Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Florida Sen. Ronda Storms demands answers in child deaths

Sen. Ronda Storms told Gov. Rick Scott's social services secretary Wednesday to "dispense with the niceties" and demanded he provide some answers to recent child abuse deaths that have exposed cracks in his agency.

"Welcome to your baptism by fire,'' said Storms, the chairwoman of the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee as David Wilkins stood before her committee for the first time. "You've had very difficult days and weeks and I respect that."

Then she barreled ahead, asking him to explain what the state Department of Children and Families is doing to address the "horrible atrocities'' surrounding the 10-year-old Miami twins tortured by their adoptive parents after being in state protective custody.

Wilkins, 50, a former global managing director for Accenture Health and Public Service, has been on the job only a month, yet he has had to confront the death 10-year-old Nubia Barahona, of Miami, and the discovery of two Delray Beach siblings, 10-year-old Jermaine McNeil and 6-year-old Ju'Tyra Allen, whose bodies were found last week stuffed in suitcases and dumped in a canal.

Nubia's body was found on Valentine's Day in the flatbed of her adoptive father's pest control truck, drenched in toxic chemicals. Her twin, Victor, was found hours earlier in the pickup's cab, burned by caustic chemicals and convulsing but still alive. He is recovering at a therapeutic foster home after being released from the Jackson Memorial Hospital's burn unit. The adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, face charges of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and child neglect. In the case of the Delray Beach siblings, police have a suspect in custody, but he has not been charged.

Wilkins said he traveled to Miami the day after Nubia Barahona's body was found and said he encountered "finger pointing of all the different parties."

"I realized the situation was much more complicated than I understood," he said. "I believe an overall systematic failure contributed to this process due to outdated business processes, conflicting rules and responsibilities that exist in this agency, institutional lapses in quality, governance and accountability."

But Storms interrupted Wilkins as he tried to describe the panel of social service experts he appointed to conduct an independent review.

"I appreciate what you're saying, but what I want to know is how will this be different?'' said Storms, a Republican from Valrico. "How many more investigations, how many more death reviews will we have?"

Wilkins promised to work "very aggressively" to reform DCF, and he called the case "the defining moment of my early tenure."

He said he wants to restructure the jobs of child protection investigators — the agency's "first line of defense" — and enhance their tools and technology. He said he has worked side by side with them, but is concerned about their lack of experience. More than 56 percent of DCF investigators have less than two years' experience and turnover is high — 64 percent — in three regions of the state.

Wilkins acknowledged that DCF's problems are deep. He said the limited training requirements "are misdirected" because they focus on case management and social work instead of "how to assess a situation." He offered no immediate remedy for the current situation.

The review panel's report on the Barahona case is due out Monday and Wilkins said he promises to adopt the recommendations.

Storms, however, said the agency failure goes beyond DCF. She blamed Community Based Care, a local organization contracted to handle the agency's work.

"I'm tired of just throwing caseworkers under the bus,'' Storms said. She said she agreed to give local groups more flexibility, but they "are not doing their job."

She lambasted the groups for "having some gall" to ask the Legislature for exemptions from liability for negligence and chastised their executives. She then urged Wilkins not to defend them: "You should just duck and stay out of the way."

Wilkins said he will use his business experience to improve the agency's hotline and call centers, increase "community engagement" and keep the focus on accountability.

Storms then finished with a commendation and a plea. She thanked Wilkins for leaving a comfortable retirement from the private sector to work for the state.

"Please do not disappoint us," she said. "Do not shrink away from the job. You have a short window of opportunity for goodwill … take that goodwill and exploit it."

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at

Florida Sen. Ronda Storms demands answers in child deaths 03/09/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2011 10:20am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Shooting sends man to hospital in St. Pete


    ST. PETERSBURG — Police were investigating a shooting that occurred around 4:40 p.m. on Tuesday and sent a man to the hospital.

  2. Police: Man tries to lure child with puppy in Polk County


    Times staff

    HAINES CITY — A man was arrested Sunday after he tried to entice a young girl into his camper to view a puppy, according to police.

    Dale Collins, 63, faces a charge of luring or enticing a child under the age of 12. [Photo courtesy of the Polk County Sheriff's Office]
  3. Scaramucci on leaks: 'I'm going to fire everybody'


    WASHINGTON — Anthony Scaramucci, President Donald Trump's new communications director, vowed Tuesday to purge the White House staff of disloyal aides in an effort to crack down on leaks, as another member of the press staff resigned from a West Wing reeling from an unfolding shake-up.

  4. Editorial: Coming together to reduce car thefts


    The simple, knee-jerk response to the juvenile car theft epidemic in Pinellas County would be to crack down on offenders with an increased police presence and stiffer sentences. Thankfully, local community leaders did not stop there. As detailed in a recent Tampa Bay Times follow-up to its 
As detailed in a recent Tampa Bay Times follow-up to its "Hot Wheels" investigation into youth car thefts, a variety of ideas from multiple directions increases the odds of actually solving the cause and not just treating the symptoms.

  5. Editorial: Floridians' health care now at risk in Washington


    The health care for millions of Floridians is now at risk. The U.S. Senate's dramatic vote Tuesday to begin debate on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act with no idea what will happen is a dangerous gamble with American lives and the national economy. Barring an unexpected bipartisan compromise, a handful of …

    Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., dramatically returned to the Senate for the first time since his brain cancer was diagnosed and cast the key vote that enabled Vice President Mike Pence to break the 50-50 tie and allow the health care debate to proceed.