Take the Child and Run

Critics says that's the guiding philosophy of Department of Children and Families' boss, Kathleen Kearney

Like Abbott, Diamond notified the proper authorities. For eight months she received virtually no assistance from the state in terms of protection or counseling for her hearing-impaired son. Desperate to find aid for him, Diamond finally surrendered the child to the state after a DCF caseworker convinced her that her son would be best served if the state held custody and that the duration of his stay wouldn't stretch past a few weeks.

"I didn't know what else to do. From day one [Kearney] was biased. You could tell in her demeanor," Diamond says. She further wonders how Kearney could have ignored four separate psychiatric recommendations that urged the court to reunite mother and son.

"All these professionals were saying, 'Send this child home, this woman's perfectly competent,'" says Diamond. "But she wouldn't."

The kids aren't all right: Mary Ann Diamond and Paul Scott Abbott battle the state's child-welfare system
Joel Stahl
The kids aren't all right: Mary Ann Diamond and Paul Scott Abbott battle the state's child-welfare system

Fred Goldstein, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represented Diamond last year, points to a system biased against parents as the culprit in his client's struggles.

"You've got the attorney general, the guardian ad litem, the foster group, and the DCF. As soon as one of them makes a decision, everybody goosesteps behind it, and then that's it. It's insane; the whole system's insane," he says. Goldstein agreed to do six months of pro bono work for Diamond after learning of her battles with the DCF and with Kearney, who presided over the case for approximately ten months.

Although Goldstein didn't represent Diamond during this time, he learned through fact-gathering that Kearney had taken the same stance with Abbott as she did with his client.

"From what I understand, it was a back of the hand, 'I don't want to hear from you people.' She knew when that case came up what she was going to do. There wasn't going to be a hearing. I don't think [Diamond] ever had a hearing until I represented her," says Goldstein.

Like Abbott's daughter, Diamond's son was placed in the custody of Children's Home Society. During the 19 months that her child remained in foster care, Diamond claims that she couldn't hold a job while attending court dates and mandated evaluations and therapy. One court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. L. Dennison Reed, charged her $25,000 for his evaluation. Diamond pulled a second mortgage on her house, and after shelling out $18,500, she was tapped out. She petitioned the court to provide her with an attorney.

"Kearney wouldn't appoint me anybody. She said that I wasn't indigent when she knew damn well that I was. Kearney appointed Reed and made me pay for the whole thing," says Diamond.

Reed was recently written about by daily newspapers for his outlandish fees, and although a Kearney spokesperson stated at the time that the judge was unaware of his high-priced services, Diamond still keeps a copy of a motion filed where the psychiatrist's fees are clearly stated. The motion was read, denied, and signed by Kearney.

With the help of Goldstein and others, Diamond has finally recovered her son from the system, but she remains outraged at the number of families that still endure its failings. Abbott's fight continues. Both parents believe that the courts and state agencies send a frightening dispatch to parents seeking to protect their children.

"If you believe your child is being abused, the message from the state is to keep your mouth shut. Don't call them for help, because you'll end up losing your child," says Diamond.

Next month a report compiled by the NCCPR will focus on Kearney's policies as DCF secretary and the harm the agency believes her policies have inflicted upon children. The report will include the observation that, while Kearney worked as a judge in Broward County, there was an unusually high rate of child removal in the county.

And last week a federal class-action lawsuit filed against the DCF by the Youth Law Center on behalf of 1400 Broward County foster children avoided trial by settling out of court. Lauded by Kearney as key in reforming the system, the settlement intends to create a dialogue between the Youth Law Center and Broward County's DCF. But the agreement draws sharp criticism from some civil-litigation lawyers and child-advocacy groups. As executive director for the NCCPR, Wexler is outraged at the settlement's use of vague wordings like "make a good faith effort" and "continue to try" when referring to foster care.

"What it amounts to is that this organization gets to talk with the DCF. That's it. There's no enforcement; there isn't even an independent monitor appointed. The DCF gets to monitor itself," vents Wexler, referring to the agency's newfound responsibility to gauge and report on its own progress. A DCF spokesperson cited the best interests of the state's children as the key motivator behind the terms of the settlement.

Wexler has a different take. "This settlement has not one word about preventing the needless removal of children. This is a surrender to the DCF. It's a betrayal of Broward's most vulnerable children and families."


RELATED LINKS

Florida DCF Children's Home Society of Florida


Contact Emma Trelles at her e-mail address: emma.trelles@newtimesbpb.com

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