MIAMI – Nearly four years before a 10-year-old girl was found dead in her adoptive father's truck, a teacher told a Miami-Dade judge the girl was being abused at home and hit on the bottom of her feet in a way that wouldn't leave bruises, a child welfare lawyer said Tuesday.
School officials warned a judge who was considering whether to let Jorge and Carmen Barahona adopt the girl and her twin brother that the girl came to school dirty and was very thin and hoarding food in her desk in 2007. A kindergarten teacher also testified that the girl, Nubia Docter, had wet her pants one day at school, which is common for children of that age.
When the teacher told the girl she was going to call her then-foster mother, Carmen Barahona, the girl became hysterical and begged her not to call, child welfare attorney Christey Lopez-Acevedo on Tuesday told a panel investigating the child's death.
"Momma is going to hit me with a (flip flop) on the bottom of my feet," the girl said when asked why she didn't want her mother called, according to Lopez-Acevedo, an attorney for the court-appointed guardian whose concerns prompted the mid-2007 hearing.
Lopez-Acevedo said at the time she didn't understand the seriousness of the girl's allegation.
"I am (now) fully aware from what the experts tell me that is a sign of torture. No bruises are left," Lopez-Acevedo said through tears.
An expert panel is trying to piece together how child welfare officials missed several red flags in the twins' adoption, despite serious abuse allegations from a school teacher and principal.
The case has highlighted glaring mistakes by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) after the girl's body was found Feb. 14 in plastic bags in the back of the truck of her father, Jorge Barahona. Her brother Victor was in the front seat doused in a toxic chemical. Jorge Barahona has pleaded not guilty to attempted first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the attack on his son.
No charges have been filed in the girl's death. Child welfare officials have said they expect charges will be filed against Carmen Barahona, but police have not released any details because it is an open investigation.
Child advocate David Lawrence, a former Miami Herald publisher, said the case raises troubling questions.
"These are signals of the highest order. How seriously did folks take what the principal was saying?" Lawrence asked. "It just seems stunningly tragic to me. It makes you cry."
Born to a drug-addicted mother, the twins were placed in foster care in 2004 after their biological father was arrested for allegedly fondling a neighborhood child. He was later accused of sexually assaulting the twins. Agency officials said they did not know if he was convicted of a crime in either case.
A biological aunt and uncle from Texas tried desperately to adopt the twins in 2005 before the Barahonas were granted full custody. Caseworkers, psychologists and therapists gave glowing reports about the Barahona home, saying the children were thriving there and had bonded with the family.
The Barahonas were serving as foster parents in the spring of 2007 when the school contacted Lopez-Acevedo with the abuse allegation. The child welfare attorney immediately asked for a hearing to look at the twins' placement with the Barahonas and whether they were fit parents.
Several hearings were held over the next few months as therapists, school officials and guardian ad litems weighed in on whether the Barahonas should be allowed to adopt the twins.
A psychologist completed an evaluation and recommended approval for the twins' adoption by the Barahonas in February 2008, child welfare officials said. The psychologist concluded it would be "detrimental" to remove the children from the Barahonas' care. If they did, the children would never bond with adults again.
However, the psychologist did not include any information about the school's abuse allegations when she made her evaluation and she did not reach out to school officials, child welfare officials said.
A case manager and two child welfare attorneys, including Lopez-Acevedo, read the psychologist's report that was given to the judge and saw that it didn't include the school's abuse allegations, but never said anything.
A short time later, Judge Valerie Manno Schurr approved the adoption, basing much of the decision on the psychologist's opinion.
Child welfare officials said Tuesday they were not certain if she was the same judge who was informed of the abuse allegations in mid-2007. Manno Schurr did not return a phone message Tuesday afternoon.
Attorney Roberto Martinez, one of the panelists investigating the girl's death, said during Tuesday's meeting that the abuse allegations should have been brought up again in 2008, when the judge was weighing the adoption.
"That was a mistake several times repeated," Martinez said. "Nobody that read this brought it to the attention of the judge. It appears to be a pretty glaring red flag for whatever reason. Somebody dropped the ball."
When asked whether child welfare officials asked to have the children re-evaluated considering the school's allegations, Lopez-Acevedo said one of the psychologists involved in the case said it was too soon to do another evaluation.
It's common for agency experts to complete thousands of evaluations in a year. DCF typically relies on the same experts, Lopez-Acevedo said.
One child advocate wondered if adoptions are getting the kind of review they should.
Lawrence asked Tuesday: "Are we moving these through and even jamming these through because we have such a boatload of cases that we have to get these things moving?"
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