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Pinellas sheriff: Former investigator lied about protecting kids (w/video)

By Kathryn Varn
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Guiltieri announced the arrest of a former child protective investigator, Steven Urban, shown being escorted to a patrol vehicle at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in Largo on March 8, 2017. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]

LARGO — A former child protective investigator was arrested Thursday, accused of lying on reports, including more than 40 cases in which he never met kids who were potentially at risk.

Steven Urban, 29, faces 10 counts of falsifying records, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. An internal review found that his conduct spans many more cases: Out of 142 child welfare cases over a year period, Urban lied or reported misleading information in 75 of them, the review found. In one recent case, he reported that he had interviewed a family member who died in 2014.

"This guy needs to go to prison," Gualtieri said during a news conference Thursday. "He needs the harshest of consequences ... because he put kids in harm’s way."

Urban, who had worked at the sheriff’s office for six years, resigned Jan. 17 soon after he was confronted with the allegations, Gualtieri said. He made about $47,500 a year. Sheriff’s deputies arrested him at his home in Largo. He declined to be interviewed by deputies, Gualtieri said, and did not answer questions from reporters as he was being taken to the Pinellas County Jail on Thursday.

The agency is one of six sheriffs’ offices in Florida that contracts with the state to investigate allegations of child abuse or neglect. The findings of the review of Urban’s cases sparked a policy change for the agency, the sheriff said. From now on, the child welfare supervisor responsible for quality control will pull five random cases a week and call family members and witnesses to ensure the investigator spoke to them.

"It’s unfortunate we have to do that," Gualtieri said, "but that’s what we’re going to do to make sure we close that hole."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pinellas sheriff’s investigator fired, could face criminal charges for involvement in child custody battle.

The discrepancies came to the agency’s attention in January. A different child protective investigator was looking into a tip that a mother had thrown knives at a relative in the presence of her child. Urban had investigated the same family two months before based on a domestic violence complaint.

When talking to family members and witnesses, the investigator referenced Urban’s investigation. They told her they had never spoken to Urban.

A sergeant found that not only did Urban make up interviews with people at home and at school, including a guidance counselor at Countryside High, but he claimed he spoke with a family member who had died three years prior.

Gualtieri ordered a review of all 142 cases Urban had worked on from January 2017 up until he resigned. About half had to be re-investigated, Gualtieri said. In 44 of them, Urban never saw the children who were the subjects of abuse, abandonment and neglect allegations. In 29, he didn’t talk to anyone at all.

The allegations ranged from children living in drug-addicted households to kids caught in the middle of domestic violence with a gun involved.

In one case from December, a child was reported to have been physically abused by excessive spanking. Urban wrote he conducted interviews and risk assessments, then marked the claim unsubstantiated. He made it all up, Gualtieri said. In another falsified case from August, Urban said he spoke with a child and family members after an allegation came in that the mother was abusing opiates.

Two cases, once re-investigated, resulted in children being removed from their homes because the alleged harm was still occurring. They were a 4- and a 10-year-old who were often left alone unsupervised by their mother, and a 7-, 8- and 10-year-old whose parents failed to provide necessary medication.

Gualtieri said the children weren’t harmed, but "they continued to be in harm’s way between the time he (Urban) should have done the investigation and when we did our followup," he said.

The Sheriff’s Office is in the process of reviewing Urban’s cases over the rest of his six-year career. The agency’s 80 child protective investigators handle about 11,000 cases a year that come in through an abuse hotline, Gualtieri said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pinellas sheriff disciplines deputies in arrest, but not for excessive force.

This was Urban’s first job in child welfare, according to his personnel file. His employee evaluations were mostly positive, noting his organization and, in one dated February 2017, his diligence to "see/interview the subjects of his reports."

Evaluation notes dated November 2015 said a supervisor found 10 cases that lacked interview and observational notes and contained evaluations that were submitted late. After a discussion with his supervisors, he remedied his conduct, the evaluation notes.

Requirements for the child protective investigator job include a bachelor’s degree, which Urban had in sociology. Applicants must pass a polygraph test, psychological screening and a background check. Once part of the agency, investigators go through several rounds of training before receiving a full case load.

While working a case, an investigator must conduct interviews and assessments, then discuss their findings with their supervisor. The fact that Urban’s conduct made it through those layers of oversight makes it particularly troubling, Gualtieri said.

"It leaves a knot in your gut," Gualtieri said. "This is just the antithesis of what we do."

Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.