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02.24.11

Florida Child Abuse Scandal: The Victim's New Life

Amid preparations for his sister’s funeral, the surviving victim of Florida’s gruesome abuse scandal is making a “miracle” recovery—even as his foster mom claims innocence.

Just 11 days ago, he was found ashen-faced, convulsing and drifting in and out of consciousness, his skin burned from the caustic chemical his father had poured over him. But in what one doctor described in court last night as "a miracle," ten-year-old Victor Docter will leave the hospital tomorrow, marking the first good news to emerge in the ghastly child-abuse scandal rocking Florida.

The little boy, who was close to death when a road ranger found him in a truck beside a highway in West Palm Beach, Florida on Monday last week, is now mobile, able to bathe himself, engaging with staff, and making the most of the hospital kitchens. He'd like a hamburger, he told nurses yesterday. No mustard.

Paul Neumann—the court-appointed guardian ad litem who fought in vain to prevent Victor and his twin sister from being adopted by Jorge and Carmen Barahona in 2009—said that when he visited the little boy at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami on Tuesday, he was chatting away about cartoons and Pokemon card games, in stark contrast to a previous visit when he could barely muster two words.

"He was talking," said Mr. Neumann, shaking his head in disbelief. "He was so happy.”

Her lawyer has claimed in court that Carmen was "unaware" of the torture said to have been meted out to the twins in her own home.

There is good news and bad for Victor as he continues his extraordinary recovery. He will never again have to live with the Barahonas, who took him in as a foster child in 2004 and adopted him in 2009. Instead, he will instead be moving into a new, loving foster home. But his caregivers must still break it to him, if he does not already know, that his twin sister Nubia is dead, her body found in the back of Jorge’s truck in a trash bag, also drenched in chemicals. Jorge now stands accused of attempted murder for what he did to Victor, and one would imaging that murder charges for Nubia’s death will follow soon.

At the scene of the crime, Jorge, 53, who was found lying close by, apparently suicidal. He is in jail, and prosecutors have suggested that the kids’ adoptive mother, Carmen, 60, may soon join him. Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) will open a public hearing tomorrow into its handling of the Barahona case, which has sparked a firestorm of criticism of the state’s child-protective services.

Andrea Fleary, a DCF investigator who visited the Barahonas household looking in vain for the twins five days before Nubia was found dead, later told a court that she halted her efforts at 9 p.m. on the Friday before they were found because "we don't do investigations at the weekend.” She has been placed on leave. DCF officials say that she simply "mis-spoke" at the hearing and that her department had worked throughout the weekend to try to locate Nubia, Victor, and their father, despite Mrs. Barahona's lack of co-operation.

If Mrs. Barahona ever had any complaint about her husband's behavior during their 15 years of marriage, she never mentioned it. If she knew that their adopted children were being abused, as investigators believe, she never stopped it. And if she ever felt remorse for whatever role she may have played in it, she didn’t betray that emotion.

Instead, documents released this week by DCF show that Carmen, a pediatric clinic worker, and her pest-controller husband convinced social workers again and again, over a period of several years, that all was rosy in their household. As she would argue, there were always sound reasons for the multiple occasions that ten-year-old Nubia was reported by others as being bruised, nervous, hungry, frightened, poorly groomed, malodorous, and missing school.

But with prosecutors now bearing down on her, and police arriving at her home yesterday to search the house and yard, Mrs. Barahona, it appears, is acting with a newfound sense of urgency. Keen to separate herself from her husband's crimes, despite investigators' suspicions, she is preparing to file for divorce.

Her lawyer has claimed in court that Carmen was "unaware" of the torture said to have been meted out to the twins in her own home. Authorities say the children were made to stand in the bath or in garbage cans for hours on end with their hands and feet tied. Nubia was at times half-starved. Victor was found by doctors who examined him last week to have suffered past injuries including a broken arm and clavicle. He had scars on his stomach and buttocks, and ligature indentations on his wrists.

DCF papers reveal how Mrs. Barahona repeatedly glossed over or rejected others' misgivings about the children's well-being, sometimes lashing out at those who dared to voice concerns - schoolteachers, a nurse, the twins' blood relatives, and the guardian at litem Mr. Neumann.

"The fact is that these individuals conspired…they have abused their position " she and her husband ranted in a letter written in June 2007 to Governor Charlie Crist.

"Is very disturbing to see a group of people using children as tools to inflict fear and intimidate others. Is disturbing to see how easily they play with people's life..WHEN IS GOING TO FINISH?" they demanded in the letter.

Mr. Neumann, they raged, was guilty of "witness tampering, conspiracy and perjury" in his attempts to steer Nubia and Victor out of their hands. In another letter sent January 28, they raged: "This family case has been so mishandled, it has turned into a Civel [sic] Rights issue."

The DCF dossier chronicles in heartbreaking detail how Nubia and Victor were betrayed by not one family but two. Born in May 2000, their biological mother's parental rights were terminated by a court three years later due to heroin and cocaine use, and emotional persecution of her toddlers. "Mom tells Nubia she hates her and calls her a bitch," a report noted. They passed into the care of their biological father, Victor Bustillo, a Miami fisherman, until his arrest in 2004 for sexual molestation of an unrelated minor.

The Barahonas fostered them in 2004 and soon applied to adopt. Their home "appeared neat and clean, free from odors and clutter," with well stocked closets and a nicely manicured yard, a 2008 DCF assessment noted.

"Carmen states that she uses the reward system to reinforce the positive and uses the time-out system as a form of discipline. This technique seems to work well," the report added. "Getting to know the children is part of the thrill of foster parenting for the Barahonas," it gushed.

In June 2009, after a judge allowed them to adopt—despite all the doubts and objections raised—the couple wrote to DCF: "It took us 11 years to reach our goal and complete our family, but we now have four beautiful children which we have adopted and we feel very grateful and fortunate to have them."

This Sunday, Nubia will be remembered at a church memorial service, organized by parents of children at Blue Lakes Elementary School, which the twins attended until the Barahonas pulled them out last year to home-school them following multiple unexplained absences.

"Knowing what we do now, we have to think that coming to school was some kind of sanctuary for those poor children," said Joanne Muniz, president of the school's PTA from 2007 to 2009.

She recalls Nubia asking her last May, just before she and her brother turned ten, whether Mrs. Muniz would bake them cupcakes for their birthday. "So I did. I took them into school and I was very excited, but she wasn't there that day. Just didn't turn up. It was sad.”

"These were children that we hugged, that said hello to us, that we loved in our own way, and who loved us in their own way. You realize now how maybe that one day you gave that child a hug, or stopped to say something to them in a hallway, that little extra may have meant more to them than you ever realized."

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.