02.19.11

Florida's Horrific Child Murder

A devastating case of abuse has put the state's child-protective services under scrutiny. Jacqui Goddard on the years of unspeakable crimes—and their sudden, gruesome end.

As 4-year-olds they had little understanding of the world around them—just the knowledge that life had been tough, but that others had assured them it was about to get better. Rescued from neglect and abuse, they were promised a "forever family," a loving home where they could heal from the horrors and heartbreaks of their past and start moving toward a brighter future.

Like thousands of children who have passed through Florida’s state welfare system, Nubia and Victor Doctor had reason for hope in 2004, when they were placed with foster parents Jorge and Carmen Barahona at their three-bedroom house in Westwood Lakes, a tidy working-class neighborhood in Miami, Florida.

But as they would learn, hopes can be shattered and promises broken.

Behind closed doors, authorities say the twins were systematically abused: tied with duct tape, locked for hours at a time in the bathroom, made to stand in garbage cans, starved, roughed up, and neglected.

Six years after they were fostered and two years after the Barahonas won their full adoption – a process during which they appealed for support to then—Governor Charlie Crist saying they wanted to “just give them all the unconditional love a father and mother have”—the 10-year-old siblings are now the focus of one of Florida’s biggest child welfare scandals after falling victim to one final, gruesome assault.

Nubia’s acid-scorched body now lies in the coroner’s morgue. Victor is in a hospital in critical condition, fighting for life. The two children were found in Jorge's truck on the morning of February 14, Victor slumped in the seat, Nubia dead in a bag in the back. Jorge, 53, was unconscious, lying on the ground nearby. He is accused of dousing the pair in a chemical so powerful that it melted their flesh and sickened emergency workers who later attended the scene. He is in jail on a charge of attempted murder, relating to his son’s near-death. More charges are expected. Carmen, 60, remains under questioning, suspected of complicity.

“It’s hard to stop evil people doing evil things," Mark Riordan, director of communications at the state’s Department of Children and Families, told The Daily Beast. “There was nothing that indicated these parents were the monsters we now know them to be.”

A tangle of clues and revelations has emerged that places question marks over not only DCF’s performance but also the apparent failure by police, courts, and even family members to intervene.

But months of inquiries and investigations lie ahead, with hundreds of questions yet to be answered as to how a system set up to protect and nurture children in need could have led them so blindly into the arms of predators.

A tangle of clues and revelations has emerged that places question marks over not only DCF’s performance but also the apparent failure by police, courts, and even family members to intervene.

In the end, it was a 6-year-old—Carmen’s biological granddaughter, Alessandra Perez—who blew the whistle on the couple’s violence, telling a therapist on February 10 that she had witnessed atrocities being inflicted on the twins, but claiming that her grandmother had warned her not to go leaking “family secrets.”

The therapist had been called in by Alessandra’s father Yovani, who is separated from his wife, after the little girl began hinting at abuse in the Barahona's home. Alessandra was on Friday removed from the custody of her mother Jennifer, Carmen’s daughter from her first marriage, and placed with her father, pending further investigation. Jennifer Perez is now the subject of an investigation by DCF into why she knowingly exposed her daughter to the Barahona's atrocities, and whether she was herself a perpetrator. The agency is seeking a full termination of her parental rights, perhaps suggesting that it already believes it has the answers.

Jorge Barahona married divorcee Carmen Armesto in Coral Gables, Florida, in 1996. From their modest family home in Westwood Lakes, now valued at $189,000, they founded their own critter control company two years later, its name based on an intertwining of their initials—CJ’s Pest Exterminator Inc.

By then in her mid-40s, Carmen was unlikely to add to her brood of two biological children. Instead, they decided in the ensuing years, they would open their home to foster children.

Blond twins Nubia and Victor arrived in their home in 2004. Their biological mother was a drug addict and alcoholic; their father was said to have sexually abused his daughter. After five years in foster care, the Barahona's adoption of the twins was finalized in 2009.

Yet the children’s aunt—the sister of their biological father—had along with her husband also applied to adopt the little brother and sister, keen to have them kept within their blood family rather than handed to strangers. A protracted legal battle ensued, but the judge ultimately ruled in the Barahona's favor.

“As time progressed, what began to work against my clients even though they were blood relatives was the fact there was said to be a ‘significant bond’ that had developed between the children and the foster parents, and a glowing home study (from DCF), and some sort of psychological evaluation that implied that the most appropriate place for them was with the Barahonas,” says Miami lawyer Steven Grossbard, who represented the aunt and uncle. “It just seemed like a runaway train…Despite our best efforts and a few red flags, the court wasn’t convinced of the case for my clients adopting. Looking back it’s 20/20 hindsight—if they had, we’d have two happy, healthy children here today.”

Deepening the mystery is that the children were allowed by DCF and the court to remain in foster care for five years before adoption, defying state recommendation of one year. During that time Paul Neumann, a volunteer guardian ad litem, who had been appointed to advocate for the children while they were in foster care, had raised strong reservations to the court about the Barahona's suitability as caregivers.

Yet the couple lashed back in a series of letters to Governor Crist and to adoption officials in 2007, alleging that they were being “falsely accused” by Neumann, whom they accused of “arrogance and smart remarks.” They insisted, “We love our children very much and we will do whatever we need to do for them.”

Sonia Ferrer, executive director of the guardian ad litem program, explains: “We were very concerned about the placement, so concerned we had our attorney file for an evidentiary hearing at which we brought in witnesses, provided testimony, filed numerous reports with the court. We were saying, 'The court really needs to look at what’s happening to this family.’"

“Despite our concerns, the court moved forward with the adoption…It’s so frustrating,” she says, adding that Neumann is “just devastated” at news of Nubia’s death and Victor’s fight for survival.

Details of the objections have not been officially divulged. But Grossbard says he understood that some of the concerns raised at the time included that the children had been missing school or perpetually arriving late, often in an unhygienic and ill-kempt state, and Nubia displaying such intense hunger that she would pounce on the slightest crumb.

Grossbard’s clients now plan to apply for custody of Victor. “They are extremely distressed, just beside themselves. God willing, Victor pulls through,” he said.

DCF had cause to visit the Barahona's home four times from 2005 to date—the first to discuss sexual abuse of Nubia by her biological father prior to her placement, and the second in 2006 to discuss a bruise on her face, which was examined by an independent doctor and determined not to be the result of abuse. The third visit, in 2007, centered on concerns that Nubia had been arriving at school in a shoddy state—concerns that echoed those expressed by Neumann, but which were felt upon examination to be associated with a hormonal condition she suffered. A similar verdict was reached in 2010 when Nubia was reported by her school to be “acting out,” stealing food, appearing nervous and jittery.

Lawyer Howard Talenfeld, president of Florida’s Children First, a child advocacy agency, said, “I’m very worried that there were a number of red flags signaling this was a dangerous place before and after the adoption. There were a number of calls. There are obviously a lot of questions.”

Jacqui Goddard is a freelance foreign correspondent for British national newspapers including The Times, Sunday Telegraph and The Scotsman. Based in Florida since 2002, she has also written for publications including the South China Morning Post, The Australian, the Christian Science Monitor, The Globe and Mail (Canada), and reported for BBC radio.