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DCF office that handled Spirit case had trouble at top

The Northeast Region of Florida's child welfare agency includes 20 of the state's poorest counties — with a few exceptions, a hodgepodge of small towns and junctions the state's development boom left behind, save for the area's sprawling prisons.

Against that backdrop, the region's leader faces immense social challenges. The size of the task — and the consequences of failure — became manifest last month when the six children of a Gilchrist County woman were murdered by their grandfather. A Sept. 1 abuse hotline report had remained idle for two weeks when the rampage occurred. The family was the subject of 18 prior child abuse reports.

A 38-page report from the Department of Children & Families' Inspector General portrays the region's top administrator, David Abramowitz, as a boss without boundaries, a sometimes profane leader preoccupied with the appearance of his staff. In conversations with individual workers, Abramowitz is accused of calling female employees "hoochie mamas" and "hos in high heels."

Shortly after DCF completed that investigation into Abramowitz's behavior, the region faced its deadliest day: On the afternoon of Sept. 18, after a long history of drug abuse and violence, 51-year-old Don Charles Spirit fatally shot his 28-year-old daughter and all her children before killing himself. Sarah Spirit's children ranged in age from 2 months to 11 years. The carnage exploded two weeks after DCF had been told the drug use of "the adults" in the home endangered the youngsters.

The inspector general investigation of Abramowitz, released in a final report Sept. 2, found that his behavior did not reach the level of creating a "hostile work environment." The inspector general did recommend that Mr. Abramowitz receive, "at a minimum, appropriate training."

The report contained no allegations that his management style had resulted in poor outcomes for children or vulnerable adults within DCF's orbit. But the report paints the former U.S. Army colonel as a bully with a salty sense of humor whose administration sometimes resembled a frat house. Several witnesses described Abramowitz as unprofessional, though many added they did not find him threatening.

When then-DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo, a Miamian, was leaving the department, Abramowitz called a meeting to announce her successor. "During this meeting, Mr. Abramowitz stated that Ms. Jacobo was Cuban and "swam to the United States," the report said. In another instance, he referred to a child abuse supervisor — in her presence — as having "her name on the back of the boys' bathroom door." He told an African American investigator to change her hairstyle because she looked like the rapper "Lil Wayne."

Stiletto shoes were a pet peeve of Abramowitz. In department meetings, an investigator said, Abramowitz referred to "hoochie mamas wearing high heels." And in a phone conversation with a program administrator, the report said, Abramowitz complained that some agency investigators were ignoring an edict to cease wearing blue jeans or high heels to work. "I bet you those hos are still wearing stilettos," he said.

In a Saturday night phone chat, he suggested the administrator "go to [her] boyfriends and 'get some'," she told the IG.

The same program administrator told Abramowitz that a female underling felt uncomfortable around a male colleague, the report said. Abramowitz purportedly replied that he needed the male investigator's phone number so he could come and "molest my wife."

A top agency lawyer in the region accused him at a meeting of behaving like a "12-year-old."

Abramowitz, through a DCF spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed, saying his response to the findings were "in the report." Abramowitz acknowledged he suffered from a "lack of filter," and said it was difficult to transition from the military to civilian management. "In my previous 30 years in the military, my mouth, I was always kept out of trouble because the people around me would protect me," he told the inspector general's investigator.

Abramowitz could not recall some of the statements he allegedly made. He did not remember referring to a woman's name on the restroom wall; he did not recall suggesting that his former boss, a Cuban American, had "swam" to the U.S., and further, "does not see any humor in the comment."

As to any monitoring of his female employees' shoe choices, Abramowitz told investigators he was well-intentioned.

"Mr. Abramowitz explained that he is very concerned about the [investigators] wearing seven-inch or eight-inch high heels because they might hurt themselves by spraining their ankles," the report said. "He is also concerned what the perception is in the field, and that the [investigators] are not out there to get a date. In using the term 'hos' he was talking about the gals that dressed themselves like streetwalkers." He added, the report said: "I don't need that. I don't want that."

Abramowitz's management style, he told the investigator, resulted from an intent "to always make people feel comfortable so they can come and talk to him about any topic." Since the complaint was lodged, he has matured, Abramowitz said.

"I would say if you did a survey of 1,200 people in [the department] in this region, my sense is they know me. They understand me and I would sense that they care, but some of the questions are concerning to me because I have to re-look at myself and have to re-direct how I am going about engaging people because I am obviously going about it wrong," Abramowitz told the inspector general's investigator.

The investigation began May 7 with an anonymous complaint that, at a meeting attended by high-level child welfare administrators and representatives from the area's private foster care agency, Abramowitz yelled at an agency lawyer, Tricia Meisner, and followed her out of a conference room in an aggressive manner. "The anonymous complainant also indicated that on other occasions, Mr. Abramowitz used expletives and derogatory remarks toward staff members and threw paper or reports at staff members."

Meisner filed a separate complaint following the April 30 staff meeting to DCF's Office of Civil Rights, accusing Abramowitz of gender discrimination and harassment, the report said. Meisner, the report said, "believed that Mr. Abramowitz's behavior toward her was because she was a woman."

During the April 30 meeting, the discussion turned to the fate of a disabled 17-year-old boy under the state's care. At age 18, the boy would be at a crossroads: He could stay in foster care another four or five years, and allow DCF to provide room, board and other services. Or he could "opt out" of extended foster care and ask a separate state agency for disabled people to care for him. Meisner, Abramowitz and several witnesses all agree the dust-up concerned what was best for the youth, and that it ended with Meisner crying and leaving the meeting.

In her statement to the IG, Meisner, a 17-year-employee, said Abramowitz jumped from his chair and screamed he was "sick and tired of her" and that she "is not welcome back at any of my meetings." She said he treats women differently by being dismissive and raising his voice.

Leaving the meeting, Meisner said, she felt "upset, uncomfortable, and humiliated."

Interviewed by the inspector general, Meisner's boss, George Beckwith, who heads child welfare legal services in the region, said he tried to quell the confrontation as Abramowitz accused Meisner of being a know-it-all, prompting her eyes to well up. "In an attempt to defuse the situation, [Beckwith] asked Mr. Abramowitz 'What are you, 12 years old?'," the report said. "Mr. Abramowitz replied, 'Yes. I am 12.' Mr. Abramowitz then slammed the door in his face."

Abramowitz countered that he did not believe he was yelling, but acknowledged he has a deep voice and is a "forceful guy," the report said.

"I mean, I can get mad, but that was not me getting angry. It was me being passionate on my beliefs on what I thought at the time," he said in his statement, later adding, he will, "never, ever get in a situation like this ever again."