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Two child welfare workers faked visits to kids, DCF says

TAMPA — Two state child welfare workers skirted their duties by falsifying reports to make it appear they visited children in the state's care, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Andrew Joseph, 36, of Riverview and Robert Matthew Vilardebo, 34, of Brandon both face criminal charges of falsifying records, jail records show.

Department of Children and Families officials are adamant that no children suffered harm from the pair's actions.

"The potential for danger is incredible — that's why we take this so seriously," said Nick Cox, regional director for the DCF. "Thank God the ending is good."

Eleven children went without visits in Joseph's case, Cox said. He did not have a number for the Vilardebo case.

FDLE officials say they do not anticipate additional arrests and that these cases are unrelated.

Cox says he believes that in such a large agency there will inevitably be a few people who cut corners, but he says the arrests pleased him because they show there is a system in place to find such flaws.

Officials used red flags, such as Joseph's failing to submit travel vouchers, to spot abnormalities, he said.

"I'm thrilled that we caught these people as soon as we found out about this," Cox said.

In September 2006, Joseph joined Youth and Family Alternatives, a New Port Richey organization that subcontracts with Hillsborough Kids Inc., according to George Magrill, the organization's chief executive.

Joseph left two months later for another job, Magrill said.

Joseph, 13716 Gentlewoods Ave., Riverview, was a caseworker in western Hillsborough County, and he was required to check on each child once every 30 days, Magrill said.

Another caseworker saw irregularities with Joseph's files, and the organization reported the problem, opening the way for the FDLE investigation, Magrill said.

Joseph faces 33 counts of felony official misconduct by falsifying records. He was released Thursday on $25,000 bail. He could not be reached for comment.

Vilardebo, 2210 Wallwood Place, surrendered to Hillsborough jail officials on Thursday afternoon.

He faces two felony counts of altering or destroying DCF records, jail records show. He was released Thursday afternoon after posting $4,000 bail.

Reached by phone Thursday evening, he called the situation ugly and embarrassing. He said he is currently unemployed, does not have an attorney and has not worked for the Hillsborough Kids subcontractor for two years. He declined to talk specifically about the allegations.

"I'm just looking for resolution for myself and my family," he said.

Investigators say in October 2007, Children's Home Society, also a subcontractor for Hillsborough Kids, became suspicious his home visits.

Investigators concluded that Vilardebo submitted false reports for two face-to-face interviews with caregivers and children, according to the FDLE.

He worked as a case manager for the organization from November 2004 to March 2006, according to the FDLE.

This is not the first time caseworkers have been accused of falsifying DCF records.

In 2006, the Fort Myers News Press outlined cases against four investigators accused of falsifying records in agency computers. One, Cynthia Alvear, was fired, accused of falsely claiming she had completed face-to-face interviews in two child abuse cases.

Another, Theona Steward, was accused of making an entry into the DCF's computer system that said she had visited a 5-year-old child, when she had not. Her case was referred to the State Attorney's Office.

In 2006, the Orlando Sentinel reported that a caseworker in Apopka, Luanne Bronson, was arrested, accused of falsifying records by changing paperwork to make it appear she had checked in on children in the state's case.

And, in what was perhaps the most infamous case, in 2002 the agency acknowledged the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson from a Miami foster home, after a caseworker had written reports that the girl was thriving with her caregivers, when, in fact, the worker had not seen the child in more than a year.

That year, Gov. Jeb Bush signed legislation that made it a felony for workers to falsify child welfare records.

Cox believes such behavior will be easier to spot in the future.

In recent months, the DCF and its contractors have added extra screening processes, Cox said.

"These are children who have been victims, and we need to make sure they're not victims again," he said.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached

at vansickle@sptimes.com or

(813) 226-3373.

Two child welfare workers faked visits to kids, DCF says 05/22/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 25, 2008 12:25pm]
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