The Miami Herald


Probe into Kendall boy’s death uncovers lies by DCF investigator

Originally published in The Miami Herald May 23, 2013

Child welfare administrators and prosecutors are looking into allegations that Shani Smith, a child abuse investigator, fudged the substance abuse screening of a Kendall mother who later left her baby to die in a sweltering car.

As a result of her fictitious report, child welfare administrators concluded it was not necessary to take any actions to protect 11-month-old Bryan Osceola or his older siblings or provide oversight for his parents. Six months later, Bryan’s mother, Catalina Bruno, drove to her Kendall home and left him behind in the car, along with her purse and a can of beer.

By the time anybody asked “where’s Bryan?” the boy had a 109-degree temperature. He was declared dead at the hospital.

“We will never know if the services we could have offered would have made a difference for Bryan’s mother or changed the tragic outcomes of this case,” said David Wilkins, secretary of the Department of Children & Families, at a Thursday news conference. Bruno has been jailed since the May 16 death of her son.

One day last November, Bruno was found just before midnight, passed out drunk behind the wheel of her vehicle, its transmission still in drive, with Bryan sprawled beside her in the front seat. She was charged with driving under the influence and child neglect.

After that incident, Smith was assigned to assess Bruno’s fitness to continue caring for her children.

During that November investigation, Smith wrote that an independent substance abuse expert had evaluated Bruno to determine if she needed alcohol treatment services, which is DCF protocol, Wilkins said.

The report found that Bruno did not pose a danger to her children. No additional services were offered, Wilkins said.

After Bryan’s death, DCF officials reviewed the case file and came to believe that the substance abuse evaluation never occurred.

“There is no evidence that the protective investigator contacted the independent expert and that an evaluation was formed,” Wilkins said. “Or that any recommendation was ever made by an expert.”

Smith denies falsifying the documents, according to Wilkins.

DCF referred Smith’s case to the state’s inspector general’s office and the state attorney’s office. The agency also served notice of intent to terminate her, and placed her on administrative leave for 10 days as required by law, Wilkins said. Smith’s supervisor is being placed on administrative leave as well, while DCF determines if any additional action needs to be taken.

“We take falsifying documents extremely seriously,” Wilkins said. “We have a stringent policy that any employee that falsifies documents will be immediately terminated.”

It is not the first time that a DCF worker has been accused of falsifying records, with tragic results.

Ten years earlier, a foster care worker was fired and later prosecuted after documenting visits to the home of foster child Rilya Wilson that never occurred. The visits could not have occurred because Rilya had disappeared months earlier. Her foster mother was later convicted of kidnapping, and will be retried on a murder charge on which the previous jury could not agree.

Smith has been with DCF since April 2011 and was responsible for more than 100 child abuse investigations in the past year. Wilkins said DCF is currently reviewing all of them and several will likely be reopened in light of the allegations.

Smith’s alleged actions are particularly upsetting, Wilkins said, because the agency has made strides since 2011, when the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona brought the agency withering criticism.

The state’s child abuse hotline had received multiple reports of neglect or abuse concerning Nubia and her twin brother, Victor, former foster children adopted by their foster parents, but DCF either dismissed them or was slow to react.

Days after one such report, Nubia was found dead in the bed of her father’s pest control truck along Interstate 95, her body stuffed in a plastic bag filled with caustic chemicals.

Her adoptive parents are charged with beating and torturing her to death.

Wilkins said the Barahona incident led to an overhaul of the organization, with the average caseload of each child protective investigator cut in half.

He added the yearly turnover rate among investigators has dropped from 67.3 percent to 6 percent, and investigation response time has improved.

The overhaul included replacing half of the investigators with new employees, and improving department salaries, Wilkins said. He added Smith was one of the new hires.

“We did not account for the human nature of a person who behaves as if they are above the rules and the processes and procedures that we have put in place to protect the most vulnerable,” Wilkins said.

The probe into Bryan’s death has been assigned to another DCF investigator.

“We will continue to coordinate the care that this family needs to get through this difficult situation,” Wilkins said.

Miami Beach seller says Aqua condo board targeting his luxury unit

Originally published in The Miami Herald June 18, 2013

When rich condo owners fight it out over money and property, it’s not a pretty sight.

The ugliness — a sliding condo market, mystery phone calls and accusations of fraud — belies the beauty of the backdrop: a condo development called Aqua nestled along Indian Creek in Miami Beach. The tangle over unit 902 is playing out in the legal system, costing both sides thousands of dollars.

At issue: whether a condo association has the right to stop a short sale and try to buy the unit itself.

The story begins in 2005 when New Yorker Philip Shapiro purchased the Aqua unit for $1.84 million, at the height of the real estate boom. Shapiro put an additional $500,000 into the three-bedroom, four-bathroom condo with an Intracoastal view, adding custom lighting and limestone floors to compliment balconies that wrap around the unit.

Shortly after, the housing bubble burst, the market crashed and the U.S. economy dipped into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

The price of Shapiro’s condo dropped to half of its pre-recession value. He quickly took the route that most sellers followed at the time — suck it up and try to sell for less than its worth.

In September 2011, Shapiro was ready to close on a $800,000 sale, but his condo association board stalled on approving the deal. Excuses poured in: there was an unpaid application fee; the Rosh Hashanah holiday interfered; there was a death in the family of one of the board members.

Pressed by the lender to close by a certain deadline, Shapiro decided move forward without board approval. He thought approval would be imminent, he said.

Four days after closing, Shapiro’s real estate agent received a call from a mysterious number. The caller expressed interest in buying the unit, but the agent, Linda Schechter, told the man it was already sold. The caller became angry, telling Schechter he knew fraud was involved.

Shaken, Schechter looked up the number and traced it to Jonathan Sullum, the husband of condo association board president Vicki Sullum. The Sullums own a unit adjacent to Shapiro’s and a broker showed the property to Vicki Sullum earlier that year.

“When they called, they didn’t know we closed,” Shapiro said of the incident. “They thought the bank killed the deal.”

The next day, Shapiro received a letter from the board saying it would not recognize the sale. A month later, the board sued Shapiro and the buyer, seeking to have the sale voided and to order Shapiro to sell the unit to the association for $800,000.

Shapiro hired his own lawyer and the battle was on.

Since then, Shapiro reversed the sale of his unit and now has two years to pay back the buyer. Meanwhile, the condo association is seeking $200,000 from Shapiro to cover its legal fees.

The parties are in settlement negotiations.

Shapiro says he is surprised how the situation unfolded, something he calls a blatant misuse of the board’s power. He expected the board to drop the case against him when he produced phone records showing that Vickie Sullum had called about the sale and was possibly blocking it because she had indicated interest in purchasing his condo.

“After that, you would think they would give it up,” said Shapiro from his New York home. “Because they were caught, they were exposed. Instead, they go full throttle. They sue me.”

Shapiro said he had no indication the condo association originally intended to buy his unit, because that would have required all owners to vote for it. Instead, Shapiro claims that Sullum may have hoped to block the sale, then purchase the unit for herself, Shapiro claims.

Sullum declined to answer questions about the lawsuit or the case. Two other board members, Richard Toledo and Marian Davis, did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment.

Shapiro suspects his situation isn’t an anomaly and other condo associations likely overextend their authority for personal gain, he said.

“I think it affects a lot of people,” Shapiro said. “It’s a great example of a board overstepping its boundaries, getting corrupt and greedy. It’s an outrage,” he said. “What does the average person do who doesn’t have the means to fight, who is mistaken about the condo’s authority?”

There is not a way to tell how often a condo board takes action against a condo owner who tries to sell without board approval, according to Samantha Stratton, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The agency does not require condo associations to report lawsuits, she said.

In May, thanks to a recovering economy, Shapiro placed the 2,395-square-foot unit on sale for $1.95 million – roughly its pre-recession value.

This time around, Shapiro hopes that the property will sell without interference from the condo association.

“If they try any shenanigans again, then we’ll go before a judge,” Shapiro said.

Miami Beach water woes cause headaches, continue Thursday

Some residents complained that the city didn’t do as much as it should have to get the word out about water problems.
Originally published in The Miami Herald, June 26, 2013