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Area parents express DCF outrage
Residents to tell stories to Bush panel in Miami
By Jeff Brumley staff writer
May 15, 2002
Shock and outrage greeted the news that the Florida Department of Children and Families had lost a 5- year-old Miami girl whose relatives thought she was in state foster care.
But there are some on the Treasure Coast who say they weren't shocked to learn little Rilya Wilson had fallen through the cracks.
But not shocked.
And today, at a public hearing in Miami, they plan to tell Gov. Jeb Bush's Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Safety why.
"I'm not surprised at all," said Dennis Gaffney, a man who says he's experienced firsthand how the agency charged with protecting children can lose track of them, then try to cover it up.
Gaffney's struggle with the DCF began about four years ago, when he was accused of molesting one of his two sons.
He was never charged with the crime, and his lawyers say a polygraph test shows the alleged incident never occurred. But still he lost custody of both boys.
When he learned last summer that his oldest son, now 14, was not living with his ex-wife, as he had been told, he whisked the boy away. He has had him in his custody, illegally, ever since.
A judge ordered him to turn in the boy, but Gaffney refused. He now faces contempt of court charges.
Tuesday night, on the eve of today's public hearing, Gaffney was ready to turn himself in but not his son.
But first, he wanted to get the word out: He wants a judge, a prosecutor anybody to look at the evidence, exonerate him and give him back his boys.
"DCF has failed to protect my children and has maliciously tried to prosecute me," Gaffney said. "It's been pure hell."
The DCF has been at the center of a firestorm of criticism since early this month, when news broke that 5- year-old Rilya Wilson, who was supposed to be in state custody, disappeared more than a year ago and the agency didn't know about it until recently.
And when officials did learn, they delayed notifying law enforcement of the situation.
Bush created his panel in response to the Wilson case.
To Gaffney and other Treasure Coast parents who have had dealings with it, the case against DCF is clear: Its powers are too sweeping, and it's unwilling to acknowledge its errors. The remedy, they say, is clear as well.
"The overall solution to all of this is to remove the secrecy," said Desere Clabo-Vandevender, 30, a Port Salerno woman who spent 20 months battling the DCF before finally adopting a baby in October.
As far back as September, Clabo-Vandevender said, she made state officials and the governor's office aware of the problems.
If the state had listened, she said, "maybe, back then, we could have found Rilya."
"This is scary stuff," she said.
Then there's Stuart resident Sunny Douglas, who can't tell her story without repeatedly breaking down.
Douglas, 50, said she has spent tens of thousands of dollars and more than a year trying to get her three adopted children back from an Ohio family after the DCF awarded them custody without required hearings and without notifying child welfare officials in that state.
She also claims agency caseworkers coached her children one of them 11, and twins, age 10 to lie about her treatment of them, robbed her of visitation rights and refused to forward her gifts.
Douglas's case apparently caught the state's attention: She was asked by the governor's office to speak to the panel today. When she does, she said, she will focus on the agency's failure to follow its own rules which is the same theme coming out of the Wilson case.
"They don't even live by them at all," she said.
Betty Robinson, spokeswoman for DCF District 15, declined to comment on any specific case but asserted the agency is staffed with competent, caring people.
"The department can only do the job as it sees best to do and it sees fit for the safety of the children," Robinson said. "And we do it very well.
"We protect children very well."
Copyright 2002, TCPalm. All Rights Reserved.
And the beat goes on and on and on ...
Posted on Sun, Mar. 10, 2002
Florida is a dangerous place to be a child.
Government must protect kids
Reporter Robert L. Steinback has been with The Miami Herald since 1983 and a columnist since 1990. E-mail him at <email@example.com>
It can be a great place to grow up if you have sane parents. But children who aren't so lucky can suffer horrors so tragic that death might be considered merciful -- because no reliable system has been put in place to rescue them before the worst occurs.
The state hasn't proven it can do the job.
A state contractor has demonstrated why private industry can't be trusted to do it.
And a lawsuit seeking intervention of the federal government -- possibly the last entity capable of forcing positive change -- was recently dismissed.
So as we count pennies and argue arcane law, children are being beaten up and killed by their caregivers. Is anyone hearing their wails?
WORTH THE PRICE
Child safety may be the only task for which Florida taxpayers should say, ''Do the job and send us the bill.'' Only when we're assured every endangered child is being caught by the safety net should we search for monetary savings.
But most taxpayers don't think that way, even where children's lives are concerned -- certainly not in cheapskate Florida, which ranks near the bottom among states in spending on social services despite low taxation and relatively high income.
On Thursday, the state fired a private company hired to clear a backlog of child abuse cases. A series of Herald reports revealed the company allegedly used a rather efficient method of closing cases: not bothering to investigate them.
A state audit of 27 cases in five counties, including Miami-Dade, found the company failed to do proper assessments in 26 of them.
Former employees of the private Florida Task Force for the Protection of Abused and Neglected Children have said the company ordered them to close as many as 20 cases a week. One child advocacy group recommends investigators handle no more than 12 new cases a month.
The company denies imposing quotas.
We're not talking about installing undersized ornamental trees here. These are kids being returned to caregivers suspected of abusing them.
The privatization of child welfare -- entrusting the safety of young children to the profit motive -- was a disaster waiting to happen. It's akin to the old warning against giving a parachute contract to the lowest bidder: Florida placed the lives of children in the hands of private companies with a strong motivation to hold down expenses.
A PARTY COMMITMENT
But privatization remains the determined philosophy of the conservative Republicans controlling the Legislature and governor's office.
No duty falls more completely under the jurisdiction and responsibility of government than protecting children who are endangered in their own homes.
Parents should have domain over their minor children, but civilized societies consider this a limited sovereignty to be forfeited if misused. Only the state should have the power to overrule parental authority in defense of a child.
But parsimonious Florida never hired enough child welfare investigators nor paid them a decent wage. The 1998 death of 6-year-old Kayla McKean by her father's hand shamed politicians into revamping the state's child-protection system. Yet 30 children died in 1999 and 2000, more than in the four years prior to the overhaul.
The feds should seize control of the state's nonfunctional child welfare system, implement the changes needed -- and send Florida the bill.
But in December a judge threw out a lawsuit by child welfare agencies asking the feds to do just that with the foster care system -- denounced by one advocate as more dangerous than leaving children with abusive parents.
So the beat goes on. Which is to say, the beatings go on.
Can a dad ignore sons call for help?
By Nancy Smith, News Associate Editor
June 17, 2001
Whats a father to do? Some body please tell me.
In an Okeechobee courtroom on May 21, Circuit Judge Paul Kanarek granted sole custody of Dennis and Laura Gaffneys two sons to the mother and ordered the father to have no contact with either boy.
If you recall from previous columns, Dennis, the father, had spent nearly three years trying to regain custody of his children and prove he was innocent of improper sexual contact with the younger boy.
Well, a few days after the judges ruling, Dennis Gaffney received a police report from the Flagler County Sheriffs Department. The report said his older son, age 13, was picked up in Ormond Beach, 30 miles from Laura Gaffneys Bunnell home.
According to Deputy Zane A. Kelly, "I talked to (the boy) and evidently his mom dropped him off at (his friends house) around the first of May."
The report was dated May 17.
"It sounded as if hed been abandoned," Dennis told me Wednesday. "Was he going to school? What was he doing in Ormond Beach? This was always my biggest fear -- that my children would come to some harm and legally, I couldnt do a thing about it."
Then, on June 7, the phone rang, Dennis picked it up, it was his older son.
"He told me he loved me and he missed me," Dennis said. "He said he wanted somebody to know that DCF told him to lie about me, that he knew I never touched his little brother.
"Then he told me he needed money for shoes and clothes, but that he was living with some nice people."
Dennis said he reported the call and one other later in the day to an assistant state attorney, the state inspector general, the police and this newspaper.
The boy typed a statement for his father on a computer and dated it June 11. It said DCF officials told him to lie and it was witnessed and signed by three adults in Palm Coast.
Yates-Hammond emphatically denied the boys story as it relates to DCF.
"I have never, ever encouraged a child to say anything that isnt true," she said.
Monique Plantier, with whom the boy has been living, called the child "the sweetest, most well-behaved boy you would ever want to meet," but said she fears he "will be put in a sheriffs camp or a youth residential hospital" if he leaves her home.
In a signed letter dated Saturday, June 9, she said, "(The boy) has been under my care for the past 2 months ... he came to our house to spend the weekend with my son. He really didnt want to go home when the weekend was over and I told him he was more than welcome to stay as long as he wanted, as long as his mom said it was OK."
Plantier said it was a long time before she met Laura. "After about a month he went home for a few days, still I had only spoken to (the mother) on the phone. ... (The boy) came back the fourth afternoon. He has spent Easter and Mothers Day with us."
Plantier said the child apparently called his father one afternoon while she was fishing, while her mother was looking after the children.
"I found out when I came home and (the two boys) were upset because of the outcome. I guess Laura was told from (her son) that he called his dad. Laura left messages for me to contact her and I have yet to do so. (The boy) says she wants him home Sunday and shes going to place him."
The point is, on June 11, Laura Gaffneys attorney, Janet Schaffer of Okeechobee, filed an "emergency motion for contempt" against Dennis, saying that in spite of the judges order, the father had contact with his son, that he "enticed the child with promises of money conditioned upon the childs calling a reporter from The Stuart News to discuss various aspects of the case" and that the fathers contemptuous conduct "has undermined the mothers ability to effectively parent the child."
For the record, the boy didnt contact the News and the News didnt contact the boy.
There was no reply at Laura Gaffneys home on Thursday or Friday.
Attorney Schaffer declined comment, saying she could not discuss a confidential case involving a confidential motion.
The bottom line is, if Judge Kanarek rules Dennis Gaffney is guilty of contempt, Dennis could be sent to jail.
Again, I ask, what is a father to do?
He picks up the phone, hears a plaintive cry from his 13-year-old son who is living 30 miles from his mother, who needs money to buy shoes.
He considers his three-year history with this case -- the polygraphs he took that werent admitted as evidence, the number of times DCF interviewed the boys, the statements from investigators and therapists that back up his case, the offer to delete the sexual-abuse allegations and allow immediate access to the children if he will take a parenting class and drop his wife and her attorneys from the federal lawsuit against DCF.
Now, Im not saying who is right and who is wrong here. Im saying Dennis Gaffney trusts DCF like he trusts a snake.
Im saying no father, especially a responsible, caring one under all of these circumstances, is going to tell his son, "I cant talk to you, the court wont let me" and then hang up the phone.
One huge late development: A tearful Monique Plantier told me Friday evening that authorities had taken the boy from school Friday afternoon and placed him in a behavioral center in Daytona Beach.
"He called me and he was crying his eyes out," she said. "It breaks my heart.
"This is retaliation because of his father," she said.
Surely that cant be. Would the system designed to protect children allow children to be used to punish the parents? I couldnt ask DCF, its offices were closed for Fathers Day weekend.
Nancy Smith can be contacted by telephone at (561) 221-4238, or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns are archived on the News website, TCPalm.com.
Response to Jeb Bush, Florida's Governor
I know Dennis Gaffney personally and can vouch for his integrity and honesty. I cannot understand why or how DCF can continue to harass him in the manner they do. What the hell is wrong with those people? I should note that recent conversation with several members of the Department of Justice (DOJ), West Palm Beach, concluded that Okeechobee is an incestuous DCF hot spot. For the record, I have a cousin in WPB DOJ who is a federal prosecutor.
Jeb, I am not going to let up on this nor any other inane DCF activities until you realize that the organization is rife with incompetence and lousy leadship from the top. This same situation is endemic throughout the various Districts and extends down to county levels. How you can continue to ignore this situation totally escapes me.
DCF staffers, in general, are vindictive, fail to follow appropriate Florida Statutes, in particular Chapter 39, Section 301. Based on personal conversations with former DCF attorneys and Circuit Court judges, they lie to the courts - and judges have no recourse but to believe the more glib, well-heeled attorneys who represent DCF. The people who they generally target are either indigent or near indigent with no financial resources to fight the overpowering bullies. I have substantiated notarized statements from several Guardian ad Litem volunteers who also validate my comments above.
Court appointed attorneys are overwhelmed with case loads, underpaid, and generally don't give a damn other than to convince DCF victims, (e.g., parents, guardians) to accept DCF's charges.
Aren't you aware that only 15% of hotline abuse calls are actually attributable to true abuse? That leaves 85% who become victims of DCF ruthlessness. I should note that my statistical data is from 1998-99 fiscal year output. One can assume that the situation has worsened since that time.
Hopefully, you will take time to read the foregoing, give it some thought, and agree to review with several of us the true situation that exists throughout the State of Florida.