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.”
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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