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Search for prison babies continues

After five weeks of searching for dozens of babies born to prison inmates and placed in unlicensed homes, state officials have failed to find all the children involved.

They also are backing away from earlier pronouncements of the network's scope.

Officials with the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services once said with that about 70 babies had been placed around Central Florida without HRS knowledge and that 38 had been found quickly. Now these same officials say 70 may not be an accurate number. And they refuse to say how many of the babies are still missing.

"Any of the real numbers that were kicked around were not reliable," said HRS spokeswoman Michelle Lagos.

Agency officials said the Lake County State Attorney's Office asked them not to discuss numbers, saying such talk would interfere with a criminal investigation of the babies' fate. Still, Lagos said HRS has been unable to find all the babies.

"Part of what's occurring is determining what children were placed directly by mothers. . . . That's permitted under the law," she said. "In a case with a personal arrangement, HRS has no point of entry.

"We are in the process of trying to identify which babies were placed that don't meet any tests that are permitted under the law."

That process has taken several recent twists:

HRS is now negotiating with a non-profit, Christian-based child care group to help care for babies born to prison moms who don't want their children placed in state custody. An affiliate of that group was investigated just five weeks ago on suspicion of illegally placing inmate babies.

The Lake County State Attorney's Office has reviewed records at the Florida Correctional Institution at Lowell and interviewed several inmate mothers. But that investigation is proceeding slowly _ partly because state laws governing child care are murky.

Several of the families caring for babies received through an unlicensed Lake County Christian group may get to continue caring for those children by registering with another non-profit group.

While the searches go on, one of the women at the center of the case maintains that she did nothing wrong.

Linda Rozar, a Lake County woman whose group, Concerned Citizens of Florida, helped care for the inmates' children, has said all along that her group only put willing inmates and families together. Beyond that, any placement of a baby was a decision made by the inmate to leave her newborn with a "friend" until she was released from prison. Under state law, "friends" do not need a license to care for a baby on a long-term basis.

Rozar, whose husband is in prison for sexually abusing children and who pleaded guilty last year to child abuse for allowing children to be near her husband, said investigators may never find all the babies who came to families through her network.

"HRS probably isn't aware that many of the children have been reunited with their mothers," she said.

Rozar, who refused to say how many of the babies had been reunited with birth mothers after those women were released from the Marion County prison, said those mothers don't want to be found by HRS.

Other babies may have disappeared from the system when they were placed with court-approved families in private adoptions. Others may still be staying with the temporary families who worked through Rozar, and those families may be keeping a low profile to avoid HRS.

As they look for the babies, HRS officials have taken a new approach to finding temporary homes for children born to women in prison: They are now negotiating with a Christian group that they hope will help care for these babies.

Ed MacClellan, executive director of the non-profit Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, said he has been meeting with HRS officials to discuss a reasonable approach to placing inmates' babies with Christian families who want to serve as temporary foster families.

Just weeks ago, one of the homes associated with MacClellan's group, Carpenters House in Lake County, was under investigation by HRS for allegedly keeping inmates' babies without a state license. Linda Manfredi, who ran Carpenters House with her husband, Pat, had been listed on HRS' abuse registry after a child in her care was found undernourished. After the prison baby network became public, MacClellan suspended Linda Manfredi from his organization until HRS has certified that she can care for children.

But MacClellan said HRS officials have agreed with him that Carpenters House was operating legally. HRS is now negotiating with MacClellan to involve his group in helping inmates who don't want to place their babies with relatives, friends or HRS foster homes.

"I've gotten the feeling from Tallahassee that they don't want to pursue any criminal charges," MacClellan said. "They would like to try to work out a solution to this. I've been very favorably impressed with the attitude of HRS' upper echelon toward us."

MacClellan said HRS' new position makes sense. The reason groups like Rozar's were operating is that there was a need. Inmates often don't want to place their babies with the state. If the inmate has no relatives to take the baby and the father is missing or uninterested, a registered foster family operating under the authority of MacClellan's group is a logical option, he said.

"Let's face it: Everybody who is in prison thinks they're not guilty and the state is keeping them there anyway," MacClellan said. "What makes anybody think that woman is going to want to give her baby to the state? She doesn't trust HRS, so a group like this can serve a need."

MacClellan's group largely operates outside HRS but with the blessing of state law. Since he receives no state funding and complies with laws requiring caregivers to be free of certain criminal backgrounds, MacClellan can operate homes and keep children outside the state system. His homes allow HRS and local officials to investigate conditions.

"There is certainly a role for them to play in this in providing temporary shelter to these children," said HRS spokeswoman Lagos. "We very much want to work with them."

The group is also near agreement with HRS on allowing the temporary foster families who received babies from Rozar's group to continue to care for those kids. Under that proposal, those families would undergo background checks to comply with state law and be registered with MacClellan's group, rather than licensed by HRS, he said.

The criminal investigation into Rozar, Manfredi, the families who kept the babies and prison employees who may have steered inmates to the Christian volunteer group is moving forward _ but slowly.

Investigators from the Lake County State Attorney's Office spent two days recently sifting through records and interviewing inmates at the prison.

But they spoke to no prison employees _ not even those who were aware of Rozar's group and maintained records on the babies' placements, said Jeff Shealy, acting superintendent of the Florida Correctional Institution.

Investigators have not spoken to Rozar, either, she said.

Sherry Byerly, the assistant state attorney in charge of the prison babies case, declined to comment on any aspect of the investigation.

The case may be a difficult one to make. Though Rozar is not licensed to intervene in placements or adoptions, she has argued all along that she did not place any babies with particular families. Her group, Concerned Citizens of Florida, merely helps inmates find couples with whom the inmate would be comfortable.

"Concerned Citizens has ministered to a number of families as well as inmates," she said. "Our motive is founded in the fact that many government programs were not meeting the needs of hurting families."

In a final twist, MacClellan said that if he reaches an agreement with HRS to help find temporary homes for babies born to inmates, he would almost certainly have to work through Rozar.

"I think we would have to," said MacClellan, who has never met Rozar. "The Christian community down there has already been providing a secret service, and she knows everyone in that community. We would need help, and she would know where to find it."

_ Staff researchers Beverly Bell, Carolyn Hardnett and Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.