Foster care abuse alleged

Foster care abuse alleged

Two brothers claim in a lawsuit that the state failed to stop their sexual and physical abuse.

Published October 13, 2004

PINELLAS PARK – The two brothers grew up in separate foster homes, but both say they were abused again and again – physically and sexually – while in foster care in Hillsborough County.One brother said he was sodomized in three different homes. The other claimed he was also raped and forced to sit in his urine for hours or kept outside without food or water.

Both brothers, Jesus de la Cruz and Sue F. Flores, claim in a lawsuit against the state Department of Children and Families filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court Tuesday that they told caseworkers about the abuse. But either nothing was done or they were moved to another bad situation year after year, the suit says.

Jesus de la Cruz, now 24 and out of foster care for six years, stood in his lawyer’s conference room Tuesday and held up a poster board picture of himself as a toddler when he was placed into the foster system. Cruz, reeling from the loss of his premature 5-month-old daughter a few days ago, said he wanted to come forward to help other children.

“This has been going on for a long time, … and I don’t want it to happen to any more children,” he said. “They didn’t look out for my safety. They weren’t protecting me.”

A number of lawsuits have been filed on behalf of children who suffered abuse or neglect in the foster care system over the years. But they typically take years to litigate and many are dismissed because of a lack of evidence.

“With these sort of lawsuits there are procedural hurdles that often prevent the court from getting to the substance of the issue, which is, that while the state had these children, they allowed them to get hurt,” said Gerard Glynn, executive director of the statewide children’s advocacy group, Florida’s Children First, in Orlando. “And the question is, should they be allowed to be made whole? … The state does everything in its power to avoid addressing that question.”

DCF spokesman Andy Ritter said the agency had not yet received the brothers’ lawsuit, but department policy prevented him from commenting on it anyway. He said the department has a zero tolerance policy for any abuse in foster care homes.

Asked if anything had changed at the agency since de la Cruz, the youngest brother, left the foster care system six years ago, Ritter said a department representative now visits all 29,284 children in the foster care system once a month.

Joseph H. Saunders, attorney for de la Cruz and Flores, said the brothers’ case files are full of their claims of abuse but show little action on the part of the state to either investigate their plight or check into their foster families.

“The failings of the department resulted from a lack of funding and inadequate staffing of the department,” said Saunders, a Pinellas Park attorney who has also handled some cases on behalf of victims alleging abuse by priests.

Though lawsuits over abuse in the foster care system are difficult to win, some cases have resulted in judgments. Still, there is a statutory $100,000 cap on the state’s liability. Any judgment above that must be approved by the Legislature in a special spending bill.

Some cases have been won by filing a federal civil rights lawsuit. One 16-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped by her foster father in Miami-Dade County beginning when she was 8 years old won a $650,000 settlement this way, said Karen Gievers, her Tallahassee attorney and president of Children’s Advocacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up to educate about children’s needs.

De la Cruz, who is now disabled from a car accident, was first placed into a foster care home when he was about 3 years old because his mother, who had six children, was an alcoholic who left them unsupervised and without food, the lawsuit says.

In his second foster care home when he was 7, he claims he was sodomized and his sister was raped by another older son of the family.

In all, he was moved about a dozen times to foster homes in Brandon, Tampa and Plant City and sexually abused by different people when he was 10 and 14. De la Cruz’s sister, who was placed with him, is not part of the lawsuit, and he said he had not seen her in some time.

The other brother, Flores, now 32, was placed in 16 different foster homes. He was not present at the news conference in Saunders’ office Tuesday. But he claims he was sexually abused beginning when he was 9. He said he informed his counselor, but no one believed him, the lawsuit says.

De la Cruz said he also faced disbelief on the part of his caseworkers. They continued to write reports that indicated the abuse was unfounded.

“I was very afraid and I couldn’t trust nobody,” said de la Cruz, who attended Sickles High School in northwest Hillsborough County. “I felt no one believed me, No. 1 because I was a boy.”

He said he had not sought criminal charges against any of the people he claims abused him, but Saunders said he might do so in the future.

He said the abuse has scarred him emotionally and made him question his sexuality, “whether I was going to be gay.”

“I had a lot of anger and I took a lot of therapy,” he said. “If it weren’t for therapy, I’d probably be one of them (an abuser).”

[Last modified October 13, 2004, 00:37:14]

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