By Carol Marbin Miller
Just another day in child-welfare court.
But then a child welfare judge in Miami discovered information that troubled him: A social worker who gave damaging testimony against the woman — while lavishing praise on the father — had had sex with the father, at least according to the man himself. Another case worker whose testimony also was damaging to the mother had told colleagues she wanted to adopt her children after the mother lost all rights to them.
Calling the actions of the two child welfare workers — as well as their bosses and lawyers — “reprehensible” and “manifestly unconscionable,” the judge returned the four children to their mother this week. In a 40-page order tinged with anger, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael A. Hanzman said the reversal was necessary in order to undo a miscarriage of justice.
Hanzman, who presides over child welfare cases in Miami’s Allapattah juvenile courthouse, wrote that the woman could not have received a fair trial because state child welfare “agents withheld information that demonstrated bias on the part of two material witnesses.”
The Department of Children & Families “and its cadre of private sector agents are a collective prosecutorial arm of the state, charged with a public trust,” Hanzman wrote in the order, signed Tuesday. “The constitutional rights of the families brought into our dependency courts depend upon the faithful and impartial exercise of that trust. When it is betrayed — as it was in this case — due process is denied.”The mother, Hanzman added, “was entitled to a fair trial. She instead received the ‘parental death penalty’ in a proceeding infected by bias and conflict…The parties prosecuting her knew the process was contaminated, but took no corrective action. The fact that the lives of this family would be permanently altered — and the mother’s constitutional rights severed — was of no moment. The state simply trampled on those constitutional rights in its zeal to win at all costs.”
Child welfare officials in Miami-Dade had some harsh words in return for the judge. They said he had just recently ignored warnings from them and left an infant in the care of a relative who accidentally smothered him.
The woman at the center of the controversy, and her children, are not being named by the Miami Herald to protect their privacy.
Neither of the caseworkers named in Hanzman’s order — “lead witness” Tatiana Ashley and Michelle Sales, both of the CHARLEE foster care program — remain with CHARLEE, said a spokeswoman for the Our Kids agency, which oversees private child welfare programs in Miami under contract with DCF. Ashley was fired for “performance” issues unrelated to Hanzman’s order, and Sales resigned, the spokeswoman said.
Neither woman could be reached by the Herald for comment.
DCF’s ethics watchdog cleared the two women of wrongdoing in a lengthy report last August.
The Inspector General was asked to investigate the mother’s claims in January by an Our Kids’ regional manager. The IG, Christopher T. Hirst, concluded the mother’s allegations regarding Ashley could not be substantiated without a witness to the alleged affair. Likewise, Hirst wrote that there was no proof that Sales lied on the witness stand, and that her desire to foster or adopt the children did not create a conflict of interest.
DCF’s interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, who was leading DCF’s Miami district when much of the controversy unfolded, said Friday her agency is most concerned with the future welfare of the mother’s children — not with what has already occurred.
“The claims of unethical behavior by these caseworkers were thoroughly investigated by the DCF inspector general and not substantiated. Now, two years later, our attention must be centered on these children — their safety, security and emotional health. With all the information and facts in hand, my sincere hope is that the judge will do what is best for the safety and well-being of these children.”
Hanzman’s return of the four children occurs at a time of deep animosity between the judge and Miami child welfare administrators.
Earlier this week, a Miami infant born with medical concerns owing to his mother’s drug use died at the home of his adult half-sister in Broward. Hanzman, records show, sent the boy to live with his half-sister over the objections of DCF lawyers, an Our Kids foster care provider and the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which had conducted a study of the woman’s home and concluded she was not fit to care for the boy. Records suggest the half-sister may have accidentally smothered the infant while sleeping with him on a couch.
The mother at the center of Hanzman’s order this week emerged from a troubled home herself, sources told the Herald. Now 23, the woman “aged out” of foster care at age 19 with four small children, and sources say DCF continues to harbor serious concerns about her ability to raise the kids.
In July 2010, the agency’s hotline received a report that the mom and the youngest child’s father had an altercation. The children remained “safely” in the mother’s care, the judge wrote, until March 2011, when a relative complained that the father had pulled a gun on him.
When DCF was alerted to the incident by the mother, the agency placed all four children in foster care. Two months after that — and after the mom had mostly completed a laundry list of tasks designed to improve her parenting skills — the woman was arrested on a shoplifting charge. DCF abruptly reversed course, filing a petition to terminate the woman’s parental rights.
The mother, a petition said, had been “unable to gain the necessary insight required” to safely parent her children.
At trial in August 2011, Ashley, the case worker, testified that, while the mom had completed parenting, domestic violence and anger classes, and although she was “bonded” with her children, Ashley had “concerns as to her parenting,” the judge wrote.
As to the youngest girl’s father, the one who had allegedly wielded a gun, Ashley was far more complimentary. She testified that he was always “appropriate” in his visits with the little girl, and that she had no concerns about his parenting skills. Ashley recommended that he retain rights to the now-4-year-old daughter.
Sales, the order said, worked with the mother and her kids from October 2010 through the following January. Sales dropped the case, she testified, because she became fearful of the mother following a fight she witnessed between the mother and another woman. The mother insists that no such incident occurred, the judge wrote.
At a hearing on the mother’s concerns over the fairness of her trial, and in comments to the inspector general, Ashley strongly denied having a sexual relationship with the father. The father himself acknowledged the affair. The caseworker had begun “flirting” with him “while the two were in her car discussing what he had to do to get his daughter back,” the man testified. “They eventually wound up in the back seat having intercourse,” Hanzman wrote.
And, although the inspector general wrote that there were no witnesses, the father’s brother testified that he was at his mother’s house when the father and Ashley were in a bedroom having sex.
The mother of the children arrived at the father’s house in August 2011 while he and Ashley were “fooling around” in a back bedroom, the father testified. The father’s brother alerted him that the mother was walking up the stairs to see him. She confronted the couple and hit the father with a mop stick, the judge’s order said.
The caseworker, the father testified, told him that neither she nor CHARLEE were eager to sever his rights to the youngest child. He said he failed to disclose the sexual relationship out of fear that it would interfere with his custody rights.
As to Sales, numerous people — including several employees of CHARLEE — testified that she wanted to adopt the children.
So concerned were CHARLEE administrators about Sales’ desire to adopt the kids that they asked an Our Kids boss if it made sense to transfer the case to another foster care agency “to avoid any kind of conflict of interest.” The administrator, Hanzman wrote, refused the transfer request. Another judge who was presiding over the case was never told about the alleged conflict.
That omission, Hanzman wrote, “can only be charitably characterized as blatant incompetency.”