Four Florida families are suing Gov. Ron DeSantis, Shevaun Harris, Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), Dr. Joseph Ladapo, Executive Director of the Florida Department of Health, Patricia Armstrong, Bureau Chief of Florida Department of Health Child Protection Team, and Dennis Moore, Executive Director of Florida’s Guardian ad Litem Program.
“The theme of our lawsuit is focused on all these kids who had a perfectly available and appropriate family member and those family members were passed over or ignored in favor for people who are connected to the system,” said Attorney Valentina Villalobos.
The 177-page complaint alleges DCF, lead agencies, and contractors who operate the foster care system wrongfully took children from their families without any evidence of neglect or abuse; thwarted the attempts by family members to get custody of the children; and in one case falsely accused a grandmother of abuse and instead, put the child up for adoption. In that particularly twisted and noxious bit of insider trading, a former board member of the agency handling the case adopted one of the children. The child was African American; the foster parents were Caucasian.
“The point of the lawsuit is to stop it from continuing. We can’t necessarily undo the damage in the vast majority of the cases. An adoption in Florida, once it’s finalized, you’ve got one year to try and undo it and it’s never happened,” Villalobos said.
The complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, is based on the right to due process, protected by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; it does not seek punitive damages or even name any of the foster system operators who put “a thumb on the scale” and concealed their self-dealing and other misdeeds from the dependency court judge and the birth parents.
Their identities are known but not cited by name in the complaint. The plaintiffs cite numerous examples showing how foster care workers, DCF attorneys, and Guardians at Litem deliberately blocked “family placement” to steer kids into adoption by “insiders”. Family reunification and placement with relatives are supposed to be the primary goals of Florida’s child welfare system when kids are taken into custody. Tennessee and other states have the same priorities.
Three of the four plaintiff attorneys know a lot about DCF because they were once insiders. The lead attorney, Karen Gievers, was a dependency judge. The plaintiff families were clients.
“We know this has been happening. It’s just now that we’re in private practice and are able to do something about it,” Villalobos said. The complaint was filed last week. “We are being flooded with calls and emails and online submissions from people who are saying the same thing happened to them,” she said.
When the four plaintiff families realized how their related youngsters had been essentially kidnapped, snatched, or internally diverted, they complained to the Governor and Inspectors General of various state agencies. But nobody was held to account. The officials charged with oversight ignored the complaints and they kicked them back to the very same bad actors who did nothing “to redress the relatives of the snatched, diverted children”.
The four plaintiff attorneys decided they needed to take those complaints and file a federal lawsuit.
“They’re doing these things with the permission of the court. But then getting the permission of the court is on the basis of the court not being fully informed or not given the whole story, or evidence is being excluded,” she said.
“I don’t think the judge is being crooked but they’re going off the information that they have,” she said. Villalobos added that one judge should have known better. “The judge rubber-stamped what the department asked him to do,” she said.
The complaint alleges DCF employees, lead agencies, and their subcontractors lied, filed false reports, withheld medical records, committed fraud, and other violations of law. Those actions were widespread and long-standing. The foster system operators failed to do their job properly; they conspired with others to wrongfully take children from their families and gave them to system-connected non-relatives. In short, they corrupted the child welfare system in Florida and ran it like a large child trafficking ring.
State officials pretend such criminal behavior is not happening or that it’s just a couple of bad apples—not enough to spoil the barrel. Actually they have a financial incentive not to act in the best interests of the children.
Under the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), states get federal dollars for every adoption they complete. The payments range from $4,000 to $10,000 depending on the special needs of the child. Foster parents are entitled to certain benefits, including cash payments, when they adopt a child.
Plaintiff attorneys are not asking for jail time or even for firing the people involved. They are asking for a permanent injunction to keep the DCF and its partners from playing those dirty tricks going forward and “such further relief as the Court deems appropriate”. They did not call for the termination of contracts with service providers that were involved in the scheme.
Villalobos expects a decision from the court sometime next year. In the meantime, they may file for a temporary injunction and ask the court to order a corrective action plan that DCF would have to comply with.