Fired Miami social worker gets 1 1/2 years in prison for extorting families of refugee children

As a newly hired employee for a Miami social services agency, Leslie Rubero Padilla’s job was to reunite unaccompanied refugee children with their parents or legal guardians in the United States.

She was supposed to charge the families only for transportation, such as airfare. But authorities say Rubero shook down more than a dozen of them by insisting they had to send her additional money or the reunification with their children would be delayed — or, worse, they would be deported back to their native country in Central America.

“This case is just so shocking because this defendant preyed on the most vulnerable people,” federal prosecutor Daniel Bernstein said at Rubero’s sentencing hearing on Friday. “Why is it so offensive? She calculated that these are people I can rip off because they are not going to report it.”

The prosecutor asked U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles to send Rubero, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud in September, to prison for four years. Bernstein pointed out that she not only exploited the poor parents and guardians for a total of $11,100, but also noted: “She had legal custody of their children.”

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Rewriting Rules On Reunification Of Troubled Florida Families

The Legislature’s child welfare overhaul bill, awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, would make it harder for the state to reunify children with dangerous, drug-addled parents.

Over a dozen turbulent years, Kaylee Ann Rice was in and out of state care as her troubled mom parented in a fog of drugs and violence. Courtney Coughlin’s rap sheet stretches 19 pages, peppered with weapons, battery and drug charges. She had been to jail twice, attempted suicide twice and wascommitted once.

Yet Kaylee, who first came to the attention of state child welfare authorities as an infant, was always returned to her mother.

The cycle ended when Kaylee was killed. Three days after her 12th birthday, she died after her mother hurtled through a red light at 90 miles per hour while fleeing police. She was trying to cash a stolen check. The girl was not wearing a seat-belt.

When Florida lawmakers overhauled the state’s child protection laws this session, they also took aim at the state Department of Children & Families’ sometimes ill-fated decisions to return vulnerable youngsters to drug-abusing and dangerous parents.

The child welfare bill, still awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, gives Community Based Care groups — private organizations contracted by DCF to provide child welfare social services — a chance to raise objections if they think reunification will leave a child in danger.

“We wanted to have a role in the conversation about reunification,’’ said Kurt Kelly, who heads the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the state’s CBCs. “Because we are providing the services, we are often the closest to the families and can contribute to the decision about whether a child can be safely reunified.’’

Over the past five years, more than two dozen children have died after either they or an older sibling were reunited with volatile, lawless or drug-using parents. The parents were shown mercy. The children weren’t.

In the most recent case, a Sanford toddler, Tariji Gordon, was killed three months after she was returned to her troubled mother, who had been stripped of custody after smothering Tariji’s twin brother. The first death was originally ruled accidental, but it appears to be under investigation again.

“The decision to reunify is similar to the decision to remove; it’s the most important decision we make in the life of a case. Sometimes we make the decision to reunify parents because they have completed the list of tasks that was given to them,’’ said DCF interim Secretary Mike Carroll. “But there is not a whole lot of analysis to determine whether the tasks resulted in a change in behavior, or mitigated the safety concerns that led us to remove the child in the first place.”

He added: “We have to get better, particularly when the case is high risk.”

The story of DCF reunifications is not as much in the numbers as the quality of some of the investigations and the decision-making that preceded them. Even when the agency takes a child away from the family — a rare occurrence — it will often return the child to his or her abuser after a parenting class or the signing of a promissory pledge.

State Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, who co-wrote the overhaul bill, said she didn’t realize the state had an issue with risky reunifications until recently, following Tariji’s death. Representatives of Central Florida private foster care agencies visited her, and expressed deep concerns about DCF’s reluctance to give them a seat at the table when decisions were made on whether to return children to their parents.

“They were telling me how many cases they had where they would recommend that a child not be reunified, yet the data and documentation was never heard in court. They would submit it to DCF, and they would not be able to make it available” to a judge, said the Republican, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services. “I was horrified by what was going on.”

Tariji’s death

That conflict came into sharp focus with the death of Tariji. The 2-year-old and her surviving siblings were returned to their mother, Rachel Fryer, after two years of living in a foster home. Early on, a court-appointed guardian ad-litem in the case expressed concern about Fryer’s ability to provide for her family. Tariji was dead within three months of moving back with Fryer, who is now in jail, charged in her daughter’s death.

Fryer is accused of killing the girl, then stuffing her body in a suitcase and burying her in a shallow grave in Putnam County, 50 miles from her Sanford home. Fryer denies the allegation, saying she found Tariji unresponsive and tried to save her with CPR and asthma medication.

Less than three years earlier, Fryer suffocated Tariji’s twin, Tavont’ae, as mother and son slept together on a couch. After the 2-month-old’s death, DCF asked a judge to permanently sever Fryer’s parental rights to her four surviving children — she had surrendered her rights to two other older children in an earlier, drug-related case. After the infant’s death was ruled an accident, Tariji and the three siblings were returned to their mother in November, 2013. She died in February.

In January, the guardian — tasked with advocating for the best interest of the child — requested a hearing on Tariji and her siblings’ reunification, citing “pressing concerns.” It was never scheduled.

In a court hearing weeks before, on Dec. 9, the guardian told a judge she believed the children were content and showed Fryer affection, but she was concerned about the mother. “The children are happy to be home with their mother. There are some concerns about the mother’s stability. Her income, I believe, is based on student loans...she has been having difficulty paying rent and having funds for food in less than a month that the kids have been home,’’ the advocate said.

At the same hearing, a DCF lawyer said there were no issues related to the reunification or the children’s safety. The judge signed off on DCF’s plan to reunite Fryer, 32, permanently with her four children, but said she wanted the case to be closely monitored. A final review of the case was to be set for this month.

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Veteran civil rights activist weighs in on foster fight

26144799.sf[1]FORT MYERS, Fla. -A longtime civil rights activist is now weighing in on a racially-charged foster care battle in southwest Florida. It's the case of a little white girl living with a black foster mom. Tomorrow, a Charlotte County judge could decide to send her to live with her sister in a white foster family's home.

Veteran civil rights leader, Willie B. Green, is speaking up in support of the local NAACP chapter, which has also stepped into this emotional battle.

It's the story of  two sisters. An 8-year-old who lives with a white foster family, and a 6-year-old who lives with Teresa Robinson, the director of the Dunbar Christian School & Day Care. Robinson wants the younger girl to stay with her.

"That's my baby," said Robinson, during an interview last week, "And i love her so much."

But she's afraid the Children's Network of Southwest Florida, the agency contracted by the Department of Children and Families (DCF), will move the girl to the home of her older sister. That's not what Robinson wants.

"I'm not going to be quiet about it," Robinson added.

The girls' biological mom, Lauren Mellen, wants Robinson to have both girls.

"If i can't have them, i would rather Ms. Robinson have them, i really would," explained Mellen. "My kids would be happy."

The local NAACP is investigating and has come to one conclusion.

"The conclusion we thought was exactly as the complaint said, this is being done on race," said James Muwakkil, the president of the Lee County chapter of the NAACP.

It's an issue Willie B. Green, a grandfather of the local civil rights movement, has dedicated his life to.

"I think the child should stay with her," said Green, the president of the Lee County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who recently started the Justice for All People Foundation. "She's been proven by them to be a good foster parent. Why wouldn't the child stay with her?"

Green supports the NAACP. He believes in this case, some foster agency employees made mistakes.

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Judge Rules Children In Alleged Pot House Can Stay With Parents

hialeah-pot-plantsMIAMI (CBSMiami) – A judge at the Juvenile Justice Center has ruled that two children who were found inside an alleged marijuana grow house during a raid this week could stay with their parents.

An attorney for the Department of Children and Families filed a petition asking that the 8-year-old and 17-year-old girls be temporarily sheltered with the state.

“Twenty three marijuana plants were found in that home,” said DCF attorney Janice Merilus. “The department is concerned about the risk of abuse.”

Merlius made her comments to Judge Alan Fine as the parents, Luis Ramirez-Gonzalez and Yamile Gongar, listened. They had been arrested earlier this week for trafficking in marijuana after police raided their home.

They were able to attend the hearing because they had posted bond.

Attorney John Faulconer said, “The parents records show that no drugs were being sold out of the home.”

Judge Fine ruled that the children could stay with their parents because it was discovered that the alleged pot house had been condemned and that the parents were living elsewhere. Ramirez-Gonzalez and Gongar left court with their children but declined to speak to CBS4′s Peter D’Oench on the way out.

Ramirez-Gonzalez is the father of the eight-year-old girl, who is in the first grade. It was discovered in court that the father of the 17-year-old girl would not be at the hearing. She is a junior in high school.

Miami-Dade Police say more arrests are expected after they found a third underground marijuana growing operation in two days.

The latest discovery came Tuesday night at a home at 583 SE 1st Street in Hialeah. Police seized 100 pounds of marijuana from a hydroponics lab set up in a covered over backyard in-ground pool. The entrance to the underground lab was located inside the master bedroom of the residence, underneath a nightstand & carpeting.

Two men were arrested; one was identified as 47-year old Alfredo Arcaya-Gonzalez.

“It’s crazy, my kids play outside, my dad’s always outside on this side. It’s just crazy,” said Enaisy Boada.

Neighbors CBS4 spoke with had no idea a pot lab was nearby but they hope any others will be found soon.

“They need to work on stopping these people, especially in these types of neighborhoods.  There are families. If something blows up a lot of families are going to go, innocent people,” said Darlene Davila.

Police say they aren’t done yet.

“There may be more arrests in the future, we have not finished our investigation,” said Miami-Dade narcotics Lt. Jose Gonzalez.

This Hialeah discovery came just hours after Miami-Dade police discovered similar operations at two separate homes in southwest Miami-Dade. In those investigations, two men and two women were arrested.

“Underground grow houses are not common at all,” said Gonzalez.  “Our bureau maybe does one or two a year, so to find three in a 24 hour period is rare.”


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