To Hug a Porcupine

Keep New Times Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of South Florida and help keep the future of New Times free.

Jorge needed some help, so for several thousand dollars, he hired two professional "transporters" — imposing men trained in a whole repertoire of negotiating skills and takedown maneuvers. One morning last November, they drove to a group home where Jorge's eldest son was being held.

Brian was just 15 years old then but already six feet tall. All cheekbones and muscles, with long hair and dark, serious eyes, he looked like a young Johnny Depp. He was deemed violent. A flight risk.

As the transporters stood in the background, Jorge tensely informed the boy that he was being moved across the country to a different, more secure psychiatric facility. Immediately. Would he like to get anything from his room?

Since there were few things he cared about in the world, Brian grabbed his sneakers and a couple of other possessions. Then off he went, sandwiched by his escorts, to catch their plane.

Days later, Jorge surprised 14-year-old Matthew. At home on the family ranch near Gainesville, Jorge told the straw-haired blond boy that he, like his brother, was being sent to a faraway residential facility for indefinite treatment. The boy surrendered peacefully. Considering the stunts he'd tried in the past — like trying to murder his mother — Jorge felt a huge relief.

Then there was James. Once his brothers disappeared, delivered to institutions in separate states, the 13-year-old with the thick blond hair and mischievous eyes knew what was coming. Because of scheduling issues, though, it wouldn't be until the next month.

During those quiet weeks, James busied himself by plotting a chilling revenge. What could he do that would have the maximum, spirit-crushing impact?

He gathered some supplies and headed into the horse stalls.

Jorge and his wife, Debbie (New Times is not using their last name in order to protect the identities of the children), say that if they'd known in 1998 what they know now, they never would have adopted the brothers. The Department of Children and Families hid reams of information about brutal sexual abuse the boys had suffered in their first years of life, and when that abuse caused a rare but severe psychological disorder, the agency wavered and stalled rather than provide proper care. DCF had barely recovered from disturbing news stories in recent years about foster parents molesting children in their care and young wards of the state disappearing into the system — here was another sad example of the historically troubled agency failing the very children it claimed to protect.

Now, even after a protracted, eight-year-long lawsuit has drawn to a close, Debbie and Jorge remain in legal/political limbo with $10 million at stake. The boys are finally in treatment — but no one's sure it will help at this stage.

In hindsight, experts say that the children should have been separated from their trauma bond and given intensive psychological care — ten years ago. "My youngest child entered foster care when he was one month old," Debbie says. "He's coming out the other side a sociopath."

1998 was a vastly more hopeful time for the family. They were a couple who wanted to have a positive impact on the world. They had already adopted one boy — 11-year-old David — and the plan now was to take in three brothers who'd arrived in the foster care system as the children of shockingly neglectful parents. Everyone was excited about the first meeting. Debbie, Jorge, and David would head over to John Prince Park, where, on the playground, they would "accidentally" bump into adoption workers and the three boys. No need to tell the kids this could become their "forever family." Best not to get anyone's hopes up.

It was a chilly February afternoon. Jorge and David tossed a ball with the three siblings as Debbie looked on. Brian, who at 6 was the oldest, was always the most serious of the children. Talkative 5-year-old Matthew was already a charmer. The baby, James, was 3.

Under normal circumstances, the adoption process includes a number of test visits to make sure kids and parents warm up to each other. But after their very first sleepover at Debbie and Jorge's Boynton Beach home, Brian, Matthew, and James cried and begged not to return to their foster home. So that was it; they moved in. DCF expedited the adoption, and it was finalized July 24. As part of the turnover, adoption counselor Myra Zuc­lich gave Debbie and Jorge some paperwork — birth certificates, Social Security cards. "The stack was a quarter-inch thick," Debbie says, pinching a forefinger and thumb.

The papers included one abuse report detailing an incident that had caused the children to be taken from their birth mother. It was possible the oldest boy had been sexually abused in her care, Debbie remembers Zuclich saying, but no one had ever been charged.

These days, Debbie and Jorge do their best to sound chipper. They are pretty good fakers. Debbie, a 49-year-old with reddish-blond highlights and flawless pale skin, retains her teacherly voice, though she hasn't worked in a school in years. She has mastered the ironic chuckle. Jorge, also 49, has a gentle presence. A Cuban-American with bushy black eyebrows and, stunningly, just a few gray hairs at his temples, he exudes unfailing politeness. His voice has that 1950s sitcom-dad quality, like Ward from Leave It to Beaver.

Jorge remembers the classes that prospective foster and adoptive parents were required to take. "It was a weeding-out process," he says. Some people seemed motivated by the financial boost they could get from fostering, a few hundred dollars per child per month. "You could tell they were thinking: Am I going to work at McDonald's or do foster care?" Many participants were scared away when they heard about the challenges that might lie ahead. "I think our class started with 45 people in it," Jorge recalls. "There were eight at the end."

Debbie and Jorge, though, felt well-prepared for more kids. Their first adopted son was a black child whose mother had died of cancer and whom they knew through their church. Debbie had been a teacher and principal at a school for children with special needs; Jorge was a successful salesman and youth minister. A study conducted by DCF described a loving and idyllic family with a lively cast of animals: three cats, dogs who were used for pet therapy with disabled children, and Merlin, an African gray parrot who "sounds exactly like Jorge."

It said right there on the home study: To complement their mixed family, Debbie and Jorge were open to accepting children — they could probably take one or two — with "mild-to-moderate medical, developmental, and/or behavioral needs." Debbie says now that, because they already had a son, they specified "absolutely no sexual acting out at all." They turned down a few children with behavior problems they didn't feel they could handle.

Then one day, DCF adoption specialist Zuclich came to tell them about three amazing little boys — the sort who rarely ever became available. According to Debbie, "She said, 'I'm not supposed to show you, but here is their picture.' " The couple was hooked.

Debbie remembers the first few meals with the boys. "They were grabbing fistfuls of spaghetti," she says. They didn't understand the concept of utensils. They hoarded food. When she helped them take baths, she noticed they were skinny and bruised, "like refugees."

Other signs were more disturbing. Brian, the oldest boy, suffered from nightmares. Matthew maintained an air of defiance, never, ever acknowledging blame. Little James was always biting. All three wet their beds and seemed obsessed with grabbing at each other's genitals as though it were some sort of power play. "They would rage and scream for two to three hours at a time at the top of their lungs," Debbie says. Each boy could be cruel to pet cats and dogs.

With a therapist's help, Debbie and Jorge learned coping techniques. They let the boys take food to their rooms until the hoarding stopped. They set a rule to stay arm's length apart. To deal with extreme tantrums, the parents calmed the boys by sitting them in a chair and physically retraining them, wrapping their arms around from behind.

About six months after the adoption, Debbie was cleaning the house and moving furniture around. The bed made a squeak. Little James, then 4, looked terrified.

That was the sound he heard before the bad man came to get him, he muttered. Upon further questioning, he reported: "Hector slept with me." Hector Rosa was his former foster dad.

"I pulled Matthew aside, and he told me the same story," Debbie says. The bed always made a telltale squeak when Rosa lifted himself off one boy and went for the next.

Hector Rosa was a DCF-vetted foster parent who had been in charge of Brian, Matthew, and James just before their adoption.

The three boys moved in with Debbie and Jorge, making way for an 11-year-old girl. According to court documents, Rosa customarily passed out on the recliner in his small house in Palm Springs. From there, he said, he could best guard the eight kids. "Hector the Protector," his wife liked to call him.

A police report notes that it was nearly midnight in December 1998 when Hector's wife, Yolanda, roused herself from bed to grab a bottle for the 1-year-old baby. She stumbled into the living room and was surprised not to see Hector. She padded over to one of the kids' rooms. Yolanda turned the doorknob.

She looked at the bottom bunk. Then screamed.

"I can't believe you did this!" she yelled.

"It's not what you think!" Hector shouted, jumping up.

Yolanda lurched for the phone and dialed 911. "I just caught my husband molesting one of the foster children!" she cried hysterically. "I just caught him!" She recounted what she had seen: Her husband, a 49-year-old property manager, 5-foot-9 and around 200 pounds, under the blue sheets, moving his hips. Beneath him: the 11-year-old foster girl.

Hector ran to the bathroom and vomited on the floor.

By the time two officers arrived, Rosa had abandoned his plaid, semen-stained boxer shorts and thrown on a pair of jeans. He nervously rattled on about how sorry and embarrassed he was. He insisted there'd been no penetration. One of the officers read him his Miranda rights. Still, he continued to babble. He told the police he'd fondled the girl on about eight occasions.

"I think I need help," he stated weakly.

Hector Rosa had already been jailed for that incident when Debbie called DCF to report that her boys may have been sexually abused. She says she was told not to worry; Rosa was locked away. He would later be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

"Couldn't anyone have told me?" Debbie asked, incredulous. "Would a phone call have been so difficult?" After her boys were interviewed by authorities, three additional charges of lewd assault were filed against Hector. He pleaded no contest to one charge and had ten years tacked on to his life sentence. Weeks later, however, he withdrew his plea, and he is still fighting his cases from prison.

Because the boys lived in fear that Hector would come back and kill them for telling — James had night terrors about it — Debbie brought them to his sentencing hearing so they could see him in shackles. In the courtroom, Brian lowered his head and let out a satisfied "Yesss!" Matthew stared Hector in the eyes. When they got home, Debbie says, little James asked who would watch the bad man when the guards slept at night. Debbie reassured him: "You are safe."

The family moved to a new home with separate bedrooms for each of the boys, but their frustrating behavior continued. The boys destroyed furniture, tortured pets, smeared feces on the computer, and, when separated, would tear out electrical sockets to tunnel into one another's rooms. Debbie was horrified to walk in on the children all naked together.

Regardless of age, an orgasm "is ten times more potent than cocaine," one of the boys' therapists later said in a deposition. It would not be surprising if, after being exposed to sexual stimulation, they felt compelled to continue it. Debbie and Jorge installed a security system so they'd know if the kids were trying to get out of bed.

Realizing they might be in over their heads, Debbie quit her job to stay home and care for the boys. Although Jorge had become a full-time youth minister who opened missions abroad, he stopped traveling for work. The couple says they asked the state to provide additional, post-adoption psychiatric services but were met with the attitude: Too bad; they're your kids now.

One serendipitous day, Debbie was browsing in a bookstore and noticed a volume out of place on a shelf. She moved to slide it out of the way and was struck by its title: High Risk: Children Without a Conscience by Dr. Ken Magid and Carole A. McKelvey. The book described a psychiatric diagnosis that had been around for decades but remained relatively unknown: reactive attachment disorder.

Kids who do not receive adequate parenting in the early stages of life, the book explained, had no foundation for healthy emotional development. Such children — kids who were abused, neglected, kept in hospitals, or rejected by mothers with depression — would show little in the way of bonding as they aged. They would often turn aggressive and violent. They would release their anger on caretakers. Debbie remembers thinking: "My God. These are our kids!'"

Even now, reactive attachment disorder remains underresearched. ATTACh.org (the Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children), the preeminent organization focusing on the disorder, has only 380 members — 60 percent clinicians, 40 percent parents — according to its executive director, Lynn Wetterberg. She estimates that there are fewer than ten residential centers in the country equipped to handle patients diagnosed with the condition.

Debbie and Jorge became convinced that their children needed such treatment after they were diagnosed with RAD. They say they begged DCF for additional services only to be denied because the kids' Medicare wouldn't cover the bill. It was only after they wrote to then-Gov. Jeb Bush, using Hector Rosa as leverage, that then-district administrator of DCF Paul Brown invited the couple in for a meeting.

Brown authorized money for the whole family and two therapists to attend a two-week session at a treatment center in Colorado that specialized in RAD. It costs around $10,000 per session.

"I just want to feel like I did one decent thing," Debbie remembered Brown telling them. She was surprised when he added a suggestion: They ought to sue DCF. The next day, she says, Brown resigned. "He said the system was too broken to fix."

To prepare for the family's visit around Christmas 2000, therapists in Colorado requested the boys' records directly from DCF. Adoption worker Zuclich sent them: not just a quarter-inch stack but boxes and boxes, with a DCF provision that the files not be shared with the parents.

Nestled in a conference room surrounded by the Rocky Mountains and evergreen trees, therapists sorted through documents. They looked sympathetically at Debbie and Jorge. The information they were reading stunned them. Goodness, would they like to share, but professional regulations prevented them from breaking DCF's orders.

Debbie and Jorge watched helplessly. Their furor grew. They wanted to know what those papers said.

"That was the moment of truth for me," Debbie says. "Up until then, I'd just thought we'd been dealing with incredibly incompetent people. Then I realized they had actually been hiding things. It had all been a setup."

"When we left there," Jorge says, "we got a lawyer."

Here's a taste of what was in those boxes — information that Debbie and Jorge would see only years later.

According to one document, the boys' biological mother, Mary, told DCF workers she'd been raped by at least six people over the course of her life — including four family members. But it was an encounter with a man at a California truck-driving school that produced her beautiful dark-haired son Brian. Then again, documents also showed she was a liar.

Mary fell for a troubled 27-year-old divorcé and had two more babies in two more states. The family was living in a car in Georgia when child protective services there got on their case. They gave authorities the slip by crossing the state line into Florida.

According to a time line in the boys' file, the family did not stay undetected for long. The children were taken into state custody in Palm Beach County on November 8, 1994, when "Brian's arm was broken by a parent in a fit of rage." He was two years and nine months old at the time. The baby, James, was only a month. Examinations showed signs of physical and sexual abuse.

The time line shows that, in keeping with standard procedures, the boys were placed together in a foster home of a woman named Alix Holley while Mary was allowed supervised visits in hopes of reunification.

Some excerpts:

2/27/95: "No visits until parents are clear of scabies."

3/29/95: "Brian's teeth all rotten."

4/27/95: "Saw all three children. Impetigo and ringworm cleared up."

4/28/95: The foster mother reported "aggressive/physical behaviors, head banging, self-inflicted, will hurt animals."

8/29/95: Foster mother reports "behaviors real bad. Giving oral sex to each other."

10/26/95: During a visit, "Brian said to [biological] mom, 'Don't hurt me.' "

Ongoing entries describe Holley's growing suspicions that the boys were being abused in the care of their mother. When the court approved continuing visits despite her objections, Holley would cancel or dawdle in bringing the boys to appointments. On February 23, 1996, Holley seemed "extremely concerned about continuing the visits." She threatened to sue the department.

Although correspondence that was later released would show that other workers shared her concerns, Holley was deemed a nuisance for interfering. "She thrives on this type of controversy that makes her feel important," a caseworker wrote in a memo. The boys were soon shuffled again.

Plans for reunification with Mary were scrapped on June 2, 1997, when, according to notes, "James was the victim of physical abuse when the mother intentionally bit him at the therapist's office." Mary was arrested and agreed to terminate her parental rights. She planned to move back to Georgia. She was five months pregnant at the time.

Documents in the boys' file would show that Brian was separated from his brothers, who landed in an immaculate, three-bedroom, one-bath house in Greenacres. Nancy Garcia and her husband took in $2,035 a month between his job at Publix and their Social Security checks. They got some extra income caring for 12 foster kids that year, sometimes five at a clip.

An abuse report details the time that a DCF worker went to check on the home after the boys complained about being kept in a chicken coop. A therapist confirmed the presence of such a structure in the yard, but when asked about it, Nancy Garcia said she only threatened to put the boys in a cage after they refused to go to bed. In a separate incident, the Garcias admitted to putting tape on Matthew's mouth "as a reminder to stop talking." The couple sometimes warned the children by rolling up a newspaper and smacking it against a hand. The toddlers were troublemakers, Nancy Garcia reported. "You can't spank them; what else am I supposed to do?"

According to the paperwork, a district staffing specialist forwarded concerns about the Garcias' "inappropriate discipline techniques" to the relicensing unit, who in turn referred its concerns to a home educator. But the home educator had left her job, so the case was closed. The Garcia home was later described as "above satisfactory" and relicensed.

But the troublesome boys were clearly not wanted, so workers sought a new placement.

Hector Rosa and his wife had room for three kids.

In 2002, Debbie and Jorge filed a lawsuit against DCF based on "negligence" and "wrongful adoption." During the years that it moved along at a glacial pace, however, something curious happened to the boys. They grew.

Matthew, the middle child, was about 8 when he sidled up to Debbie. "He said, 'Mommy come here,' " she remembers. He told her he had been lifting weights. "Guess how much I weigh now," he whispered. "'I'm getting bigger, and I'm getting stronger, and I will kill you. When the knife goes in, you'll know it."

Debbie tried to hide her panic. She'd learned that attachment disordered kids often took out their hostility on the person closest to them. Any loving gesture repulsed them. They were especially mean to women, and their favorite target was mom.

"It's like a porcupine," therapist Lori Angulo would later explain in a deposition. When a person gets emotionally close, "they act out. They can pull you in for a little bit, and you think you're getting closer. And then if they become vulnerable at all, they will sabotage that."

Debbie and Jorge engaged the boys in activities that even privileged kids would envy. The family camped, canoed, and swam with dolphins. They all did yoga at the YMCA. Since little James loved Curious George, a real monkey came to his birthday party. Brian decorated his bedroom with an astronomy theme, and when the Kennedy Space Center opened its Hall of Fame, Brian and Matthew cut the ribbon. They met some of the world's most famous astronauts.

The family even rented a pasture in Boynton Beach and bought two miniature therapeutic horses, Dakota and Magic. Debbie, a talented photographer, would later take pictures of James in a field with the creatures. In the sepia-toned images, he wears a cowboy hat, and the sun pours down like honey. The pictures would haunt them years later.

The boys' bad behavior had no particular trigger. "Not a rhyme or reason," Jorge says. "You could go to dinner and feel like it was a good day." They'd play chess or talk about world events, and minutes later, violence would erupt. Therapists described both parents as cooperative and patient. Angulo called them "loving... to a fault." They would need to watch out for themselves.

Debbie was delighted one day when Matthew, without prompting, brought her a glass of root beer. How thoughtful. She spent the next two days in the bathroom, violently ill. Matthew would later admit to collecting chicken blood from uncooked dinners and spiking her drink. He got the idea when she'd lectured the kids about salmonella, and he had tried it a couple of times, he said, before getting the formula right.

Socializing became a problem. Debbie and Jorge allowed visits with friends who had kids, but every venture ended in allegations. They stole something or bit someone or touched other children in ways that could lead to lawsuits. The family retreated. They abandoned church.

Isolating the boys at home became a necessity, therapists believed. The house was transformed with aquariums and LEGO stations. Angulo described it as "a velvet-lined steel box."

"James at 7 didn't know the letter a," Debbie says. "After being homeschooled for a year, he was reading at middle-school level. Now he can read a novel a day." Each of the three boys, she says, has a genius IQ. James is a member of Mensa.

The problem, Debbie says, was that "as they got bigger and stronger, they became more dangerous."

With a little laugh, she ticks off a list of offenses: They broke her jaw. They stole from her purse. They went into her closet and scissored her clothes. Debbie says she carried the internet modem with her wherever she went so they couldn't download porn (they always chose violent, misogynist sex scenes) or steal people's credit-card info. She wouldn't go to the bathroom unless Jorge was home. She watched the boys in the rearview mirror while driving lest they pull off a surprise attack.

The family relocated to the ranch outside of Gainesville. There, they could keep more therapeutic animals and be closer to relatives. Once, though, the boys set a fire at Jorge's parents' home by putting a broom on the stove. Eventually, even family members backed off.

Although they had at first resisted residential programs, Debbie and Jorge began to relent. They enrolled Matthew in a military-style academy, but he was sent home, declared a danger to officers and cadets. At one group home, Brian poured a chemical in a girl's lip gloss to burn her. They boys entered boarding schools, boot camps, and mental hospitals only to be expelled. Soon, the family ran out of options.

Home with only Debbie, the brothers hid knives and hammers inside the walls. In 2006, the parents found the word die carved under their bedroom window. "It's like they were POWs and we were their captors," Debbie laments.

Brian was the size of a man now. Debbie and Jorge longed for the days when hugging the boys in a chair was a technique that actually worked. Systems of punishments and rewards had lost their effect. The couple sometimes turned to police; Matthew alone was arrested eight times. They used the Baker Act to have the boys placed under observation in mental hospitals.

Debbie has a recurring dream. "Matthew is chasing me around the car. And I reach in my purse, and I pull out a gun and I shoot him. And then" — she swallows and looks away — "he turns into a child again."

She doesn't chuckle when she says this. She cries.

Debbie and Jorge felt close to the DCF workers who'd inspected their house and investigated their past. "During the home study, they'd ask about the most intimate details: 'How is your sex life? Oh, you're infertile? How does that feel?' It was like therapy." That these same individuals would purposely deceive them felt like "the ultimate betrayal."

The boys' therapists and their family lawyer, Lance Block, however, characterized DCF employees as well-intentioned people stuck inside a flawed system.

When Myra Zuclich, the DCF adoption worker, was deposed, she explained that she had 40 kids to see each week for an hour apiece. Normal work hours didn't even allow time for travel. For unfettered access to a copy machine, she had to work through the night.

The system was a maze of adoption, placement, and licensing units and finance people. In the scheme of things, Zuclich said, she was "a little person" with no decision-making power. Her motivation was to find the boys a good home.

She did not follow up on concerns about the chicken coop, however, because it was "not my jurisdiction," and while she'd had her own suspicions about Hector Rosa, she did not pass them on because "nobody ever gave me information on things like that." When choosing paperwork to share with the parents, she says, she followed instructions and sent whatever documents her bosses picked out. During testimony, other workers described a similar runaround.

The case was set to go to trial last November — "It would have been a monster verdict," Block says — but the night before it was to begin, DCF settled with the family for $10 million, almost all of it to be put in a trust fund for the boys' future treatment. "That's unprecedented," says Block, who has handled the case pro bono for eight years. It may have also been a bargain: An economist who is an expert on institutional care estimated that the boys' lifetime care would cost $75 million if fully funded.

Debbie and Jorge fought for a stipulation in the settlement agreement that each parent receive $350,000. "We went from making over $100,000 a year," Debbie says, "and then I stopped working in my 30s, just as my career was getting under way. Now I'm in my late 40s, and it's like, 'Oh my gosh. My career is missing! My life is missing!' " The funds could also help offset costs incurred over the years, like therapeutic animals, wall repairs, and transporters.

For now, however, the award stands only on paper. Because of "sovereign immunity," state payouts are limited to $200,000, no matter what attorneys hash out. Sovereign immunity can be waived, and bigger settlements disbursed, only if a state representative sponsors and the Legislature then passes a claims bill. That happens only a fraction of the time. One claims bill that was passed this year — a well-publicized $18.2 million payout to Marissa Amora, a 9-year-old who needs permanent care after being abused under DCF's watch — had been reintroduced three consecutive years before passing.

Debbie and Jorge and their attorney say that the state became markedly more responsive after Jeb Bush left office and Secretary Bob Butterworth took over the Department of Children and Families in January 2007. They felt at least minor validation when Butterworth spoke during a hearing on their behalf. "The new policy under my administration is a policy of openness," he remarked, "and one where we admit mistakes and compensate those damaged as a result. The department could and should have done a better job."

Despite the bigwig weighing in, however, legislators from around the state, each consumed with their own constituents' concerns, declined to pass the claims bill before the legislative session ended in May. Tight budget this year, so sorry.

The main reason Debbie and Jorge accepted the settlement was an agreement that the state would send the boys away — immediately — for treatment, however belated.

Last December, after Brian and Matthew had gone, little James shipped out too. He was 13. From his new home, he spoke to Debbie by phone. She was happy to hear him show some apparent compassion when he asked how the horses were doing. Maybe the program was already working.

"Make sure you feed them," James said. He repeated it the next time they talked.

In January, Debbie was driving home from town. As she approached her property, she noticed several of her miniature horses lying on the ground. She drew closer. Bodies were sprawled on the hill.

"Ten," she says. "He wiped out ten."

The boy would later confess to swiping rat poison from a neighbor's farm and slipping it into a container of horse feed during the weeks he waited to be sent away. It was only a matter of time until Debbie fed them from that particular bag. Some of the horses they'd had since James was little. Four cats also died from the poison.

"He told his therapist that the horses got what they deserved," Debbie says. He also said he had planned to kill Debbie in one of the horse stalls. A search of the stall yielded a knife.

The boys' treatment requires parents to remain involved, so almost every other weekend, Debbie and Jorge get on a plane. But the kids, Debbie says, "still feel, 'These people need to be destroyed.' A therapist told me, 'Brian feels like if you're dead, his pain will go away.' "

When they arrive at Brian's center, he resists seeing them. Someone read about the settlement in the newspaper and told him he's a millionaire now. He scoffs at any explanation that the money is earmarked for therapy.

Matthew, Debbie says, "loves me the most and hates me the most." Seeing him can make her nervous, especially when she thinks of the chicken-blood incident. When she visits, he is seated in a chair lower than hers, and she remains close to the door.

James, the horse poisoner, has been asked to leave his current facility. Staff there cannot keep other residents safe with him around. Debbie and Jorge are looking for a place that will take him. Once again, their options are few, and they need a facility that accepts Florida Medicare. If the settlement money were available, the task might be easier. They look forward to the next legislative session. "Are [legislators] going to come through on their promise?" Debbie asks. "Or hold us off for another year? And another year?"

In May, Debbie and Jorge received about a dozen bankers' boxes of documents about their children.

Some of the documents seem ludicrous now, evidence of an ineffective system. There's a letter from DCF thanking Hector Rosa for his "unselfish dedication." There's also a 1996 memo in which a therapist wrote that the boys' case "should be monitored by your most experienced case worker because it has the potential to be a newspaper article that would be detrimental to [DCF]."

Other papers, though, hint at additional worlds of abuse. Like the handwritten notes alluding to another child in Hector Rosa's care who was bruised and acted out in school. Documents explain that Hector and Yolanda Rosa had been abused when they themselves were children.

The lawsuit uncovered other sad epilogues. A caseworker in Georgia called Myra Zuclich once looking for history on the boys' biological mom. Remember, she'd been five months pregnant? That child had died. An adult rolled over and suffocated it during sleep.

People often wonder: Why didn't Debbie and Jorge just give the kids back?

"Give them back to who?" Debbie barks. "To the people who abused them? To the system that failed to keep them safe over and over and over again?"

Jorge acknowledges that no matter how much the children fight off their affections, "they mean something to us." Love, Debbie concedes, has become a somewhat awkward concept. "I still love them with the knowledge that they don't love us back."

A lawyer and spokesperson for DCF, Florence Rivas, says that the department has always had a policy of full disclosure. It's regrettable that it was not enforced four administrations ago, she says, but it is being emphasized under Butterworth's tenure. Debbie, though, says that "ultimately, our family was sacrificed."

Debbie and Jorge try to remain optimistic. They note that their oldest, often-overlooked son had a difficult childhood but is a productive 21-year-old now. Perhaps the other three boys will gain something in treatment, even if it's only a year before Brian turns 18 and ages out — or can sign himself out — of his program. Maybe they'll come out of therapy calmer, less angry.

But things could go the other way too. Experts say child abuse is a tough cycle to break. Many agree that the best hope for attachment disordered kids is intervention in early childhood. Without it, they say, the next stop is often the prison system.

Debbie says the boys, who are not allowed to speak to New Times because doing so would interfere with their treatment, are "articulate and friendly and charming. They could sit in a room and talk to you about the news. Then they can turn around and hurt somebody and never feel it. My fear is that it will be a woman. I don't want someone else's daughter to pay the price."

It is possible that upon release, one of the boys could try to make good on his threats. One form of self-defense would be for Debbie and Jorge to go into hiding. "To be honest," Debbie says, "it's something we've talked about." They'll see how they feel in a year.

For now, they take things day by day. Lately, they'd been feeling good. They thought they'd gotten over the death of the horses. But just today, a pregnant one miscarried. The stillborn foal was deformed. "It never stops," Debbie says.

So they keep their emotions in check, just in case more heartbreak lurks around the bend. Best not to get anyone's hopes up.

Keep New Times Broward-Palm Beach Free... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering South Florida with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in South Florida.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in South Florida.