Lawyers for DCF contend agency didn’t lie to South Florida court; made ‘mistake’

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Attorneys representing the Department of Children and Families (DCF) told a Miami foster care judge on Wednesday they did not lie, but made a “simple mistake” when they gave faulty information about a girl who may have witnessed the suicide of another child in their foster home, according to a newspaper.

The Miami Herald reported on the tense hearing in which lawyers appeared in front of Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia, by her order and under threat of potential jail time, to prove they did not intentionally lie to, or mislead, the judge as a way to divert attention away from a child in the same foster home as Naika Venant, 14, who hung herself in January while streaming it on video via Facebook Live.

In the case, the chief lawyer for DCF in Miami, Clarissa Cabreja, appeared in court on Wednesday to tell the judge her error was a mix-up, the Herald said. A girl identified as J.W., who might have witnessed Naika’s death, was confused with another child also under DCF care with the initials J.W. – the wrong J.W., Cabreja admitted to the judge, according to the Herald.

The so-called mistake was preventing the judge in the relevant J.W.’s case not to be able to follow up on her care.

At point is whether the actual J.W., who could have witnessed Naika’s death, was receiving trauma services or the appropriate counseling she needed. Then the “mistake” happened, DCF lawyers claimed.

On Feb. 28 Sampedro-Iglesia threatened the attorneys with contempt of court and possible jail time.

Wednesday’s hearing was meant to clarify the situation, but as the Herald reported, and as video from the hearing shows, it was edgy from the start.

The attorneys were accused of not demonstrating a sense of urgency on the matter, especially in clarifying the situation with J.W., which the judge pointed out was an error not initiated by DCF itself.

In the Feb. 28 order, Sampredro-Iglesia accused Cabreja, who leads Children’s Legal Services in Miami, of not being truthful when the attorney wrote in a court pleading “that the judge in J.W.’s case had been informed that she was in the Miami Gardens foster home with Naika,” the Herald reported.

“No one thought it was important that this child had been in the home where another child had taken her own life?” Sampedro-Iglesia said to Cabreja, according to the Herald.

Then Sampedro-Iglesia took Cabreja to task, asking her a series of questions, like what was the “golden rule” of child welfare law. Sheridan Weissenborn, Cabreja attorney, objected, but Sampedro-Iglesia carried forward.

At one point, Weissenborn got up and admonished the judge, saying she was moving away from the original task at hand.

“While mistakes happened with regard to a case number,” Weissenborn said in the video excerpt seen in the Herald’s website, “the real issue here is the court’s concerns about these children, and they are getting the services they needed. That’s been taken care of by those judges.”

“There is no contempt,” Weissenborn added.

The judge said she would wait to make her ruling.

DCF, beleaguered by a series of high-profile children’s deaths in recent years and month while in under the agency’s custody, along with a host of investigator arrests, has been hobbled by its ability to control personnel and foster homes; hiring unqualified – or at the very least, unethical, investigators and placing children in dangerous homes. They have been accused by the federal government of removing children from homes too quickly, too.

In counties where sheriff’s lead child welfare investigations, funded by grants, similar instances of neglect and problems exist as well, according to annual performance review evaluations, although the sheriff’s child investigation teams tend to have a good record of initial responses to abuse calls.

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.