Lawmakers Seek to Limit Liability for Foster Care Tragedies, Draw Protests From Parents

Sometimes when you adopt a kid, things go well. Sometimes they go wrong. And sometimes, they go so horribly, unimaginably wrong that your life becomes an unending battle to hide the wrongness from yourself, to use every available device of legislation, money, and geography to keep your children from destroying you.

When Deirdra Funcheon, the writer of "To Hug a Porcupine," last left Debbie and Jorge Garcia-Bengochea in 2008, they had been promised a settlement of nearly $10 million from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to make up for the fact that the state had hidden documentation of past abuse inflicted on their three out-of-control kids, Brian, Matthew, and James.

Trouble was, nearly all of that settlement was initially worthless, and recent legislation makes money even less accessible in similar cases.

A clause called "sovereign immunity" limits state payouts to $200,000 unless an individual waiver is granted for extreme cases by a legislative session. This rarely happens, but the Garcia-Bengocheas did win a $10 million "claims bill" in the 2009 session. They said they would use the money to provide lifetime care for the boys.

But a new omnibus Medicaid bill has passed a Senate committee that would limit state payouts for pain and suffering by foster (in addition to adopted) kids, capping economic damages at $2 million and lowering the amount of liability insurance carried by Florida's child-services contractors from $1 million to $500,000.

"When we adopted our children, we weren't aware that they had been sexually abused. We weren't aware that they had been duct-taped to keep them quiet, that they had been tortured, that they had been required to hold each other down while the foster father -- who is now serving life without parole -- performed sexual acts on them," the Garcia-Bengocheas told a Senate committee, later published in a news release condemning the legislation.

The Garcia-Bengocheas dealt with their problems with Brian, Matthew, and James before the current system, which entrusts care to private "Community-Based Contractors," was in place. Currently, Broward County is serviced by ChildNet. Several CBCs say they have lost their liability insurance entirely, and lawmakers who support the bill say that lowering damage payouts is the only way to keep them insured.

The foster-care and adoption system is now a tangled web of private interests and shirked responsibilities. Meanwhile, atrocious cases persist. Money can't fix the problem, but its absence could make it even easier for problem cases to slip through the system unchecked, until it's too late.

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