A 3-week-old girl was sexually assaulted and battered in an Ocala area foster home, and child welfare officials could have prevented it from happening, according to a lawsuit filed last week in the Marion County Courthouse.
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Both Kids Central, the Ocala nonprofit agency charged with managing child welfare in the region, and The Centers, which offers case management services, knew that a 14-year-old boy living in the home had sexually assaulted other young children in the past.
The foster parents – identified as “the Kleins” – had set up video cameras around the house to monitor the boy’s activities. And it was those cameras that caught him abusing the infant girl for more than 20 minutes in March 2019.
“This tragedy never should have happened,” said Stacie Schmerling, an attorney with Justice for Kids in Fort Lauderdale, who filed the suit against Kids Central and The Centers. “The family never should have been licensed to care for these vulnerable, non-verbal children.”.
A Department of Children and Families investigation shows the infant was sexually penetrated by the 14-year-old boy, and she was medically confirmed to have been sexually abused.
The boy has since been charged and prosecuted as a juvenile offender. His sentence is not part of the public record.
Calls and email messages to Kids Central and The Centers on Monday were not returned.
An increasing number of children in Florida have been taken from their parents and placed in foster care since 2014. But DCF and the nonprofit agencies charged with managing child welfare at the local level have not done a good job of finding safe places for these children to stay, a USA TODAY Network investigation found.
What happened to this infant in Marion County is just one example. On Friday, the USA TODAY Network will begin publishing the first articles in a multi-part series that will look into this and other problems impacting Florida’s child welfare system.
“They privatized the system to make it better,” Schmerling said. “But now there are multiple private agencies in every county, and when a child is harmed there is finger pointing all around and no accountability.”.
A history of sexual abuse
According to the lawsuit filed against Kids Central and The Centers, the 16-year-old boy has been in the care of the Kleins since he was a baby.
The Kleins originally fostered him and his older sister, and adopted the two children in 2011 after a reunification with their biological mother didn’t work out.
The boy was only a toddler at the time.
The lawsuit states that his biological mother must have sexualized him by exposing him to pornography and having sex in front of him.
In 2013, when he was 9, he sexually molested a 5-year-old girl, the lawsuit states.
Three years later, he shared a room with his younger adopted brother, and that child made statements “about his ‘butt’ and things (his older brother) would do, indicating the possibility that (the boy) was sexually abusing the younger child or minimally being sexually inappropriate,” the lawsuit states.
Through it all, the lawsuit claims that Kids Central failed to get psychosexual evaluations for the troubled boy.
The lawsuit also states that Kids Central and The Centers continued to send vulnerable children to the Klein’s foster home in spite of boy’s psychological problems.
The boy was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder and anxiety, the lawsuit states. He had significant behavioral issues including hoarding food, stealing, lying, staying up all night to watch TV and visiting pornographic websites when the rest of the family was asleep.
By 2018, he also had a history of running away and destroying property in the house. That’s why the Kleins installed video cameras and even locked their bedroom door. They felt he “could not be trusted, violated the rules often, had problems with respecting boundaries and could not be left unsupervised in the house.”.
Impact on the developing brain
Many people will say that the 3-week-old baby won’t remember much about the sexual assault that took her by surprise in the Klein’s foster home more than 18 months ago, said Thomas Dikel, a Gainesville pediatric neuropsychologist.
“But the impact is definitely going to be there,” Dikel said. “The child’s brain develops to survive the environment in which it is placed. It needs to know what to expect from the world, whether it’s a safe or dangerous place.”.
This violence came out of nowhere, Dikel said, and the brain is not set up to deal with that kind of thing.
“I’m going to assume that she suffered at least some pain, if not a tremendous amount, and 20 minutes is an awfully long time to an infant,” Dikel said. “What she was going through was horrific, terrifying. For all she knew, she was going to die.”.
Dikel said that a child can get over this kind of trauma if she is placed in a safe environment and adopted by someone who loves and cares for her. But there will always be a possibility that another triggering event will have a catastrophic effect and throw her right back into a full blown fear response.
With regard to Kids Central and The Centers, Dikel said there is no excuse for putting a completely vulnerable child in such a dangerous situation.
“When you’re going to put a very young child in a foster home, you should thoroughly check out everyone in that foster home,” Dikel said. “If you find a real threat or major risk – particularly to do with sex offenses and a repeat offender – you’re getting red flags to the point of fireworks.
“If someone is predatory, they are going to focus in on someone that is vulnerable. Putting a young child in a situation like that is beyond shocking.”.