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Unsafe haven

The state has too few foster homes and too many children who need them. The result, critics say, is pressure to overlook allegations of abuse.

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
From 1992 to 1996, the state cycled nearly 30 children through the Moss home near Plant City.

By WAYNE WASHINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 19, 2000


TAMPA -- It was half a lifetime ago, but that's not so long when you're only 14.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter says she remembers clearly her time in the foster home of Charles and Marjorie Moss. She remembers the day she learned what living in that home would be like.

Charles and Marjorie Moss were arrested in May on felony child abuse and neglect charges.
Nauseated, Ashley was hurrying to the bathroom when she threw up on the floor.

Marjorie Moss didn't clean up the vomit. Instead, Ashley said, she held her face in it. "You know, like you would do with a dog you were training," Ashley said.

In May, the Mosses were arrested by Hillsborough deputies on 40 felony child abuse and neglect charges. Marjorie Moss is accused of punching children, hitting them with a wooden paddle, locking them outside for hours with no food or water, holding their heads under hot water, and threatening them with a gun.

Police said Charles Moss did nothing to stop her. Neither, it seems, did the state Department of Children and Families.

The department knew about some of the abuse seven years ago. Instead of acting decisively, however, the department offered the Mosses counseling and reminders of its policy against the use of corporal punishment.

Nearly 30 children were cycled through the Moss home from 1992 to 1996. Even as the department investigated and found indications of abuse, it recommended the Mosses be allowed to adopt eight of the children.

Child welfare advocates say Florida's foster care system, like those across the country, is broken: too many kids, not enough foster parents. Critics say those factors have bred a willingness by the state to ignore or tolerate abuse by foster parents.

Karen Gievers, a Tallahassee attorney who specializes in child welfare, sued Gov. Jeb Bush and various department officials last week on behalf of children who say they were abused or neglected in foster care.

Ashley, taken into state custody at age 3 from a mother who abused drugs, is one of the plaintiffs.

Gievers said Ashley's experience in the Moss home is simply a variation on a statewide theme. According to the lawsuit, children in South Florida and Orange County were placed in a foster home with a convicted sex offender, and a girl contracted syphilis as a 9-year-old in the foster care system.

"Children should be safer in foster care, not less," Gievers said. "One of the ironies of our foster care system is that many of these children are being taken from abusive homes, and they face an increased risk of abuse in foster care."

How could this happen? How could a system set up to protect children fail them so completely?

The 277-page foster care file of Charles and Marjorie Moss offers some answers.

It reveals a department so vast and bureaucratic that reports on the home conflict with one another. It shows a department unable, or unwilling, to dig deep enough to substantiate abuse allegations that might shut down a badly needed foster home.

In June 1993, the department assessed the Moss home this way: "Mrs. Moss has a great amount of love for children, and because of this, she has developed the ability to deal with them very affectionately. I have seen only strengths, no weaknesses. I think her home should be used as long as she has the desire to be a foster parent."

Ashley, placed in the Moss home that month, has a different assessment. She stayed in the home for less than a year, but said it was an unforgettably horrible experience, by far the worst of her 13 foster homes.

"Everything initially was nice," she said recently. "They were kind. Everything seemed like a nice foster family."

But that changed as the Mosses took in more and more children, Ashley said, and the cruelty became commonplace.

When Ashley wet the bed, "they gave me a saying to say," she said. " "I'm a filthy pig, and I wet my bed. I'm sorry I made the house smell like p---.' I remember having to say the word "p---.' " Wetting the bed also meant sleeping in the soiled sheets until laundry day. "They changed and washed the sheets once a month," she said. "If you wet the bed, you were stuck with those."

She also remembers having to share bath water, even if the youngest children had defecated in the water. "You just had to move it out of the way," she said.

It was a place of rules and repercussions, she said. Boys and girls were to stay in their separate areas. Lying and stealing would be dealt with brutally. Everybody but the babies had chores, like cooking, cleaning or yardwork.

And the most important rule: What happened in the house stayed in the house. Or else.

Some of the children did behave badly. Stealing, especially by the boys, was common, some of the foster children recall. Just as common were the savage punishments, they said.

The Mosses have posted bail. Through their attorney, Henry Nobles, they declined to comment. The couple, Nobles said, are victims of manipulative children and a department that believes anything the children say.

"They make it hard to be foster parents," Nobles said of the department. "You take a kid 15 years old who's been in the system four or five years. When foster parents try to deal with them, they know how to work the system. The Mosses have an excellent record as foster parents."

The Mosses' record as foster parents is full of abuse allegations. But department spokesman Tom Jones said there was never enough proof to back up the allegations. He said the children would recant to investigators.

"Without eyewitnesses or substantial proof, there is really not much us or law enforcement can do about it," Jones said.

A system overloaded

Couples willing to open their homes to foster children are invaluable to the department. At any given time, there are 200 more children in foster care in Hillsborough than legally allowed. State law forbids foster homes from having more than five children, including a family's biological children.

In Hillsborough County, a dozen homes have 10 or more children. One has 16.

Statewide, 12,312 children were in foster care as of April 30, department officials say. Nearly 10,000 of those children live in 3,872 licensed homes, 514 of which have more than five children.

The district that includes Hillsborough and Manatee counties has 904 children living in 317 foster homes. The Pinellas-Pasco district has 632 children in 259 homes. In Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties, 639 children live in 224 foster homes.

The crunch is most severe in Broward County, where 1,167 children live in 357 homes.

Because of the overcrowding, almost 2,500 children have been placed in group homes or emergency shelters to await foster homes.

Would department officials overlook or tolerate abuse because there's such a desperate need for foster homes?

"I certainly would hope not," Jones said. "Our staff is professional enough to know that child safety comes first. But I could see that that might be in the back of somebody's mind. Literally, we're busting at the seams. There's no place to put these kids."

Marjorie and Charles Moss stepped into that long-standing breach eight years ago. They took in difficult children, kids who had been abused and weren't working out in other homes.

The deference the department showed them comes through in the official record.

An unsigned page in the file reviewing the Mosses' first year hints at the trouble to come:

"They have continuously been overcapped with as many as 10 children in their home. It appeared that there had been no unusual incidents or reports, and that all policies and standards were maintained. My original inclination was to increase the capacity to 10 per your request. However, at a staffing with (child protection investigators) on 7/9/93, I was made aware that the Mosses have used inappropriate discipline techniques, such as putting hot sauce in children's mouths, and physical exercise. The fact that they are resorting to these methods might be an indication that they are frustrated and/or overwhelmed. Therefore, capacity will remain at seven."

Instead, the department sent more children into the home.

Children who lived in the home say the Mosses were skilled at concealing abuse.

Heidi Beatham, who is 20 and lives near Ocala with her husband and three children, was 12 when placed in the home in July 1992.

She said the Mosses were unusually kind to the children in the days before visits by a caseworker, visits that were always announced.

"They'd give her three or four days' notice," Beatham said. "She'd clean the house. She'd make sure that they didn't beat the kids and leave fresh bruises."

It's easy to look back now and say the department should have acted, Jones said, but each allegation was investigated.

"These kids would not talk to their counselors," he said, "and those that did recanted when it was investigated."

Children interviewed for this story say they were afraid of what Marjorie Moss might do if they spoke out.

Eager for more children

Marjorie Moss, 53, was born in Canton, Ohio, and raised in Tampa, one of 16 children. She told the department that her mother was the disciplinarian in the family. She also said she had survived a marriage so abusive she was sent to the hospital 13 times. That marriage ended in 1969, and she remarried two years later. That marriage also ended in divorce.

She had two sons and a daughter with her first husband and another son with her second husband.

Charles Moss, 72, grew up in Mangum, Okla., and left home at 17 to join the Merchant Marines. His first wife, Nora, died after 28 years of marriage, a union that produced two children.

The Mosses met when Marjorie rented a mobile home from Charles, a pool installer. They dated for a couple of years, lived together for a year and married in 1982, department records show. When they married, Marjorie had three children at home, and Charles was caring for his stepdaughter.

They settled in unincorporated Hillsborough on a 10-acre tract where neighbors know each other but put a premium on privacy. It's a place of dirt roads and bad dogs behind fences.

Charles rented mobile homes he owned. That, combined with his job earnings as a pool installer and a Social Security check one of Marjorie's sons received, led to an annual household income of roughly $75,000.

It was a happy, active household, the Mosses told the department. It wasn't, however, what Marjorie had grown up with. She wanted lots of children around.

"I know there are kids who can use my time and love," she told the department.

Her words were sweet music to the department, and the Mosses were granted a provisional foster care license in July 1992.

In the early to mid-1990s, when the Mosses were taking in children, foster parents received from $296 to $313 per month for each child younger than 12. They were compensated $372 to $389 for each child over 12.

Foster parents get 85 percent of that assistance if they adopt the children in their care.

The department does not have records showing how much money the Mosses received, but their house was always full.

A year after the Mosses were granted a foster care license, the department felt compelled to set up a meeting with the couple to reinforce its policy against corporal punishment. Still, the abuse allegations kept coming.

In January 1994, the department received a complaint that the Mosses failed to bathe Ashley's brother, put hot sauce in the children's mouths and stuffed food down another girl's mouth.

On April 1, 1994, that investigation was closed "without classification," a term Jones said describes two situations: those where abuse seems to have taken place but there is no indication who the abuser is; and those where abuse took place but there is conflicting evidence.

Gievers, the child advocate who sued the department last week, said having the department investigate foster parents it licenses is a problem.

"Everything in them cries out for these cases to be closed as unconfirmed," she said.

A department report from May 26, 1994, indicates two children were removed from the Moss home because of "neglect and possible abuse."

Still, that didn't change the department's view of the Moss foster home, records show.

"This has mostly been a good year for the Mosses despite having to go through several abuse investigations," one of the reports said. Almost a year later, on March 28, 1995, the department received another abuse allegation, which was later closed as unfounded.

A report written April 21, 1995, shows the department had suspicions about mistreatment but continued to place children in the home and allow the adoptions.

"Mrs. Moss denied the abuse allegations," the report said, "but the (child protection investigator) found some indications for the alleged maltreatments of confinement/bizarre punishment."

A year later, the eight adoptions were complete. Jones said a confirmed report of abuse led the department to shut down the Moss foster home in 1996 and block the adoption of a ninth child. Department records show the Mosses, however, had decided to stop being foster parents anyway.

"Mr. and Mrs. Moss have already adopted eight children," a May 9, 1996, report said. "They wanted to adopt a ninth child. Due to a verified abuse report involving their adopted daughter, however, they were not going to be able to adopt (a ninth child). This child will be adopted by Mrs. Moss' sister. The Mosses requested closure today."

In the four years since the Moss foster home was closed, Jones said, the department investigated seven abuse allegations involving the adopted children.

Finally, in April this year, the state removed the children. On May 10, the Mosses were arrested.

Jones said privacy rules prevent him from saying what prompted the department to take action. But police reports suggest the Moss home became a hellish place for their adopted children.

Excerpts from the reports describe a house of mayhem:

"The (defendant) physically and maliciously struck the victim numerous times. On (one) occasion, the (victim) was repeatedly struck w/a 2x4 board across the head, back and upper body by the (defendant) for not being able to lift/move a heavy 6x6 log."

"On a separate date, the (defendant) repeatedly punched the (victim) in the face w/a closed fist, because the (victim) couldn't get a VCR to operate after moving it."

"The (defendant) physically and maliciously struck the (victim) numerous times w/a wooden paddle. On (one) occasion the (defendant) kicked the (victim) to the ground and continued to kick the (victim) until the (victim) fled outside."

"On (two) occasions, the (defendant) forcibly pulled the (victim) into the bathroom and repeatedly held the (victim's) head under water for punishment."

"(Defendant) also threatened to kill (victims) w/a gun for not cleaning their rooms."

She got out

Ashley's home in Citrus County is a world away from the one she shared with the Mosses.

Tucked behind a row of trees, it faces Kings Bay, where osprey swoop to pluck fish from waters manatees roam.

In a vast room upstairs with a computer and a work desk, books are stacked on shelves that stretch from ceiling to floor. The view through huge windows is like watching the Discovery Channel on a wide-screen TV. There are comfortable couches to enjoy the books and the view.

Ashley, adopted in 1998, said she never dreamed of a life like the one she lives now.

But her experience in the Moss home is with her still. It bubbled up in her mind when she learned of the arrests. "I was really glad that justice had gotten through finally," she said.

She speaks those words with a composure that belies her age. Her mother, Gay Courter, said she was told that Ashley was removed from the Moss home after complaining about abuse. Department records don't give a reason she was moved.

Ashley just knows she was one of the lucky ones. She got out.

She belongs to someone now, and it shows. At school, she is something of an academic prodigy, an honor roll student in honors classes.

"She's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of student," said Ben Johnston, one of Ashley's teachers. "It was amazing having her in my class this year. Every paper she turned in, she wants it perfect."

Ashley has played on softball, basketball, track and volleyball teams. She was editor of the school yearbook and served as a peer facilitator, making sure disagreements didn't turn into fights.

She is a determined, focused girl, Johnston said.

Now, some of that determination and focus are aimed at the Mosses and the system that allowed them to take in children.

In addition to serving as a plaintiff in the lawsuit against state officials, she gave a statement to police to support the case against the Mosses.

"They used us to get money," she said of the Mosses. "They used us to look like better people in the community. My whole goal is to make sure they never get children again."

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