MIAMI- Nearly four years before a 10-year-old girl was found dead in her adoptive father's truck, a teacher told a Miami-Dade judge the girl was being abused at home and hit on the bottom of her feet in a way that wouldn't leave bruises, a child welfare lawyer said Tuesday.
School officials warned a judge who was considering whether to let Jorge and Carmen Barahona adopt the girl and her twin brother that the girl came to school dirty and was very thin and hoarding food in her desk in 2007. A kindergarten teacher also testified that the girl, Nubia Docter, had wet her pants one day at school, which is common for children of that age.
When the teacher told Nubia she was going to call her then-foster mother, Carmen Barahona, Nubia became hysterical and begged her not to call, child welfare attorney Christey Lopez-Acevedo told a panel investigating the girl's death Tuesday.
"Momma is going to hit me with a (flip flop) on the bottom of my feet," Nubia said when asked why she didn't want her mother called, according to Lopez-Acevedo, an attorney for the court-appointed guardian whose concerns prompted the 2007 hearing.
Lopez-Acevedo said at the time she didn't understand the seriousness of Nubia's allegation.
"I am (now) fully aware from what the experts tell me that is a sign of torture. No bruises are left," Lopez-Acevedo said through tears.
An expert panel tried to piece together how child welfare officials missed several red flags in the twins' adoption, despite serious abuse allegations from a school teacher and principal.
The case has highlighted glaring mistakes by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) after Nubia's body was found Feb. 14 in plastic bags in the back of the truck of her father, Jorge Barahona. Her brother Victor was in the front seat doused in a toxic chemical. Jorge Barahona has pleaded not guilty to attempted first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the attack on his son Victor.
No charges have been filed in Nubia's death. Child welfare officials have said they expect charges will be filed against Carmen Barahona, but police have not released any details because it is an open investigation.
Child advocate David Lawrence, a former Miami Herald publisher, said the case raises troubling questions. "These are signals of the highest order. How seriously did folks take what the principal was saying?" Lawrence asked. "It just seems stunningly tragic to me. It makes you cry."
Child welfare officials said a psychologist insisted in early 2008 it would be "detrimental" to remove the children from the Barahonas' care. If they did, the children would never bond with adults again, Lopez-Acevedo said.
A biological aunt and uncle from Texas had tried desperately to adopt the twins in 2005 before the Barahonas were granted full custody.
A judge ultimately approved the adoption by the Barahonas, basing much of the decision on that psychologist's opinion. Yet, that expert psychologist did not include any information about the school's abuse allegations when she made her evaluation and she did not reach out to school officials, child welfare officials said.
A case manager and two child welfare attorneys including Lopez-Acevedo read the psychologist's report that was given to the judge and saw that it didn't include the school's abuse allegations, but never said anything.
"That was a mistake several times repeated," said attorney Roberto Martinez, one of the panelists. "Nobody that read this brought it to the attention of the judge. It appears to be a pretty glaring red flag for whatever reason. Somebody dropped the ball."
When asked whether child welfare officials asked to have the children re-evaluated considering the school's allegations, Lopez-Acevedo said one of the psychologists involved in the case said it was too soon to do another evaluation.
It's common for agency experts to complete thousands of evaluations in a year. DCF typically relies on the same experts, Lopez-Acevedo said.
"Are we moving these through and even jamming these through because we have such a boatload of cases that we have to get these things moving?" Lawrence asked.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)