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Florida must do better at stopping sexual abuse in foster care, top official says

“You may have a better chance of spending a night in jail if you get in a bar fight than beating up your child,” Department of Children and Families Secretary Poppell said. “And that’s not right.”

TALLAHASSEE — During the most recent fiscal year, 92 children alleged that they were sexually abused by foster parents. Just six of those allegations were verified by the state.

Zero children under the age of five had their complaints substantiated.

Those numbers aren’t good enough, said Chad Poppell, secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families. He announced this week a new initiative aimed at helping officials detect sexual abuse reported by Florida’s most at-risk children: after an abuse allegation against a state-licensed caregiver is investigated, an oversight team will double check that investigation.

Poppell said he wants the new team of experts to “review a case dispassionately before it is closed and say, ‘you missed something, you did this interview wrong.’”

The state started re-examining how it handles allegations of sexual abuse after the case of Gilberto Rios, a state-sanctioned foster parent. The mother of two of Rios’ foster children alerted the state when she suspected he was physically and sexually abusing the two girls, ages 2 and 3. The state found no abuse, and then it sent more than a dozen more children to live with Rios. In 2018, a third child alleged that he molested her. Rios was arrested, but he died by suicide before he could stand trial.

The Rios’ case was reported in an investigation by USA Today.

Poppell’s initiative faces a tight budget year. The coronavirus pandemic has sapped hundreds of millions from state tax coffers, and demand for the department of Children and Family’s support programs has only increased. For example, some 40,000 families face eviction, Poppell said.

But speaking before the Florida Senate Committee on Children on Tuesday, Families and Elder Affairs, Poppell said the state’s new efforts wouldn’t require any more funding from the Legislature. Yet Poppell did say that more money would be required if the new investigative group looked into all instances of sexual abuse in Florida — not just those that occur in state-licensed group homes and foster homes, or abuse perpetrated by a department employee or contractor.

The department is also looking to codify the policy of not allowing children to stay in foster homes where abuse has been alleged, Poppell said. This is already done in practice, but the department is drafting language for an official rule.

Too often, Poppell said, abusers are allowed to continually abuse children with little or no consequences from the state. He said his department could look to change that, too, if the Florida Legislature passes a bill in the upcoming legislative session, which begins in March.

“You may have a better chance of spending a night in jail if you get in a bar fight than beating up your child,” Poppell said. “And that’s not right. If we can fix that, I think it’s something we should take a look at.”

Despite the new sex abuse investigation initiative, which was well received by committee members, the secretary’s testimony at times irked Chairwoman Lauren Book, D-Hollywood. At one point, while discussing why the department is able to turn such a low percentage of complaints into substantiated cases of sexual abuse, Poppell said it’s possible that some children are “manipulated” into coming forward with false allegations.

“Sex abuse is a hard thing to prove. But when you have a child that can’t talk or a child that is, let’s say they’re three, they’re very easily manipulated,” Poppell said.

Book said afterward that she chafed at that remark. Book is a survivor of child sexual abuse, and she runs a nonprofit dedicated to stopping the horrific practice.

“I am so disheartened by some of the comments about children who lie about being abused.

“Yes it does happen in instances of custody,” said Book. “But when someone is trained and able to have a conversation with a young person, you know when it is true and when it’s not true.”

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