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Published Wednesday, June 7, 2000, in the Miami Herald

Lawsuit: Child welfare system abusive

Among the defendants: the Department of Children and Families.


An Orlando attorney filed a class-action lawsuit against the state's child welfare system Tuesday in federal district court, alleging the system engages in ``fantastic abuses'' of the constitutional rights of parents and children.

The suit says the desire to draw federal funds to Florida drives the state's child protection laws and compromises the legal rights of parents whose children have been removed from their care.

It names as defendants the Department of Children and Families, its secretary Kathleen Kearney, the state's juvenile court system and a host of other entities involved with the system.

``The defendants have engaged in a systematic process by which the families, parents, children, and citizens of the state of Florida have been terrorized, traumatized, and torn asunder,'' says the suit filed by H. Robert Dowd.

Officials for the Department of Children and Families said they could not respond to the suit Tuesday because they had not seen it. Among the 12 named plaintiffs, who hail from across the state: a Miramar man whose daughter has spent more than two years in an emergency shelter, and the mother of 6-year-old Kayla McKean, whose father beat her to death, prompting a reform in child protection laws. Department workers took away Elisabeth McKean's other daughter in an attempt to restrict her conversations with the press, the suit alleges.

The suit presents a litany of alleged missteps on the department's part, including interviewing and removing children at school or day care. Often, department officials remove children on Fridays, giving them the weekend to prepare their case before they go to court, the suit says.
In addition, the suit says, the department is too quick to medicate children in its care, frequently over the objections of their natural parents.

``No family in Florida is protected from abuses under the child welfare system,'' the suit warns.
The suit also takes issue with a law that gives parents 12 months to show the court that they have become fit parents. ``Reunification is a fundamental right, not an administrative option,'' says the suit.

Paul Abbott, the Miramar plaintiff, however, has been separated from his daughter for much longer -- since 1998. His daughter has lived in a shelter since then, despite state laws that limit a shelter stay to 60 days without an adjudication of dependency.

Over the years, more than eight judges have heard motions in Abbott's case, but his case has yet to go to trial.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Also read How Florida’s continuing foster care panic endangers children