DCF fails children over and over
I watched with morbid fascination the censorship sideshow that played out in recent days in the “toxic truck” case. I had a special interest as a lawyer who represented Miami’s Channel 7 back in its NBC-affiliate days and was, more recently, one of several “special counsels” hired to upgrade the Florida Department of Children & Families’ legal work.
On Valentine’s Day, 10-year-old Victor Barahona was found with life-threatening chemical burns in a pickup truck on the side of Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach. The battered-and-decomposed body of his twin sister, Nubia, was dumped in the back of the truck like so much garbage.
The real trash was spewed by the “child welfare” system that allowed Jorge and Carmen Barahona to “foster” the twins, and later adopt them despite unmistakable evidence that the couple was torturing the children to whom they were supposed to be loving saviors.
In the days that followed, countless prayers were offered for Victor, but nobody would have bet a nickel that he’d survive his physical injuries, let alone his emotional wounds.
Yet, there he was last week, captured on a cell phone camera, racing around on a skateboard. Had Victor not been expertly threading his way through a gantlet of gurneys, no one would guess that the action was taking place in a hallway at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
The miracle that Jackson Memorial’s medical team had worked on Victor was a bright and badly needed point of light in this dark drama. After days of shocking revelations about the vile stew of bad social work, bad management and bad lawyering that these children had sustained, finally there was one picture worth a thousand words of thanksgiving.
You’d think the folks at the DCF would praise the Lord and pass the popcorn. Instead, they hauled Channel 7 into court to try to stop the broadcast.
Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia made short work of the case, as well she should have. Prior restraints on the news media are viewed by the U.S. Supreme Court as “the most serious and least tolerable infringement upon First Amendment rights,” a fact known to most lawyers and seventh-grade civics students.
Viewer reaction to the Victor video was positive, suggesting that Channel 7 did provide some measure of comfort to those compassionately concerned for Victor as well as to taxpayers who are very tired of paying big money for bad work.
Maybe one day Victor will tell us what, if anything, comforts him.
Channel 7 was not the only news organization that had to fend off the DCF’s efforts to obstruct journalism about Victor and Nubia. Last month, The Miami Herald was forced to sue for public records concerning the case.
The Herald was represented, as it has been for decades, by media lawyer Sanford Bohrer.
Bohrer was also the DCF special counsel under immediate past Secretary George Sheldon, but the DCF’s lawyers were apparently unimpressed with his professional judgment. As Bohrer told the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “the DCF did not have a legal leg to stand on.” Bohrer, of course, was right. After days of delay, the DCF finally coughed up the documents on the courthouse steps.
The DCF’s courthouse kamikaze missions against Channel 7 and The Herald tell us a lot about how the agency thinks, and why Florida’s foster children continue to be thrown out of car windows, strangled by snakes and handed over — along with an adoption-subsidy payment — to “forever families” such as the Barahonas.
Florence Snyder is the newsroom counsel to Health News Florida.