Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman called it a “cockfight.”
The video he was describing in a court hearing last week shows two 11-year-old foster children beating each other up in the middle of a circle of boys after a Children’s Home Society of Florida (CHSFL) employee allegedly instructed the pair to “Go ahead and fight it out.”
When the fight got out of control and police arrived, one of the two boys was hospitalized for a psychiatric evaluation—a decision, Hanzman said, that was based on lies that the employee told to responding officers.
“This kid is going to be labeled as having a mental illness his whole life,” Hanzman told a CHSFL representative during the court hearing, first reported by the Miami Herald. “Probably won’t be able to get a job. All because you have a stupid, inept caseworker at your facility that encourages 11-year-olds to engage in brutal violence and stands around watching and cheering.”
Video of the incident initially spread on social media and was then reported to the authorities. As the Herald noted, the CHSFL employee has been terminated, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) is investigating the incident for child abuse, and the two boys—referred to in court as J.W. and N.L.—have been removed from the CHSFL-operated foster home, the location of which has yet to be made public.
But both Regional Counsel Eugene Zenobi and—judging from his comments during the court hearing—Hanzman are interested in taking further action against CHSFL, a private agency which runs 11 foster homes in South Florida.
“Are you going to shut down this group home or do you want me to do it for you?” the judge asked during the hearing, per the Herald’s report.
Zenobi is alleging in a court motion that the incident with the two boys may not have been “isolated” and “that all of the children in the care of CHS are potentially in danger of similar abuse.”
The Daily Beast reached out to Zenobi by phone on Tuesday but he was not immediately available for comment.
As the Herald notes, foster care in Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous county, involves three entities and two separate subcontracts. DCF, a Florida state agency responsible for child welfare, has a contract with the nonprofit agency Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe which, in turn, contracts with CHSFL to run the 11 group homes, including the as-yet-unidentified home where the “cockfighting” video was filmed.
Michelle Glady, press secretary for the DCF, told The Daily Beast, “Following a report to the Abuse Hotline, DCF opened an investigation into the supervision of the children in the home. DCF is working closely with Our Kids to make certain all necessary steps are taken to ensure the safety and well-being of the children.” Questions about the unidentified CHSFL employee, Glady said, “should be addressed with CHS or Our Kids.”
Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe CEO Jackie Gonzalez told The Daily Beast that all three child welfare organizations are “working diligently with all parties to carefully address the very troubling matters raised in court last week.”
“In addition to conducting a thorough investigation of the incident, we already have begun a comprehensive review of all relevant concerns, with a focus on providing children the best available care and services,” she said. “Our priority is to make sure every child in our care not only feels, but is in fact safe in his or her surroundings. In this case, as in all cases, the only acceptable outcome is providing for the safety and well-being of children.”
A CHSFL spokesperson told The Daily Beast: “Children’s Home Society of Florida has a deep commitment and strong reputation for protecting the children in our care. This incident is completely unacceptable and in no way represents the work our staff does each and every day. Nor does it meet our organization’s expectations and standards of care."
“The employee was terminated and did acknowledge that she did not follow our de-escalation protocols,” Dr. Maggie Dante, Southeast executive director of CHSFL, explained in further detail in a statement to the Herald.
If Judge Hanzman’s account of the incident is correct, the employee did more than fail to de-escalate; she actively escalated.
“Oh, she was very composed,” the judge reportedly said in response to Dante’s claim that the employee “lost her composure” after one boy threw something at the other. “She encouraged the kids to fight. She said [to] go ahead and fight, just don’t use weapons. Let’s have a fight. She circled everybody around. Got the kids all riled up.”
Florida’s child welfare system has long been the subject of public scrutiny. Child fatalities reported to the DCF have increased every year since 2012, when the count was 411 deaths, according to their internal statistics. In 2015, 472 fatalities were reported to the DCF hotline, including 202 cases in which the agency had had contact with the family within the last five years.In 2014, Jack Moss, a former regional director for the DCF, wrote for WLRN that the department suffers from “system overload, high turnover, and inadequate training and funding.” That same year, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation designed to reform the DCF, in response to the Miami Herald investigation “Innocents Lost,” which drew attention to the number of child fatalities.
The 2014 legislation did not change the fact that Florida’s child welfare system is completely privatized. Privatization was completed during the administration of Governor Jeb Bush and, as The Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff reported last June, it remains controversial today.
For Hanzman, who first learned about the case when the hospitalized boy could not come to court to collect his Christmas gifts, the blame for this latest high-profile incident lies squarely with CHSFL.
“What is really sad is these kids are abused, abandoned and neglected,” he said. “And then they get taken from their parents. They come in expecting refuge. And what they are subjected to is more abuse and neglect at the hands of ineptitude, and agencies who throw them in these group homes with incompetent people who stand around watching them have cockfights.”