A couple of years ago, Leah was virtually a straight-A student at Lyons Creek Middle School in Coconut Creek. The then-13-year-old Trinidadian was captain of her dance team and one of the most popular girls in school. School counselors considered her college-bound.
Her life today is a distressing negative image of those days.
Sitting on the patio outside the one-bedroom apartment in Deerfield Beach she shares with her mother, sister, and her sister's baby, Leah displays every bit of her seventh month of pregnancy. She hasn't been to school in almost two years. A neck injury leaves her limbs numbed or pained at times. Her two front teeth are missing, and the gums are disfigured and blackened.
The gaping hole represents what went so amiss in her life, and to a degree, it's also the reason things went so off course in the first place. In early 2004, Leah scuffled with her mother and was removed from her home by ChildNet, a private company contracted by the Florida Department of Children and Families to handle child protection in Broward County.
Instead of helping her, however, ChildNet put her in greater danger. She was placed in a DCF-contracted shelter run by the Brown Schools Foundation, a facility that was shut down last year for mismanagement. Soon after she arrived there, an older teenaged girl smashed Leah's face and twisted her neck in a violent attack.
Leah returned to her mother four months later, but her distorted smile left her feeling ashamed, and she slowly began withdrawing. Despite pleas for assistance, ChildNet hasn't helped her get the more than $10,000 of dental work she requires.
"It's sad that a kid placed in a child protection system was completely unprotected and to this day is still unprotected," says Bruce Rosenberg, a former intake caseworker with ChildNet who is familiar with the case.
Leah is a teardrop-faced girl who speaks with better diction and grammar than many college students. She giggles often, even when she relates horrifying details likely a defense mechanism for what she's been through. When she removes the temporary bridge, two pointed fangs hang down from where her front teeth once were. (She asked that the family's last name not be used in this article.)
She recalls the day she was sitting in her classroom when a handful of police officers entered. "They grabbed me out of my seat and dragged me down to the office," she says. "I was a popular girl, and kids started saying, 'Why is she getting arrested?'"
Popularity aside, Leah's home life hadn't been idyllic. Her mother, Shanti, had moved Leah and her sister here from Trinidad in the early 1990s to escape the children's abusive father. Still an illegal immigrant, Shanti works for cash as a home health aide and wrestles with a habitual alcohol problem. After Leah ran away from home several times, DCF became involved with the family but didn't follow through with a counseling plan. A physical fight between Shanti and Leah in January 2004 led to Leah's removal from school that day.
She was quickly assigned to a spot in the Brown Schools shelter, an 18-bed facility in Fort Lauderdale. "When I went into Brown Schools, I thought, 'What am I in?'" she says of being dropped into the strange new environment. "There was smoke coming out of one of the rooms. I guess a girl had a heating iron for hair, and it was burning everything." Staff decisions were capricious and sometimes careless, Leah recalls. For instance, she and other teens were once taken to a mall by some staffers, who then went off shopping, leaving their young wards to wander alone. Against the rules, one of the troubled teen's boyfriend even joined them there.
Leah shared a room with two other girls but quickly got on the bad side of an older girl named Ashley, a heavyset teen with a hair-trigger temper. One of Ashley's friends, Crystal, was caught smoking a cigarette, Leah recalls, and Ashley became convinced that Leah had snitched to the staff.
The staff routinely kept the teens' bedroom doors ajar at night by jamming a shoe in the threshold. While this allowed their overseers to better hear what might be happening in the rooms, it left Leah vulnerable to Ashley's vengeance.
That night, after Leah fell asleep, she was awakened by the feeling of something cold on her head. "When I jumped up, all these girls ran out," she says. "I had purple nail polish, polish remover, lotion, all in my hair." She asked the staff to keep Ashley away from her and then got permission to go into the bathroom to clean up. "My roommate and I went to the bathroom, and she was trying to comb this out."
Incredibly, the staff let Ashley go into the bathroom minutes later. "She had a rage," Leah starkly recalls. She started to walk out of the room when Ashley, who outweighed Leah by more than 100 pounds, grabbed her hair and yanked her to the floor. "She took my face and slammed it on the tile floor." Crouched on Leah's back, Ashley repeatedly yanked the girl's head up and down, pounding her face into the tile. She screamed as best she could, but Ashley's allies were holding the bathroom door shut. Leah blacked out for a while.
Bizarrely, it was a staffer who was downstairs and outside of the building who heard her screams and finally burst into the bathroom and ended the beating. Leah was aghast when she looked in the mirror: "My teeth were broken. There was blood everywhere. I started crying."
The police were called, and Leah recalls being asked whether she wanted to press charges. She said yes but heard no more about it. When police asked her whether she wanted them to call an ambulance, she said yes. The staff, however, wouldn't let her leave with the ambulance when it arrived.
A day later, staffers took her in for some slapdash dental work that didn't include Novocain. "They took me to the dentist and made him glue everything together," she says. "They had found one piece of tooth. For the rest, he used this white stuff that looks like tooth." The entire blob of ersatz enamel was attached with a dollop of glue that swept back onto her palate and formed a rigid block. "I couldn't talk because it was so thick," she says. "I couldn't eat."
Her mother describes the results with two words: "Horrible. Disgusting."
Two days after the attack, Leah wasn't able to get out of bed. "I couldn't move my neck, my hands, my legs. That's when they rushed me to the hospital in a van. They told them that I had a concussion and a neck sprain. They put me on 900 milligrams of ibuprofen for my pain."
The Brown Schools informed neither Leah's caseworker, Rosenberg, nor her mother of the incident. Leah borrowed a student's cell phone at school to call her mother, who then contacted Rosenberg. He began working to get her moved to a different shelter.
As for Ashley, she stayed in the shelter, living side-by-side with Leah for another week and a half. No one came back to follow up on the attack. On the day Leah was transferring to another facility, Ashley barricaded herself in the kitchen. "She was ruining the kitchen," Leah recalls. "She was taking all the pots and pans and knives and forks, throwing everything. The food was all over. They had to put all the kids in lockdown. She'd gone crazy."
Rosenberg says Ashley had previous assault and battery charges and should have been in a more secure facility in the first place.
Leah's makeshift teeth soon began crumbling. At one point, she was chewing an ice cube from a drink and soon realized that it was part of the tooth that had dropped off. She tried using Superglue to put it together. Her gums had become infected and inflamed. She avoided friends and activities at school.
Leah rejoined her mother at the end of the school year, about four months after being removed. Rosenberg had persuaded them to agree to counseling services, and Shanti agreed to go to substance abuse treatment as well as anger management and parenting classes, which she completed.
What remained unremedied, however, were Leah's dental problems. Rosenberg and Shanti couldn't get ChildNet to fix the teeth even though that agency was directly responsible for what went on in its shelter system. ChildNet's executive director, Peter Balitsaris, knew that the shelter was a mess. He told the Miami Herald in May 2005 that the Brown Schools shelter was being shut down for failing to meet licensing standards. No one from ChildNet responded to New Times' questions about Leah's case.
ChildNet gave Leah's mother an insurance card at one point, but no dentist would accept it. "I must have called three dozen dentists, and there was no one who would take it," recalls Rosenberg, who no longer works for ChildNet but has continued to help Leah. Shanti shelled out a hard-earned $2,000 to get Leah double root canals, steel pegs anchored to her jaw, and a temporary bridge, which is now decaying. But it was too little, too late.
"She has no self-esteem anymore," Shanti says. "She was so confident in herself before."
Pressure has built over the past year: Leah got pregnant. Her sister's boyfriend deserted her and their child. Shanti, drinking again, was charged in April with assaulting Leah. ChildNet has not intervened.
Leah doesn't have much to smile about.
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.