FORT LAUDERDALE — A state worker made the alarming discovery: a 10-year-old boy in the front seat of an exterminator's red pickup alongside a busy interstate, convulsing from seizures, dripping in chemicals so toxic they sickened rescue workers who helped him on Monday. Nearby, the boy's father lay on the ground, unresponsive and doused in gasoline in what he later told police was a futile attempt to kill himself.
The most horrifying find would come hours later because the truck was too toxic to search — the deteriorating body of the boy's twin sister, wrapped in plastic bags, wedged between chemical containers in the enclosed pickup bed.
The boy was in critical condition Wednesday, his burns getting worse and doctors unsure of what chemical was used. His father, Jorge Barahona, was also hospitalized. He faces aggravated child abuse charges, but more charges were expected.
Meanwhile, an angry judge grilled state child welfare officials over missed opportunities to help the twins, Victor and Nubia, after an anonymous abuse allegation was called into a hotline Feb. 10 — four days before the children were found by the highway assistance worker along Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach.
The caller said the twins' feet and hands were bound with duct tape and they were kept in a bathtub as punishment. Child welfare officials also believe the girl was being starved.
The state officials described a disturbing picture of a Jorge and Carmen Barahona, who adopted the twins and an 11-year-old autistic boy and a 7-year-old girl from foster care. The couple has been the focus of at least three abuse allegations, but nothing ever came of them.
Barahona, 53, told officers he put his dead daughter in the truck and began driving with his son, intending to commit suicide. He told police he intended to light himself on fire but said he could not do it because the boy was in the truck, according to the documents. Fumes from the boy were so toxic, workers were overcome just by being close to him when they were wheeling him into the hospital. Four firefighters working the scene were treated for chemical exposure.
On Wednesday afternoon, police shut down a stretch of I-95 because they found a potentially dangerous chemical near where the truck was found. They wouldn't say what kind of chemical it was.
The Department of Children and Families began investigating the family last week after the Barahonas' 7-year-old granddaughter told an adult the twins were kept locked in the bathroom, their hands and feet bound. The child said Nubia was sometimes kept in the tub all day.
A doctor who interviewed the little girl who reported the alleged abuse, said she did so even though her grandmother told her they were "family secrets" and warned her to stay quiet.
Dr. Walter Lambert also said at a court hearing that Victor had "many, many scars." Doctors also found the boy had previously broken his collarbone and an arm.
Child protective investigator, Andrea Fleary, went to the home looking for the twins Friday night, but Carmen told them she was separated from her husband and didn't know where he or the twins were. Officials now believe she was covering for him.
"How could we have gotten a call to a hotline on Feb. 10 and a child died" a few days later, Judge Cindy Lederman said at the hearing.
When asked why Fleary didn't interview the remaining two kids in the house, she said it was 9 p.m. on a Friday. The judge was furious with the answer.
Fleary tried to interview one of the children, but Carmen Barahona became angry and made her stop, welfare officials said after the hearing. The other children have been placed in a foster home.
Carmen Barahona attended Wednesday's hearing with a piece of paper covering her face, crying and whispering at times.
The Barahonas seemed like good foster parents on paper. Before the twins were adopted, one therapist wrote in a report that the children were thriving.
Neighbors said they didn't even realize children stayed at the home, a modest orange one-story house with tropical landscape.
"I never saw these kids outside. No one knows anything about this family," said neighbor Gerardo Rodriguez, 72.