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September 29, 2007 permalink
The Miami Herald reports that the State of Florida has paid out $196 million in a decade to settle lawsuits against the state. The costliest offender has been DCF, the Florida child protection agency. A document attached to the article gives all settlements over $50 thousand (pdf) during a two year period.
We have also received reports of litigation against children's aid societies, so far all fragmentary. From the few fragments, we can say that the first step in all suits against children's aid is an order sealing the court records, and preventing the litigants from talking about their case. During the litigation itself, CAS lawyers employ stalling tactics to the maximum possible extent, preventing the real issues from coming before the court as long as possible. If a settlement is worked out, it is on condition of secrecy, so that the aggrieved parties know that they will lose their compensation for speaking out. So far the only suit against CAS to come to public attention is that of Dorian Baxter. He won his case in court, but CAS refused to pay, preferring instead to make endless appeals. He was forced to accept a settlement for less than his legal fees and wound up in bankruptcy.
The size of the settlements in Florida suggests that in Ontario, where secrecy is more effective, children's aid societies may be a large hidden drain on the taxpayer's money. In a private company where customers are the only source of funds, monetary judgments force the company to correct its problems or fail financially. In an agency funded by the legislature, monetary judgments are just another claim on the taxpayer. As long as the settlements remain secret, they cannot cause reform.
State spent $196M in a decade to settle suits
Posted on Fri, Sep. 28, 2007
BY GARY FINEOUT gfineout@MiamiHerald.com
State spent $196M in a decade to settle suits
Florida has spent nearly $200 million over the past 10 years to quietly settle lawsuits for everything from employment discrimination to sexual harassment to state employees turning a blind eye to child abuse.
And with few exceptions, nearly all of it has taken place out of the eye of the public, and with scant oversight from lawmakers responsible for spending taxpayer money.
The biggest payouts have come on behalf of Florida's child-welfare agency, the Department of Children & Families, to compensate children who have been beaten, abused or sexually assaulted while in state custody.
The most expensive payout: nearly $14 million for the 20 victims of Nellie Johnson, a Gainesville foster parent sentenced four years ago to 60 years in prison for beating children in her care between 1991 and 2001. She hit them with pipes and boards, force-fed them until they vomited and beat one boy so badly doctors had to remove a testicle.
Despite Johnson's conviction in 2003, the state fought the lawsuit brought by the injured children -- until late last year, when DCF agreed to a series of settlements amounting to $13.8 million.
''We could delay another three years to where these children who are victims of crime would not receive anything,'' said DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth, who has moved aggressively to settle the Johnson case and others since he took office in January. ``That's just not the right thing to do.''
A review of 10 years' worth of records maintained by the state Division of Risk Management shows that Florida has paid $196.2 million to settle lawsuits. The payments range from relatively small settlements for damages caused by malfunctioning parking gates to larger ones to settle sex, race and age discrimination lawsuits filed by job applicants or state employees.
During the past decade no department has paid as much to settle lawsuits as the state's child welfare agency. In 10 years, the state has paid $73 million to resolve lawsuits involving DCF. And since January, DCF and the state's Division of Risk Management have settled 29 cases totaling $16 million.
All the cases were filed before Butterworth took office. But Butterworth, a former judge and state attorney general, said he directed his legal office to review all outstanding lawsuits to see ``if we had absolute losers here because the person is going to jail.''
''We are trying to do what is in the best interest of the children,'' Butterworth said.
Those who have repeatedly warned about shortcomings in Florida's safety net for children over the years say the steady stream of litigation should be a wake-up call.
''What's been going on in our foster care system for far too long is that the children are not being kept safe,'' said Karen Gievers, a Tallahassee attorney representing five children to whom the state agreed to pay $1.2 million. The five were sexually assaulted by a Merritt Island foster parent who was allowed to adopt the children. The lawsuit, settled in August, lambasted DCF for allowing Robert Howard, now awaiting trial on sex abuse charges, to adopt the children even though the state had shut down his foster home.
Dozens of other cases settled by DCF are similar. Last month the agency agreed to pay $1.4 million to a child who was placed in an overcrowded foster home where she was repeatedly sexually abused by two older foster children.
State Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat, said he is glad Butterworth is trying to settle the lingering cases. But he said he questions whether the department is doing enough to track and prevent abuse against children in state custody.
''I want to know whether this reveals the quality of the care,'' said Gelber, who has sent a listing of recent DCF settlements to the GOP lawmakers who oversee the agency.
A review of state records shows that all state agencies and Florida's 11 public universities are routinely paying out thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, to resolve lawsuits or disputes that haven't even made it to court. Some of the lawsuits have been publicized, but usually the settlements are reached quietly.
Among the cases:
- The Agency for Persons with Disabilities agreed this summer to pay $300,000 to the family of Franklin Weekley, an 18-year-old who disappeared in 2002 from a state-run home for the disabled. Nearly two years after he vanished his bones were discovered by a contractor tearing down an old boiler room at the Marianna facility.
- The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles settled a long-running dispute over Florida Highway Patrol troopers' use of force against an Opa-locka man when they raided his apartment in 1998. The state agreed last year to pay $475,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit in which Kenrick Christopher said the incident left him partially disabled.
- The Department of Corrections agreed in July to pay $1.3 million, including $500,000 for attorney fees, to 13 nurses who said the department did nothing to protect them from sexual harassment by prison inmates at Washington Correctional Institution in Chipley.
- Florida International University paid $75,000 to a woman who was sexually assaulted in 2005 by an FIU police officer. The officer, Frederick Currie, was convicted in January 2006 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
''It's a terrible thing that happened to her, and I'm embarrassed that one of our officers would have been found guilty of such actions,'' said FIU President Modesto ''Mitch'' Maidique.
The settlements authorized by the Division of Risk Management don't need approval from the Legislature. That's because the state routinely set asides millions in the state budget to pay claims. Top legislators in both the House and Senate routinely get official notices of large settlements, but the grand total has surprised lawmakers.
When told Florida had paid more than $68 million in settlements in the past three years, House Speaker Marco Rubio said he was unaware of it.
Some of the settlements reached by the state sidestep Florida's sovereign immunity laws, which cap damages at $200,000 per incident. That's because in the past few years attorneys have chosen to file civil rights violations lawsuits in federal court, where the immunity doesn't apply.
State Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, whose department oversees the risk-management office, said the millions spent resolving lawsuits shows that the state needs to do a better job at figuring how to prevent future litigation.
''This is big money,'' Sink said. ``The division is very efficient and it's well run, but it's very reactive. We need to be more proactive.''
Miami Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.
Source: Miami Herald