TAMPA — One boy raped another in a foster home three years ago, according to a lawsuit that says the state and two private contractors should have prevented it.
The victim's attorney says the case illustrates one effect of Florida's decision to put its child-welfare system in the hands of multiple private agencies: When something goes wrong, the blame disperses like a shotgun blast.
"They all say, 'Oh, not us, not us, look over there, not us,' " said Karen Gievers.
The boy was sexually assaulted when he was 9 or 10 years old, according to a lawsuit filed last month. Gievers said a judge removed the boy from his parents after they fought with each other and after the father violated a no-contact order by picking the boy up from school.
Authorities placed the boy in a foster home where he had to sleep in a bedroom with four or five other boys, including a notorious bully, Gievers said. The foster mother told child-welfare authorities that the bully was hurting the smaller boys, Gievers said, but a caseworker told her there was nowhere else to put him.
The boy has since been returned to the supervised custody of his father.
"He's become more and more withdrawn," Gievers said. "Likes to just sit in his room."
She filed suit on the boy's behalf last year against the Florida Department of Children of Families and Hillsborough Kids, a private organization to which child welfare has been outsourced.
"Hillsborough Kids is saying, 'It wasn't us,' " Gievers said. So last month she sued a third agency: The Children's Home, a Tampa institution that has arranged more than 6,000 adoptions in its 116 years. It's one of six main subcontractors for Hillsborough Kids, and its workers helped oversee the boy's case.
"Be mindful that when somebody's litigating, they're going to make it look like God's the devil," said Children's Home president Gerard Veneman.
He used to fly Chinook helicopters over Vietnam, back when that was almost a death sentence, and he says made a deal with God: Get me out of here alive and I'll use my life for the greater good. He went back and got a degree in social work.
Veneman stood by a drawing board in his office Wednesday morning, holding a black marker.
"Let's go with a hypothetical case that mirrors the one you're talking about," he said, drawing a stick figure of a child and a flowchart of all the agencies that might be involved: at least three private contractors. "We have to spread the liability."
But what happens if there's a house with five or six foster children?
"Each one of those kids could have a different case manager from a different agency," said Larry Cooper, a program manager, adding that this is a good thing because it means more people are watching the house.
"That's more than likely," said Cynthia Hewitt, assistant director of community-based care for Hillsborough Kids.
"Is this the best way?" Veneman said. "This is a work in progress."
He said Hillsborough has the highest adoption rate in the nation, and in recent years the number of children in the system has fallen dramatically.
He also said a different subcontractor decides which child is placed where.
"What I hope you are understanding is how small of a role — not insignificant — but how small of a role we have in this case."
Gievers, the boy's attorney, is a children's advocate based in Tallahassee. Despite their opposing positions, Veneman said she plays a valuable role.
"Unfortunate things happen in any system of care," he said. "And one of the ways all of us stay on our toes is we really don't want to meet Karen Gievers."
"That's true," Hewitt said.
Thomas Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3416.