Girl pays for DCF missteps
Records detail how child, despite interventions, ended up with mom at crime scene.
By MELANIE AVE
Published July 7, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - Candice Farris was far from the model of motherhood when police arrested her a year ago, prompting child welfare workers to take her 1-year-old daughter away, records show.
She had 15 warrants out for her arrest in Kentucky on fraud charges. Her mother was already raising her eldest daughter. She had a history of moving place to place, and no track record when it came to holding a job to provide for her child.
Despite Farris' questionable past, Florida's child welfare system seemed to work with an almost blind and singular focus: to reunite Courtney Clark with her mother.
That's one of the overarching issues from more than 885 pages of child welfare records on the former Pinellas County girl released Friday by judge's order from the Florida Department of Children and Families.
The St. Petersburg Times petitioned the court to release Courtney's records after she disappeared from the foster care system with her mother and a caseworker failed to report it for four months. She was later found safe, amid a gruesome scene in Wisconsin that resulted in her mother's arrest on a murder charge after a body was found buried in the back yard.
On Friday, DCF regional director Nick Cox said one of the primary goals of child welfare is to try to maintain families, except in cases of egregious abuse.
"The problem is the law does require it, " he said. "You have to make efforts despite the distaste in your mouth."
The 3-inch stack of records in the case - computer entries, court petitions, e-mails, police narratives and abuse reports - show a little girl lost in a bureaucratic maze of government, community groups, courtrooms and law enforcement agencies.
The records raise questions about why more efforts were not made to place Courtney with relatives, rather than with a friend of her mother who was not a licensed foster parent and who may have played a role in her abduction.
Errors in the case also reveal numerous cracks and communication breakdowns within the state's public-private child welfare system, where DCF acts as the supervisor of 20 community agencies that administer foster care services directly.
An internal DCF review placed much of the blame on the Pinellas County foster care contractor, the Sarasota Family YMCA. The YMCA, in turn, has placed a lot of the fault with its subcontractor, Directions for Mental Health in Clearwater, which employed the girl's caseworkers.
E-mails released Friday reveal a power struggle between DCF and the YMCA to find the girl.
DCF contacted the agency at least nine times to figure out why the girl was not being visited by her caseworker or listed as missing.
About five months after the girl disappeared, YMCA senior vice president Christy Kane expressed displeasure in a Feb. 9 e-mail about the fact that a DCF family safety worker was contacting the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the girl's relatives to try to find Courtney.
"Sounds like she is doing diligent searches on our clients ... we can certainly send them all to her if she wants to take that over, " wrote Kane, who could not be reached for comment Friday.
YMCA executive vice president Lee Johnson said Friday that he could shed little light on the communication.
"I don't know how to explain it, " he said. "Maybe it was frustration. I don't know."
Relatives step up
Courtney entered Florida's child welfare system in February 2006 when her mother was arrested on an identity theft charge in Clearwater. She was found wearing only a diaper in a smelly room filled with old Chinese food at an Econo Lodge, where the family had been living for two months, the records state. Hotel workers told police the girl did not seem to be well-dressed or well-fed.
After bouncing among four foster homes, the girl was reunited with her mother two months later.
A caseworker visited Courtney several times and noted various cuts and bruises, including a black eye her mother said was from a fight the girl had with another child at a Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant.
Courtney was taken away from her mother again in July 2006 after Farris was arrested in Seminole County and extradited to Colorado on fraud and theft charges.
Records show at least three relatives, including Courtney's grandmother Ruth Farris, who is raising her older sister because of her mother's inability to care for her properly, and Candice Farris' two half sisters, tried to get custody of the girl with no luck.
A home study was requested on a sister in Kentucky, but later abandoned. Instead, Courtney was placed with Cynthia and Mark Martell of Sorrento in Central Florida, who had known the girl's mother less than a year. Their adult daughter, Michaela Clerc, met Farris in a lesbian chat room. She also faces a murder charge in Wisconsin.
Courtney's grandmother expressed outrage Friday that relatives were not considered proper caregivers. "If things had been done right, Courtney never would have been there, " said Ruth Farris of Nortonville, Ky., referring to the horrific scene in Wisconsin. "The family spent thousands of dollars trying to get her home."
Caseworkers should have checked out the relatives first, said Andrea Moore, director of a Coral Springs child advocacy group, Florida's Children First.
"The fact that she was placed with somebody the mother knew, " she said, "that's a head scratcher for me."
Records suggest that Mark Martell may even have flown to Colorado in August to bail out Farris from jail.
In October, Cynthia Martell waited 10 days to report Courtney missing. She told the caseworker she had made a mistake and given Courtney to Farris, who she said convinced her it was okay.
An e-mail from DCF family safety specialist Kathleen Matthews said she believes Cynthia Martell "abetted in the abduction."
DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth has called the handling of Courtney's case "inexcusable" and vowed to fix the problems. An inspector general's investigation is under way.
He created five new positions to help track missing children. He also plans to seek legislation that would make it easier for caseworkers to report missing children, which was a factor that delayed Courtney's entry into a critical law enforcement tracking system.
Cox, the DCF director, said his agency will take tighter controls over the community agencies it oversees.
Ultimately foster children are DCF's responsibility, he said. "I think we need to be much more involved and much more aware and have the ability to make people accountable."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified July 7, 2007, 00:34:04]
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