5 Florida Judges Reprimanded in $500 Million Child Welfare Agency Conflict

Five Florida judges were recently reprimanded for favoring one child welfare agency over another in a $500 million state contract, which is now before the Supreme Court. Our Kids Miami-Dade Monroe Inc. was the agency of choice, who has held the contract with the state since former Governor Jeb Bush doubled funding for privatized foster care. This tight knit group of “child advocates” spearheaded the efforts to airlift hundreds of Haitian children to Florida in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. • The judge who penned the letter to DCF favoring Our Kids in a bid for a $500 million contract, also went to bat for them back in 2004. • Foster children in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties have been moved as many as 10-20 times, and 25 children were moved to more than 80 foster homes. • Just one week after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, then Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Family Services George Sheldon, initiated the plan to airlift nearly hundreds of  Haitian children over to Florida, ‘Our Kids’ and the Miami Archdiocese simultaneously got on board, Janet Napolitano lifted visas, Joe Biden visited the Miami Archdiocese, and Sheldon landed himself the position of Acting Assistant Secretary for Children & Families with HHS. In May 2019, five South Florida judges of the 11th Circuit Unified Children’s Court faced charges for favoring a company in a competitive bidding process for the Florida Department of Children and Families. The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission determined that they had violated Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct and recommended a public reprimand by publication, but Florida Supreme Court has the final word of judicial discipline, which is still pending. They were favoring child welfare agency Our Kids Miami-Dade Monroe, Inc. over Citrus Health Network, Inc. in a 5-year $500 million contract with the Department of Child Services for foster care and adoption services. Our Kids had held the contract for over a decade. Retired Judge Cindy Lederman had authored a letter addressed to the Florida Department of Children and Family Services (DCF), which four other judges signed. A fifth judge, Maria Sampedro-Iglesia had also signed it but was not part of the inquiry and has since retired. General Magistrate Steven Lieberman had also signed it, but was not part of the inquiry. A snippet from the letter clearly shows their bias. This model must survive the ITN process ….. We have worked with Our Kids and we have complete faith only in the Our Kids model of leadership. When you select the agency please keep our voices in your mind. Ultimately, in the end, Citrus Health received the contract. So why are these judges so invested in Our Kids? Let’s take a look at the history of the foster care system in Florida, Our Kids history and reputation, and several people connected to Our Kids, to glean what this favoritism may be all about. After reviewing the facts, perhaps this “hot mess” will become a bit clearer, as there are some very concerning connections dating back to the privatization, Haiti, and child tragedies. Former Gov. Jeb Bush Doubled Down on Privatized Foster Care Florida began an experiment with privatized child welfare services in 1996 when the State Department of Children and Families spent $27.5 million on five pilot programs between 1997-2000. Only one program in Sarasota Fla was successful. Despite this, and the lack of evidence to show that privatizing foster care would be beneficial for children, in 1998 the Florida legislature mandated that all foster care and related services be privatized between 2000 and 2002. This mandated that DCF contract with a single lead agency, referred to as Community-based Care (CBCs) that administer services in each area. In 1999 Jeb Bush became governor of Florida and served two terms through 2007. By 2004, forty-two percent of Florida was operating under privatized foster care and adoption services, and Our Kid’s was in negotiations for managing the $500 million 5-year contract in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties – a contract that Judge Cindy Lederman was eager to see them get. By 2011, reports came out indicating that privatized foster care and adoption services was costing millions more than it was when it was state run. The Sun Sentinel quoted former Gov. Jeb Bush, “We doubled the state funding, which was woefully underfunded, when I became governor,” Spending went up because much-needed services “weren’t being provided, and now they are,” Bush said. As time went on, reports reflected that the foster care system got far worse, more tragedies occurred, and at one point they had no idea where 500 children were, under Jeb Bush’s watch. In 2018, the Tampa Bay Times did an investigation tracking the placement of over 280,000 foster children between 2000 and 2017 in Florida. They found that thousands of foster children were being moved numerous times with more than 7,500 moved an average of once a month. Others had been placed as many as six times in one month. One child was moved 50 times within one year, and another 43 times. Since 2013, there has been a 40 percent rise in the number of children in foster care homes or housed with relatives, in the state of Florida. Our Kids Miami-Dade Monroe Inc. Red Flags Our Kids is a non-profit that was founded in 2002, and manages foster care and adoption services for the entire southern tip of Florida, as well as the Keys. It’s neighbor ChildNet Inc. serves Broward and Palm Beach counties, and they’ve had their fair share of issues as well. In 2013 they paid $2.2 million to settle a case involving two young girls that were repeatedly sexually abused by their mother, after they had been warned by experts and judges. By 2016, ChildNet had a major deficit, and the $67 million annual federal funding was no longer cutting it. A task force was created to review the situation, and found that there was a staggering increase in the number of at-risk children entering the system. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office Child Protective Investigators had removed nearly 1,400 children in 2015 alone, and were doing so at a rate of 7.8 per 100 children, compared to the statewide rate of 6.4. Why mention ChildNet when the focus is on Our Kids? Because there is a clear pattern of abuse and neglect happening in Florida and some of these individuals in this report cross into these boundaries as well. Our Kids facebook and LinkedIn are both down. Their website is called “fostering our kids,” not making it the easiest site to find, considering they deal with foster homes, adoptions, and seek volunteers. In fact, their main business listing in google doesn’t even reflect their website link. Their homepage slogan states, “Be a hero. Foster, adopt, volunteer, give.” How are folks supposed to do that when they don’t even list their website? When you click on “About Our Kids” or “Privacy Policy” it takes you to a dead link of an older website of theirs that is now defunct. After several attempts at manually typing a url for their “About Our Kids” page, and repetitive 404 errors, it would seem that they do not have an “About” page. Gosh, for $100 million per year federal grant, one would think they would keep this info tip-top and fully accessible. What’s curious, is that they seem to go out of their way to conceal who the founders really are. 2004 tax returns reflect Barbara Ibarra as the President, and an article in the Miami Herald refers to her as the founding President of Our Kids. Her husband, Charles D. Scurr serves as the Executive Director of the Citizen’s Independent Transportation Trust. He was the former City Manager of the City of South Miami, Florida, as well as the Executive Assistant for Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami. Additionally, he served with the Urban Mass Transportation Administration in Washington, DC and Atlanta, GA, and with the Miami-Dade Transportation Administration. Another name mentioned as a “founder” is Berta Blecke, a Miami child advocate. She is also listed on tax returns as a Trustee of Our Kids. Blecke is very close friends with Janet Reno, who served as the Attorney General of the United States from 1993 – 2001, by former President Bill Clinton’s appointment. Blecke also serves on the Janet Reno Endowment Advisory Committee, as does Janet Napolitano, the former United States Secretary of Homeland Security. She was mentioned as a close friend and colleague, along with Eric Holder and others, in ‘The Making of Janet Reno: The People’s Lawyer.’ Blecke is also a founding board member of the Florida Foster Care Review. Berta’s husband James C. Blecke is listed as Judge Cindy Lederman’s attorney for the recent reprimand of her drafting the letter trying to sway the $500 million contract toward Our Kids. Two individuals that played vital roles in facilitating Our Kids are George Sheldon, former Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Family Services, and former AG of Florida, Bob Butterworth – both of whom served on the board of Our Kids, were very close friends, and have extensive backgrounds as well as connections. These roles go back to the tragic days of airlifting children over from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, as documented below in this report. In reviewing their 2002 articles of incorporation, an H. William Walker Jr. is identified as the registered agent, and there are 22 initial trustees listed. Walker is a real estate lawyer, ordained priest of the Episcopal Church, was chairman of the board for United Way of Florida, founding trustee of Trinity Episcopal School, founding president and director of the Florida Foster Care Review Project, founding director of Kristi House, and of course vice chairman and trustee of Our Kids. Berta Blecke was a fulltime volunteer at Kristi House, a treatment center for children that specializes in sexual abuse, and as mentioned above, was also a founding board member of the Florida Foster Care Review. Barbara Ibarra was one of the trustees of the Kristi House, going by the name “Bobbie.” Another trustee was David Lawrence, who has a very extensive background in advocating for children, beginning in 1999 after having been the publisher of both the Miami Herald and the Detroit Free Press. He was also named by then Gov. Jeb Bush to the Florida Partnership for School Readiness, and served on the board twice. In glancing over some of Our Kids Google reviews, there are some big red flags. One individual said that she wanted to be a foster parent, went through the classes, and the case worker never showed up. She tried for months and no one ever returned her calls. Another person went on quite a rant about how they lie and will do anything to get children adopted that end up back in the foster care system. They suggested that Our Kids would be sued for their wrongdoings, then turned up later to gloat about them losing their contract. A third woman claimed that the case workers never respond, nor do they respond to the kids. The ones that did leave four or five stars, had nothing to say, with the exception of a few that were “translated by Google,” two of which weren’t even in the context of reviews and made little sense. Red Flags On February 14, 2011 a tragedy occurred when a survivor and victim were found in a pest control truck along the side of I-95 in Palm Beach County. Their adoptive father, Jorge Barahona, owned the truck. The 11-year-old victim was dead and the survivor suffered severe injuries and was covered in chemicals. Sadly, these children had been terribly tortured and physically and sexually abused for years, likely since the Barahona’s gained custody in 2004. The state had placed these children into the foster home of the Barahona’s, and later facilitated their adoption. The survivor and the victim’s estate sued … Continue reading 5 Florida Judges Reprimanded in $500 Million Child Welfare Agency Conflict