TALLAHASSEE — The suicide of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers in foster care shocked the child-welfare system in 2009. It led to a series of recommendations about Florida’s use of psychotropic medications on foster kids and how to protect already-traumatized children from sexual abuse by other abused children.
But nearly five years after Gabriel hung himself in the shower of his foster home in Margate, the findings that followed his death are mostly unfulfilled.
Children’s advocates haven’t given up, though, and will try to move several measures forward during the 2014 legislative session.
In 2008, when he was 6 years old, Gabriel was found in a car with his mother, who was passed out with drugs at her side, authorities said. He was placed in foster care. Documentation in his case files showed that, while living in Ohio before moving to Florida, he had been sexually abused by an older child.
“One of the major things we learned was that the reason he was so disturbed was that he had been sexually abused himself,” said attorney Howard Talenfeld, president of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First.
Gabriel was also taking two psychotropic medications when he died, and a Department of Children and Families investigation found that neither his parents nor a judge had approved them.
Then-DCF Secretary George Sheldon appointed two work groups to study and make recommendations about the use of psychotropic medications on foster children and about child-on-child sexual abuse.
Five years out, the verdict is that more progress has been made on the psychotropic medication issue than on the issue of child-on-child sexual abuse.
“I think we’re a lot better. I think we’re a lot better than most states,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, who served on the workgroup on psychotropic medications.
Talenfeld charges that while extensive recommendations were offered to address both psychotropic medications and child-on-child sex abuse, they were dropped in January 2011, when Gov. Rick Scott took office and tapped David Wilkins as the new secretary.
“This report was abandoned, and nothing was done to implement any of the recommendations,” Talenfeld said. “And they were very, very significant.”
In July, when Esther Jacobo became DCF’s interim secretary, Florida’s Children First contacted her and, Talenfeld said, began drafting legislation addressing key recommendations, such as mandatory reporting to the abuse hotline of the sexual abuse of children in state care and a tracking, placement and quality assurance system.
The group is also pushing to eliminate the age distinction for children who act out sexually in the foster care system. Currently, those 13 and over are reported to the sheriff’s office as sex offenders.
Another key recommendation was that the Legislature should provide funding to ensure that each child in the care of the state is assigned a guardian ad litem — an advocate for abused and neglected children in the court system.
“Nothing will get better unless the Legislature fully funds guardians ad litem for every trial,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman.
By the terms of both state and federal law, the program should be fully funded, said Alan Abramowitz, executive director of Florida Guardian ad Litem. Currently, there are 29,285 children under court supervision statewide, of whom 76 percent have a guardian ad litem.
This year, Scott recommended an increase that would extend coverage to all children in out-of-home care and 77 percent of those under court supervision. Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, in a work plan for the session, said they hoped to fully fund the program over the next several years.