last week and confirmed that the couple had raised “red flags” about the Barahonas during their attempts to gain custody of the children from the Barahonas.
In the letters, the Barahonas repeatedly denied allegations that they were “dirty and uncaring parents.” Though “we put our trust in the courts and the DCF attorney,’’ the couple wrote, “we were humiliated in front of everybody’’ at a court hearing in the summer of 2007.
The Barahonas reserved a special contempt for “Mr. Paul [Neumann], the guardian-ad-litem, with whom we have had a personality conflict since the beginning because of his arrogance and smart remarks, and we put up with this.’’
A June 4, 2007 letter to Crist also suggests the couple had refused to allow Neumann access to the children — a theme that would repeat itself again and again in coming years, and, perhaps, end in tragic results last week.
“We were … told that this is not a game and that Mr. Neumann does this out of the goodness of his heart because he doesn’t get paid. I guess the court believes that we must be doing this for the money,” they wrote in an Aug. 5, 2007 letter to the governor.
“If we have done anything wrong,” the Barahonas wrote, “let us be held accountable for it.”