For months, Sharon Glass locked a boy inside a tiny bathroom with a boarded-up window. The boy starved and slept on the bare floor. The photographs presented in the Florida courtroom were gut-wrenching, resembling something out of a concentration camp.
The victim, nearly 13 years old, weighed just 40 pounds. His clothes, made for an 8-year-old, sagged off his tiny body. Prosecutors said that if the abuse and starvation had continued for another month, the boy would have been dead.
“I can state during the 15 or so years I’ve been here I’ve probably had two or three cases I would consider the conduct just pure evil,” Judge David Dugan said during the trial. “This was cold. This was calculating. This was evil.”
It was also a case that Florida’s Department of Children and Families knew about. In fact, DCF had been warned about the boy for years.
Glass’ ex-husband reportedly called the DCF Child Abuse Hotline a dozen times before he was told by the DCF to stop. Teachers and principals from two schools called again and again. They reported that the boy came in with bruises and black eyes, and that he was “always hungry.”
One teacher was so worried that she kept a diary of the boy’s condition. In one entry, she asked one of his brothers why the victim missed two days of school. His answer was alarming: “I don’t even know where he is.”
Teachers’ calls to DCF ended only when the boy was removed to be home-schooled. The agency did nothing to stop that.
“The child does become invisible,” Julia Lynch, who heads child and sex abuse prosecutions in Brevard and Seminole counties, told “America Tonight.” “The child is invisible to anybody, and nobody knows what is going on with that child.”
Over and over, DCF heard about troubles at the home that Glass shared with Michael Marshall, the victim’s father.
Fifteen months later, a chance encounter brought the police to the family’s home in Titusville, Fla., next to Cape Canaveral. The boy was finally rescued.
‘Same mistakes’ as kids die
In Florida, the Glass case is not an isolated incident. For years, DCF has been under fire for letting child abuse cases slip through the cracks, often with deadly results.
According to the agency’s own figures, from 2008 to June 2013, there were 872 confirmed child abuse deaths, and in 437 of those cases the families were known to DCF.
“I don’t want any child in Florida to die, whether they were seen by DCF or not,” said Esther Jacobo, DCF’s outgoing interim chief.
Jacobo took over DCF last July after a string of highly publicized child deaths prompted the resignation of her predecessor, David Wilkins.
“If there are isolated cases where protective investigators are not taking allegations seriously, those are dealt with individually,” Jacobo said. “But it is certainly, especially a teacher calling in, something we should take seriously always.”
But some critics see a much larger failing in DCF’s handling of child abuse cases. Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, who handles child abuse cases in Miami-Dade County, called DCF’s actions “an outrage.”
“If you can’t even listen to teachers, if they’re failing to respond to the school … how can we expect anything more sophisticated out of the system?” Cohen said. She added: “We’re doing the same things over and over with the same bad results. And when we go back and we analyze these child deaths, we’re making the same darn mistakes.”
‘Very visible red flags’
The phone call is chilling: “They are being punished. They are being taped up with their arms and legs and put in a bathtub.”
It’s a call made to the Florida Abuse Hotline about children in another home well known to DCF, two years before the Glass case.
Teachers reported that the children, 10-year-old twins Nubia Barahona and her brother, were often dirty and “uncontrollably” hungry. Caseworkers never found anything wrong.
When a call was made to the hotline, stressing that Nubia might be in trouble, the girl was already dead. Prosecutors say she was beaten to death by her adoptive father. Her twin brother’s life was at risk too.
“I would greatly appreciate it if you can take care of that today,” the caller told the hotline.
The hotline operator’s reply: “It won’t be today.”
When a child protection investigator was finally sent to the home, the investigator never saw the children and never actually went inside, a clear violation of DCF regulations.
Days later, police found Nubia’s twin by chance, drenched in chemicals and barely breathing in the family truck. Jorge Barahona, the adoptive father, was found unconscious, lying on the ground. Nubia’s body was in a trash bag in the back.
An investigative report commissioned by the state found that “very visible red flags were missed.” There were dozens of recommendations, most of which were never implemented. “Shame on us, if we cannot learn from this,” the report stated. It was the third such inquiry in less than 10 years.
Jorge and Carmen Barahona, the adoptive parents, are both charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder and face the death penalty.
The deaths continue
When she took over last summer, Jacobo commissioned an outside review of DCF to find out where the agency was failing.
“What we found was, we were not focusing on the red flags,” she told “America Tonight.” “What was missing was, there was a population of children that are most at risk. These are the nonverbal children, [ages] zero to 4, disabled children, with certain risk factors attached to that — substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence in the home. Those are the big three.”
DCF started a pilot program, assigning two investigators on cases involving children 3 and younger, in families with these risk factors.
But even with this new approach, the high-profile deaths of children known to the agency continue.
In May 2011, 2-month-old Tavont’ae Gordon died (PDF). Authorities concluded that his mother, Rachel Fryer, fell asleep and accidentally suffocated him with her foot. That was when her other children were taken into care (she gave up custody of two more children nearly a decade ago).
Last October, Fryer regained custody of Tavont’ae’s 2-year-old twin sister, Tariji, and three other children. She immediately began reporting to caseworkers that she was overwhelmed. But no one intervened after the family’s caseworker learned that Tariji had been held out of day care because she had a “boo-boo Mommy didn’t want anyone to see.”
Just three months after she was reunited with her mother, Tariji was killed by blunt force trauma to the head and buried in a shallow grave, authorities said.
Fryer, who is pregnant, is charged with first-degree homicide in Tariji’s death, and is being held without bond awaiting trial. Meanwhile, the investigation into Tavont’ae’s death has been reopened.
“I feel like what needs to happen in cases like this is strengthen the post-unification piece, so we know that the child should be there, and the mother is reacting well to all the children in the home,” Jacobo said.
Kids who have been taken out of their homes and are then reunited with their families die at a higher rate in Florida than anywhere else in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
There’s the case of Michael Lee McMullen, a 3-year-old who suffocated in October after allegedly being wrapped from head to toe in six layers of blankets as a form of punishment. He was living with his grandmother and a friend who, unknown to DCF, has a child abuse conviction in Michigan.
“That certainly was an oversight,” Jacobo said.
In the Brevard County courtroom, Glass received a 40-year sentence for aggravated child abuse. Marshall, Glass’ boyfriend, pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing.
Lynch, chief of child and sex abuse prosecutions in Brevard and Seminole counties, said that the boy in Glass’ and Marshall’s custody is doing “much, much better.”
“When he testified at trial he looked healthy,” she said. “He was in a good home environment now. Much better, much more supportive.”
Jeri Beth Cohen
Judge, Miami-Dade County
But the case exposed deep and tragic holes in Florida’s child services. Cohen, the judge who handles child abuse cases, said that DCF needs to start requiring its investigators to have degrees in social work, and should improve the pay. Turnover at the agency is about 20 percent a year.
“The question is: Are these just throwaway children and throwaway families nobody cares about?” said Cohen. “Or do you understand this is really important work, and that the state of Florida has an obligation to take care of its most vulnerable children?”
In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott cut $179 million from Department of Children and Families*. This year, he has proposed allocating an additional $31 million for child-protection programs.
Funding isn’t the only problem. The inspector general for DCF reported (page 8 of PDF) that 99 investigators and supervisors were fired or resigned in 2012, the most recent data available. Most were fired or resigned for falsifying reports, according to the inspector general.
“You have people that don’t have the education, the knowledge, the common sense, any of those things to do this job,” Cohen said. “They’re hardly paid anything. They come in and all of a sudden they’ve got these huge caseloads with very poor supervision in a very stressful environment. And they’ve got to make decisions they’re not capable of making.”
And it’s unclear who will be cleaning up the agency. In May, Jacobo is leaving to take a position as chief of staff with the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office. Her successor will be the ninth head of DCF since 1998, a job described in Florida as "one no one wants."
* Clarification added March 20: An earlier version referred to cuts from child welfare.