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ABDUCTION'S RED FLAGS IGNORED

A review cites mistakes in the case of a toddler kidnapped by her mother.

The child welfare worker saw the toddler had bruises, cuts, a staph infection, dirty diapers. Visits to doctors had been missed. The house was messy. The mother lied more than once.

A relative even issued a warning about the mother: She is likely to abduct her own child and take her out of state.

The caseworker overlooked numerous warning signs in the case of Courtney Alisa Clark, now 2, before she was kidnapped by her mother, Candice Farris, in September from a Central Florida foster home and taken to Wisconsin, according to a review of the case released Friday by one of the agencies responsible for her care.

The child was discovered earlier this month at a home in Portage, Wis., where investigators also found a severely abused 11-year-old boy hiding in a closet and the body of his 36-year-old mother buried in the back yard.

At least 15 mistakes were made in the case of the missing 2-year-old, according to a review by the Safe Children Coalition, part of the Sarasota Family YMCA.

Bob Butterworth, Florida's new secretary of the Department of Children and Families, called the numerous bumblings inexcusable and promised an aggressive investigation into why it took a caseworker four months to report the girl missing to law enforcement.

During a Friday press conference, he said the DCF was taking the unusual step of joining a court request filed Friday by the St. Petersburg Times to open all records on the case.

"I have serious concerns about a number of aspects of this case," he said in Tallahassee. "I'm terribly unhappy, to put it politely."

Courtney was initially placed in foster care in February when her mother was arrested for identity theft in Clearwater. The child was returned to her mother in April, only to be removed again in July when her mother was arrested in Seminole County on a Colorado warrant.

It is unclear why Courtney's infant sister, Alize, born in March, was not also placed in state protective custody.

On June 14, an investigation into the girl's disappearance led police to a gruesome scene in Wisconsin.

Inside a two-story rental house, investigators found the missing girl and two younger sisters. They also found the 11-year-old boy and the body of his mother.

The district attorney in Columbia County, Wis., on Tuesday charged three adults and the dead woman's 15-year-old daughter with a total of 42 counts of murder, child abuse and false imprisonment.

The YMCA is one of two dozen private agencies that provide foster care services statewide through DCF contracts.

The YMCA review pointed to errors made by two caseworkers who worked for the agency's subcontractor, Directions for Mental Health in Clearwater.

"We have policies in place that should have worked better," said Carl Weinrich, executive director of the YMCA, which oversees foster care in Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee, DeSoto and Sarasota counties. "I'm disappointed it didn't get pushed up the ladder further.

"I think it means we tighten up. It's a training opportunity."

Weinrich said the case was complicated by a less-than-typical mother for whom arrest warrants, alleging fraud and identity theft, had been issued in Colorado and Kentucky.

"She was slick," he said.

The review also noted problems with getting the child's information into a computerized missing children system without a police report number. The caseworker tried to find Farris in Colorado, where she had a court date, but was told police "just missed" her, the YMCA review said.

Colorado authorities later issued a warrant for her arrest and she was never found, but they did not create a missing child report.

The YMCA said without the report, the girl's information could not be entered into the system.

Directions for Mental Health president Tom Riggs said he was concerned about oversights made by the young child's first caseworker in the spring of 2006. He declined to name the woman but said she quit last year.

But it was the girl's second caseworker, Carmen Callero, who failed to report the girl missing to Florida law enforcement.

Many other questions about the case remain unanswered.

Riggs said he looks forward to the DCF inspector general's investigation. He believes blame for errors in the case should be shared between his agency, its employees and the YMCA.

"I want to know what's the truth," he said. "That's what I want to know."

Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

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