Judge: DCF lost track of runaway
By AMY HERDY, Times Staff Writer
For the next several months, Circuit Judge Debra Behnke repeatedly asked Department of Children and Families officials what they were doing to find the girl.
Their answers frustrated and angered her.
"The department just kind of shrugged their shoulders and gave up," Behnke said. Records show DCF officials delayed telling the girl's grandparents, who were her guardians, that she was missing. Norman Palumbo, attorney for Alicia's father, Peter Yebra, says they never tried to contact Mr. Yebra, although he was in a Hillsborough jail at the time.
"It was almost like they didn't want to admit she was gone from their custody," Behnke said.
Alicia, who was reported missing to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office by a foster parent in January 2000, called her grandparents once about seven months later to say she thought she was pregnant. She has never been found.
The recent case of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, a Miami girl missing for more than a year from DCF custody, has been a painful reminder for Alicia's family, as well as for the judge and the lawyers on her case. As in Rilya's case, Alicia's DCF caseworker says he thought the family knew where the girl was, a claim the family denies.
But unlike Rilya's caseworker, the caseworker on Alicia's case did not file false reports of her whereabouts, but simply said in hearing after hearing that he had no idea where she was.
"As soon as I saw (the story on Rilya), I said, 'I'm not surprised,' " Behnke recalled. "They really don't keep track of these kids."
Palumbo agreed. "They did nothing to find this kid," he said. "They're social workers, not investigators. They have no training for that at all. And what's a judge going to do to them?"
DCF spokeswoman Shawnna Lee said that the accusations are unfair and that DCF has done "everything appropriately" to find Alicia. While confidentiality laws prevent her from being specific, Lee said, their efforts have included contacting law enforcement, family members and schools and putting out a statewide alert.
"I know we're continuing to look for her," she said.
Lee said she had not heard of any delay in contacting the family of Alicia' disappearance. "I can't address that issue," she said. "I'm sure that's a mistake. I can't see that happening."
In a court hearing on March 13, 2001, Palumbo noted that Alicia had been missing for more than a year and asked what was being done to find her.
"We're making diligent efforts," replied an attorney for the state, Clay Oberhausen. He said they had talked to the grandparents and were searching for the child.
Carlos Ramirez, an attorney for Alicia's grandparents who was also at the hearing, then complained to Behnke that the DCF caseworker, Michael Duncan, did not tell his clients for more than a week that their granddaughter was missing when she first disappeared.
Duncan, however, told the judge he thought the grandparents knew of Alicia's whereabouts. Ramirez disputed that.
"Judge, we've been asking the department since she ran away, why they didn't even notice for, like, 14 days, we've been asking them to find the child," Ramirez said. "Insinuating that my clients know where the child's at is ludicrous. We have motion after motion, we've been here in this court, asking for them to find the child because the child was in their custody and control when the child ran away."
Alicia's grandmother, Irma Salinas, 67, told the Times that since Alicia was removed from her home, she has had no idea of the girl's whereabouts. Alicia never ran away before she was put in a foster home, Salinas said. The more time that goes by, the more she is afraid she will never see her granddaughter again.
Not knowing about Alicia's well-being is "like being tortured," Salinas said.
"They haven't told me anything that they've done. All they do is ask me where she's at. They should be looking for her, and they're not . . ." she said. "She didn't run away from me, she ran away from them."
Salinas said she began caring for Alicia after her daughter, Alicia's mother, abandoned Alicia and her brother. Alicia was 7 or 8 at the time, she said. The children's father, Peter Yebra, was sentenced in 1998 to 14 years in prison on burglary charges. Their mother's whereabouts are unknown.
Alicia was a quiet, cheerful girl with wavy black hair and black eyes, Salinas said. She loved listening to the radio and helped care for younger siblings. Her grandmother called her "my little trumpet" because of the way Alicia pursed her lips.
Records show that in January 2000, when she was 12, Alicia told a caseworker she had been abused by a relative. The Department of Children and Families removed all the children from the home -- there were five at the time -- and later returned them all except Alicia, pending an investigation. That investigation is still open.
Alicia, who was in sixth grade, was placed in a foster home on Jan. 11, 2000. On Jan. 15, she ran away.
On Jan. 21, caseworker Duncan visited the grandparents' house in Wimauma for a home study. The grandparents said when they asked Duncan how Alicia was doing, they were told to call their lawyer.
They did. Attorney Ramirez said that on Jan. 24, he learned from the caseworker, Duncan, that Alicia had run away earlier in the month.
Behnke said that delay troubled her.
"The early days are the best time to find them," she said. "Yet they didn't even advise the grandparents."
Behnke, now a criminal court judge, hopes cases such as Alicia's and Rilya's bring reform to how juvenile cases are handled.
"The statute's pretty good," she said. The problem is, no one is consistent in following it, she said.
For example, custodians of juveniles often do not get notices of court hearings, Behnke said. That, she said, is not DCF's fault.
Behnke said she would like to see DCF workers put under oath when they give a case review before a judge. She also said a child in question should be brought in for the reviews on a regular basis so the judge can see how the child is doing.
"It would be very impractical" to bring children in frequently, she said. "But it would be worth it if it saves a kid's life."
-- Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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