TALLAHASSEE — Several influential South Florida legislators said Monday they will not let a legal technicality stand in the way of getting payments to the victim of one of the most horrific child abuse cases in state history.
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she "won't rest" until Victor Barahona and his new parents get the $3.75 million they are owed after he was found near death alongside his twin sister's decomposing body after years of abuse warnings to the state went unheeded.
The payment is part of a $5 million settlement agreed to by the Department of Children and Families in 2013, but Flores, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, face an uphill battle getting the money to the family.
Senate President Andy Gardiner told the Times/Herald on Monday that he stands by the recommendation of his general counsel George Levesque who, along with DCF, wants the settlement payments put on indefinite hold. Even though the state agreed to not interfere with the legislation as part of the settlement, the lawyers now argue that passage of legislation could hurt the state's attempt to fight two other child abuse lawsuits by two other Barahona children.
Nubia Barahona was 10 years old when she was found dead and smothered in chemicals in the flatbed of her father's pick-up truck on Valentine's Day 2011. Her brother, Victor, was barely alive. They had spent all of their lives in Florida's child welfare system.
A 2011 DCF report concluded that the state's safety net for the twins was a "systemic failure." Testimony showed that the children were sexually abused, starved and forced to sleep in a bathtub for years by their adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona. They were ordered to eat cockroaches and consume food that contained feces and, despite numerous complaints to the child abuse hotline, the state stood silent as their adopted parents routinely beat and bound them inside their West Miami-Dade home.
DCF did not admit liability but paid $1.25 million immediately and then agreed it would not oppose a claim bill in the Legislature for the remaining $3.75 million in settlement funds.
Lawsuits brought by two other children adopted by the Barahonas, known in court records as J.K. and J.B., are still pending and Levesque argues that Senate rules require them to postpone payment of the settlement until those lawsuits are resolved.
Gardiner, R-Orlando, called the decision "a sound legal recommendation'' but, he said, Flores could try to persuade the Senate to "waive the rules" and pass the bill anyway.
"It's an injustice of incredible proportions and we have to do whatever we can to make this poor victim as whole as possible," said Flores, a member of the Senate leadership team. "I won't rest until there is something we can do to help him and his new family."
Her remarks were echoed by Miami Republican Reps. Jose Felix Diaz and Erik Fresen as well as Hollywood Democrat Sen. Eleanor Sobel.
"Aren't we supposed to honor our word?'' asked Sobel, chairwoman of the Senate Children and Families Committee. "We have a moral obligation to right this wrong."
Diaz, who sponsored reform legislation in 2011 after Nubia Barahona's death, said "it's in the Legislature's best interest to get that child whole.''
Fresen said he believes the Legislature "can probably draft a bill that won't run the risk of adversely affecting the other cases but I don't think we should add one more delay to the otherwise dramatic situation of the Barahona case."
The House, however, does not require that all pending lawsuits be resolved to pay victims in a case but because of the Senate's decision to halt progress on the bill it cannot move forward alone.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, told the Times/Herald he was optimistic that something could be worked out.
"The case involving Victor Barahona and his sister Nubia is horrific and troubling,'' he said. "We respect the Senate's decision to not move forward at this time. This does not mean that the case will never come before the Legislature, it just will not come forward now."
Meanwhile, lawyers for the victim are filing a motion to ask the court to order DCF to honor its settlement agreement and back off its opposition to Flores' claim bill.
"DCF is trying to go back on that now,'' Flores said, "and, as far as I'm concerned, there is no word that describes how major this injustice is."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas