Sucker Punched

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."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson