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After years of ignoring red flags, DCF secretary finally recognizes department’s failures in stopping child sexual abuse

After years of protestation by families, children, and advocacy groups that sexual abuse is rampant in state foster homes, DCF secretary Chad Poppell recognizes DCF’s failure in stopping children placed in state-licensed foster care from being sexually abused.

The Miami Herald recently disclosed that during this past year, ninety-two children in Florida reported being sexually abused by state-licensed foster parents. However, only six allegations of sexual abuse were verified by the state, leaving eighty-six children left alone in the dark, many forced to remain with their alleged abusers.

Non-verbal children are especially at risk, as no child under the age of five had their allegations of sexual abuse substantiated by state investigators this fiscal year. USA Today recently covered the horrific story of a three-week-old girl who was sexually assaulted and battered in an Ocala area foster home which child welfare officials could have prevented, according to the lawsuit filed by our firm in Marion County. The state-licensed private agencies knowingly placed the three-week-old infant in the same foster home that housed a 14-year-old boy who had a history of sexually assaulting young children. The agency’s placement resulted in the infant being sexually abused and penetrated by the 14-year-old. “This tragedy never should have happened,” stated Stacie Schmerling, the Justice for Kids attorney representing the infant, and a partner at justice for kids, a firm dedicated to providing legal services to protect abused, disabled, and injured children in the foster care system. “The family never should have been licensed to care for these vulnerable, non-verbal children.”

The Miami Herald highlighted the case of Gilberto Rios’, another case filed by our firm, as just one example that is the systemic problem of child sexual abuse being ignored in foster care placement decisions. Justice for kids represents multiple victims who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Rios’, a state-sanctioned foster parent who physically and sexually abused children placed in his home. Despite multiple abuse allegations against Rios’ and the overwhelming signs he was sexually abusing the foster children placed in his care, state investigators determined the allegations were unfounded and continued to send dozens of children to Rios’ home. The licensed foster parent would continue to sexually abuse children the state placed into his care until he was finally arrested when a third child told officials he molested her. Rios’ committed suicide before he could stand trial.

Justice for kids applauds both Senator Book and DCF Secretary Chad Poppell for bringing to light the widespread sexual abuse that occurs in Florida licensed foster homes. Poppell’s new initiative in providing an oversight team to double-check completed abuse investigations will help combat the continuing abuse of children, but it will not be enough. Too often, Poppell states, “abusers are allowed to continually abuse children with little or no consequences from the state.” However, to combat this wide-spread problem, more must be done at the forefront to protect children from being sexually abused before placement.

As a result of an overwhelming number of children entering the foster care system, children are put in great danger of abuse, neglect, and catastrophic injury when placed with abusive, negligently screened foster parents. The need for more foster homes often leads to serious allegations against current foster parents to go unchecked, and DCF contractors to cut corners during the screening and investigating process in order to quickly license potential foster parents. To become a state-licensed foster parent, an individual should go through a rigorous screening process to ensure safe placement. However, far too often, corners are cut, red flags are missed, and children are placed with individuals who have a history, that if carefully investigated, would reveal that the foster parent should have never been licensed to begin with. Conceivably the best way to prevent the sexual abuse of foster children is to implement a more vigorous background check, which includes the complete search of all arrest reports, law enforcement records, and allegations made against the individual attempting to become a licensed foster parent.

Until a systematic change, such as a heightened screening process to become a foster parent, is implemented, sexual abuse of children placed in foster homes will go on. Justice for kids will continue to advocate for that systematic change and fight for those children that have suffered extensive harm by the agencies that were supposed to protect them so that they can receive the services they desperately need for their recovery.

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