By Florence Snyder
One week every year, the state Capitol is adorned with brightly colored handprints from tens of thousands of children who’ve happily made their mark on banners and streamers.
The annual “hanging of the hands” during Children’s Week is meant to show legislators that Florida’s children are alive and well. The streamers provide a great backdrop for governors and lawmakers to have their pictures taken in the rotunda. The visual message is “we really, really, advocate for children.”
The night before this year’s “hanging,” a nine-year-old boy in North Miami Beach was barely alive, not well, and forced to advocate for himself.
Naked and bruised, he escaped through a window in the home where he lived with his parents and five other children, and begged for food from the police officers who found him.
Hardened medical professionals looking after him in the intensive care unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital were stunned. The child had the body weight of a toddler. Bones showed through his skin.
“He looks like he just came out of Auschwitz,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman. “This is like a neon sign….to anyone who came in contact with this family the last few years.”
florida voicesThe Florida Department of Children and Families and its community partners had, indeed, been in contact with the Baileys many times since 2002. And as the boy fought for his life during Children’s Week this year, DCF was in court blaming the victim.
“There was no neglect,” said one state witness. “He just refused to eat.”
The agency’s $55,000-a-year spokeswoman scolded a reporter for a “rush to judgment” and pontificated the party line: “In this case and in every case, our priority and focus is the safety and well-being of the children.”
That line has been around since the Chiles administration. A parrot could deliver it at far lower cost than a state spin doctor.
Like the children who’ve come before him, who’ve suffered unspeakable horrors and even death on the state’s watch, the boy will, for a time, have the full attention of DCF’s “leadership team.” Low-level employees will be fired. New policies will be “put in place.” Legislative committees and newspaper editorial boards will be visited and stroked.
This valiant little boy might even get his own grand jury, like the one impaneled after a 10-year-old girl named Nubia was found dead last Valentine’s Day, decomposing in the back of her adoptive father’s pick-up truck in West Palm Beach. The grand jury was rightly enraged that the state had paid Jorge and Carmen Barahona first to “foster,” then to adopt, Nubia and her twin brother Victor, who is struggling to recover from near-death experiences with his state-selected “forever family.”
The Barahona grand jury cited the “persistent, insidious bias of trust” that caused so many state workers to ignore persistent, insidious red flags.
Such biases do not happen in a vacuum. In a system that rewards workers who stage photo-ops — and punishes workers more interested in “getting it right” than “getting it done” — corners will continue to be cut and children will continue to pay the price.
Florence Snyder is a Tallahassee-based corporate lawyer who has spent most of her career in and around newspapers. She can be reached by email here.