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Kearney Busted!

"I would not have thought that anyone, let alone a lawyer and a former judge, would choose not to follow a valid court order.''

Florida's governor [Jeb Bush] "abruptly ended a Miami press conference Friday morning outside Metro-Dade police headquarters called to discuss Rilya's disappearance after a reporter asked for a reaction to Kearney's legal troubles."

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Posted on Sat, May. 11, 2002

DCF head accused by ex of bilking him — He says credit card debt accumulated in his name


TALLAHASSEE - The furor enveloping Kathleen Kearney's embattled state child welfare agency spilled over into a more personal issue Friday: An accusation by her ex-husband that she racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt in his name.

In court papers filed more than a month before she came under fire for losing track of a 5-year-old girl in state custody, Kearney's ex-husband accuses the former Broward County circuit judge of failing to live up to the terms of their 1995 divorce settlement.

Peter Magrino, a Broward prosecutor, alleges that Kearney, who makes about $110,000 annually as Secretary of the Department of Children & Families, spent more than $10,000 using a Discover card and continued to charge purchases on a Marshall Field's/Target account.

A spokesman for Kearney, Tim Bottcher, said Friday that such a personal matter has no relation to the Rilya Wilson case.

Kearney herself told reporters Friday: ``I'm not going to discuss personal issues.''

Gov. Jeb Bush, who named Kearney in 1999 to head an agency that both leaders promised to reform during their tenure, called the story ``trash journalism.''

The governor abruptly ended a Miami press conference Friday morning outside Metro-Dade police headquarters called to discuss Rilya's disappearance after a reporter asked for a reaction to Kearney's legal troubles.

Kearney's leadership at the DCF has come under scrutiny from state lawmakers as investigations continue into how Rilya vanished from state custody and why the agency did not know of her disappearance for 15 months.

The scandal has also become a political problem for Bush, who made fixing the agency a top promise during his 1998 campaign. He is seeking reelection this year, asking voters to judge him on his record of reform.

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the Democratic front-runner to challenge Bush, called this week for Kearney to resign, while Senate Democratic Leader Tom Rossin of Royal Palm Beach wrote Bush this week asking him to replace Kearney with state Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami.

As secretary, Kearney oversees a nearly $4 billion budget that includes millions in contracts with private firms that handle child care in some communities. At a House hearing this week, a state auditor was critical of the agency's financial record-keeping.

Magrino said Friday that he tried for years to keep the dispute private, but that Kearney's failure to respond to his repeated e-mails, phone calls and letters forced him to take the matter to court.

''Should we be having to tie up judicial time for this? I don't think so,'' Magrino told The Herald. ``But then I would not have thought that anyone, let alone a lawyer and a former judge, would choose not to follow a valid court order.''

According to court papers, it wasn't until Magrino underwent a background check in 2000 that he realized Kearney had accrued more than $10,000 in credit card debt in his name. The FBI ran a background check on Magrino as part of a case he was working on at the time, his lawyer said, and was surprised to learn that he had a bad credit rating.

As a result of the debts, Magrino claims in the court filing, he has a ``derogatory credit reporting history, has experienced problems in his high-clearance background investigation, and embarrassment.''

Magrino, 49, a former Miami-Dade police officer and longtime prosecutor who voted for Bush in 1998, said he has no political motive.

''All I want is to have my good credit restored,'' he said. ``I don't want to get anybody in any trouble.''

Magrino and Kearney met in the 1980s at the Broward state attorney's office -- she was in sex crimes, he was in the felony trial division -- and were married in 1986 in Hollywood.

They filed for divorce less than a decade later, claiming ``irreconcilable differences.''

The couple filed their divorce papers in Palm Beach County at the request of Kearney, who was a sitting judge in Broward.

Under the settlement, Magrino agreed to pay Kearney $10,000 to keep the couple's home on West Park Road in Hollywood, and Kearney agreed to pay the outstanding balance -- a sum not specified on the settlement agreement -- on the Discover and Marshall Field's cards.

They both waived alimony and also agreed to ''not at any time'' create debt or liabilities for each other.

Kearney charged purchases for books, household items, airline tickets, even a weekend at the Amelia Island Plantation in North Florida, on the cards, both during her years as a judge and her tenure as secretary, Magrino said.

Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.

© 2001 miamiherald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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Posted on Tue, May. 14, 2002

Child agency loses appeal
DCF must reveal where sister lives


As a panel of community leaders continued on Monday to look for ways to improve Florida's troubled child welfare system, the Department of Children & Families lost an important court battle that may alter the balance of power between the agency and judges who oversee foster children.

The Third District Court of Appeal in Miami ruled on Monday that Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman has the right to know where the sister of Rilya Wilson is living. Last week, the DCF's chief Miami attorney refused to tell the judge, saying the agency had ''sole authority'' over where certain foster children live.

With the appeal court's ruling, Lederman is free to hold another hearing -- a previous one was abruptly canceled last week -- to discuss the details of Rodericka Wilson's care. The 2-year-old girl was taken from two caregivers two weeks ago after it was discovered that her sister, Rilya, had disappeared.

The ruling could have far-reaching consequences as well: Lederman and the DCF have more than once engaged in a tug of war over children in state care, and other judges, including one in Broward County, have been increasingly active in overseeing the work of DCF caseworkers, and the department as a whole.

The tension between Lederman and the agency that surfaces regularly in her courtroom erupted last week when the judge said a foster care counselor had lied to her -- both in writing and in person -- for perhaps 16 months regarding the well-being of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson.

Though the counselor, Deborah Muskelly, had assured her that Rilya was well cared for and attending a day-care center, the judge said, the child actually was missing since at least January 2001.


Rilya's caretakers, a woman who identifies herself as the child's grandmother and another who says she is a great-aunt, have said Rilya was taken by a DCF employee in January 2001 for a psychological evaluation. Miami police announced last week, however, that both women showed signs of deception in polygraph examinations.

Lederman insisted at the hearing last week that she has the ''ultimate responsibility'' for children over whose cases she presides. She said she could not protect children if workers hid information from her.

The DCF's top Miami official, Charles Auslander, said he could not discuss the appeal court's ruling.

During a four-hour panel hearing at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus on Monday, two speakers said they, too, had experienced difficulties with DCF caseworkers.

Joni Goodman, who heads the guardian ad litem program in Miami, a $1.9 million effort that provides lay advocates, social workers and attorneys for about 65 percent of the Miami-Dade children in state care, said foster care counselors often display contempt for guardians who disagree with them.

''There is a culture in the department of disrespect for guardians ad litem,'' said Goodman. ''It is my belief, with the experience of 20 years in the guardian ad litem program, that the higher up you go in the department, the more understanding and respect you get concerning'' guardians.

''At the line level, there is an adversarial relationship, sort of a bunker mentality,'' Goodman said. ``We find ourselves often fighting with department lawyers.''

Trudy Petkovich, a foster mother who also mentors other foster parents, said she, too, had experienced problems on occasion when dealing with caseworkers.

'They will say, `If you make waves, we'll just have to remove the kid,' '' said Petkovich. ``I'm sorry to say, that's intimidation. And there's no place for counselors to intimidate foster parents.''

For the most part, Monday's meeting of the governor's blue ribbon panel on child protection prompted little controversy.


Petkovich and Michael Millsap, who adopted five foster children with his wife, Juli, spoke passionately of the dedication and sacrifice of foster parents and adoptive parents who often take troubled, difficult children into their homes. They said most of the DCF counselors with whom they have worked were cooperative and caring.

As they have in previous meetings, DCF officials displayed charts and graphs aimed at showing that the department has made significant progress in recent years. Kearney said bad publicity surrounding incidents such as Rilya's disappearance casts a pall on an agency that has made great strides.

Panelists also heard testimony from a child protection caseworker and a supervisor who described in detail what their days are like.

''I am like this right now,'' said caseworker Reggie Horton, showing his hands shaking, ``because I have no guarantee for any home I send a child to.''

Gov. Jeb Bush brought up Rilya's case during a campaign speech to the Miami City Club on Monday, saying that he would embrace the blue ribbon panel's recommendations ``if they make sense.''

''We will move quickly if there are systemic problems in the department,'' he said.

Bush, in his first mention of the child's name at a purely political event, asked business leaders to think about her ``from the perspective of being a mom or a dad.''

Meantime, tipsters have reported spotting Rilya in several different places, from the southwestern United States to the Bahamas, police said.

After nearly two weeks without leads, a segment on America's Most Wanted Saturday night seems to have caused a flurry of tips over the weekend from callers who think they may have seen the 5-year-old, said Miami-Dade police Sgt. John Roper.


The Bahamas tip is particularly interesting, because detectives have asked authorities in that country to assist them in locating the relatives of Geralyn Graham, the woman with whom Rilya lived when she disappeared.

''Callers may have seen a child that looked like Rilya,'' said Roper, who heads the Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers unit.

He said all the leads were passed on to homicide investigators.

Herald staff writer Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.

© 2001 miamiherald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Current Related News:

May, 2002. Quotes from Sun-Sentinel article, Agency chief, ex-DCF critic, now is target. Active Link

"But some say Kearney's passion and aggressive policies are directly to blame for the rise in child abuse cases from her first year to the present, which strained every aspect of the system. They add that however powerful a prosecutor she was, however no-nonsense a judge, she doesn't have the management skills to control an unwieldy state agency with 25,500 employees and a $4 billion budget.

"What Judge Kearney's appointment said was that you can be DCF secretary without having ever run a child welfare program, without ever running a Fortune 500 company," said Howard Talenfeld, a Broward County lawyer who has sued DCF on behalf of foster children and who worked with Kearney when she was a judge. "If she is not an expert, where's the expertise?..."

May, 2002. Copy from St. Petersburg Times article, Faking records not new at DCF. Active Link
"Documents from DCF and other sources show:

DCF child welfare workers have been cited at least 14 times since 1999 for falsifying records in their work on behalf of children considered abused or neglected, according to DCF Inspector General's Office records reviewed by the St. Petersburg Times. One worker phoned in a false abuse report about a child she wanted to adopt.

DCF fired a family safety worker in Pinellas County in January 2000 for falsifying his application, but only after the agency's inspector general criticized his supervisors' inaction. The report said DCF managers "failed to investigate" and prepared paperwork that "implied that the staff were not concerned about the alleged falsifications."

An October 2000 review of 18 child welfare cases in Pinellas County stated that "in well over half the cases, reviewers noted that children and parents were not being seen in the home on a monthly basis. In some cases, months had passed without any documented contact with the family." These cases were handled by Family Continuity Inc., which works under contract for DCF in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Several current and former employees of the child welfare system have testified in a lawsuit that counselors routinely falsified reports of visits to foster children, attorneys said in Palm Beach County last week.

DCF recently agreed to a $5-million settlement in the case of six children who were physically and sexually abused in a Broward County foster home. Their attorney says DCF made no documented visits to the foster home for 20 months ...

In the southwest Florida DCF district, a worker was accused of having "misused the abuse hotline by calling in a false abuse report involving a child she was trying to adopt."

In another case, a family safety counselor in the Tampa Bay area was accused of falsely stating that an individual had been arrested and charged with child abuse. In another, an employee falsely stated the circumstances of an individual's previous drug arrest. In a Central Florida county, a counselor resigned after having "falsified records regarding visits with clients."