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Toddler has been living with Safe Children Coalition employee for a year; family members say they’ve been shut out

Time is running out for a toddler removed from her family and placed with a child welfare agency employee who wants to adopt her, raising eyebrows among experts and insiders who describe the placement as a blatant conflict of interest.

Three-year-old Ryleigh continues to live with Safe Children Coalition employee Jolee Grobleski despite her great-aunt Kathleen McGinty’s repeated attempts to gain custody and despite the recommendation of a neutral committee siding with McGinty.

Employees of child welfare agencies are permitted to foster children. But they must avoid conflicts of interests that could result in preferential treatment in the placement or movement of a child, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families, which oversees the Safe Children Coalition.

McGinty, 48, claims the Safe Children Coalition and its subcontractor, Youth and Family Alternatives, concealed the fact that an employee was housing Ryleigh with the intent of adopting her. She also said that Youth and Family Alternatives continued to manage Ryleigh’s case for months before she found out and complained.

Experts interviewed by the Herald-Tribune say the case is an example of the ethical quandaries rife in the child welfare system and how they play out in secretive adoption proceedings. The result, they said, is a painful and drawn-out process for children who can be irretrievably damaged by the traumatic experience.

“That’s a blatant conflict of interest,” said Roy Miller, president and founder of the Tallahassee-based advocacy group The Children’s Campaign. “Right off the bat, it raises questions.”

“You have the employee of one agency determining the future of a child, which involves vetting the appropriateness of placement with an employee of an organization from which they receive funding,” Miller said. “Can they be completely objective?”

The Department of Children and Families contracts with the Safe Children Coalition to oversee foster care in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. The coalition in turn subcontracts with the nonprofit Youth and Family Alternatives to manage foster care cases in Manatee County.

The whiff of impropriety has raised concerns within the child welfare system. The Herald-Tribune spoke to several sources, among them former and current DCF attorneys and a former employee of the Guardian ad Litem program, which advocates for children in court. They said the case is being widely discussed in concerned whispers.

“It just doesn’t appear on its face to be clean,” said Andrew Chiang, a former managing attorney for DCF in charge of Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties who was terminated after a dispute with DCF officials in 2016. “If you’re handpicking kids, it just doesn’t sit well with me.”

The bitter battle over the 3-year-old girl has stretched into its 13th month with both sides accusing the agency of unreasonable delays, according to court documents obtained by the Herald-Tribune.

Debra Salisbury, an attorney for the Grobleskis, declined to comment, stating it could get her “in trouble” with The Florida Bar. Jolee Grobleski, who oversees placements of foster children with mental health issues as a behavioral health coordinator with the Safe Children Coalition, did not return three calls for comment.

Brena Slater, head of the Safe Children Coalition, did not respond to requests for a phone or in-person interview. Instead, she sent an email to the Herald-Tribune saying regulations do not dictate when a case should be transferred to another jurisdiction to avoid a conflict of interest.

“There are no set time limits in these situations as they are case-by-case and depend on the availability of another circuit to take on the case,” Slater said. She added that she was prohibited to speak about case specifics due to confidentiality concerns.

Regulations stipulate if an employee is planning to adopt a child from the system and has a close working relationship with the foster care or adoption staff in their local area, a home study should be transferred to another jurisdiction. But experts said regulations are murky. They stop short of explicitly mandating how quickly a conflict of interest should be resolved or how swiftly a case should be transferred to another circuit.

Officials at the Department of Children and Families refused a phone interview on the matter. In a statement, Interim Secretary Rebecca Kapusta said the agency “will always do what is in the best interest of the child.”

McGinty, however, says the agency’s lack of outreach to family and veiling of the employee’s interest in adopting amounts to corruption.

“If they said, ‘Fly down, we’d like to meet you,’ I would have been there,” said McGinty, who lives in Massachusetts. “They could’ve run my background check — I’ve never even had a speeding ticket. If they had made any effort — ‘We’d like you to meet Ryleigh, let’s all talk and sit down’ — I would have been on a plane the next day. None of that. They shut me down immediately.”

 

‘I don’t even know why I’m still alive’

Mellisa Mirick was beautiful and tortured. The teen mom, from whom Ryleigh inherited her blue eyes, tried and failed many times to shake her addiction. In the process, she lost her rights as a parent.

In the months leading up to her death, she seemed more depressed than ever before.

“I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore,” Mirick posted on Facebook in January 2017. “I no longer care about my health, or my happiness, or anything else. I don’t even know why I’m still alive, here, breathing right now. I have no motivation to do anything anymore. The daily stress is killing me inside, and all the questions, all the doubts, everything. It just makes me slip into my old habits again."

Mirick’s upbringing was tumultuous and anchorless. Her mother, Karen McGinty, was a teenager when she left her family in Massachusetts and hitchhiked to Florida, family members recall. She lived a nomadic life with her husband and became a drug user.

In Florida, Karen McGinty gave birth to Mirick, who in turn gave birth to Lexi, Caleigh and Ryleigh, all from different fathers.

Kathleen McGinty, who stayed in Massachusetts, spoke less and less to her wayward sister as her descent into drug use became more rapid. She heard from her niece only in recent years, when it seemed like her drug use and legal problems were spiraling out of control, when Mirick had no one else to turn to but a distant aunt in another state.

“Mellisa was amazing. She was full of life and smiles. She loved her kids,” said Ashley McCaw, Mirick’s paternal aunt. But drugs “literally consumed her. In a very short amount of time she went from being my best friend to being something that I didn’t even recognize.”

Shortly after Mirick’s parental rights were terminated, her mother died from an infection connected with intravenous drug use at age 44. Eight months later, in February 2017, Mirick died from similar causes. She was 25.

Her oldest daughter, Lexi, had been reunited with her father in Massachusetts years earlier. Her second daughter, Caleigh, was soon claimed by her father, also in southeastern Massachusetts.

But Ryleigh’s father already had lost his parental rights, according to court documents. So Ryleigh was placed with McCaw, who continued to care for her for more than two years. She even planned to adopt Ryleigh until child welfare officials objected to her long-term boyfriend’s violation of probation on a battery on a law enforcement officer conviction in 2015. Officials then removed Ryleigh from her home.

McCaw said she informed caseworkers that Ryleigh had extended family in Massachusetts and Maine, but none of them were contacted. Instead, Ryleigh was placed in a home with hopeful adoptive parents.

“Ryleigh is the poster child for adoption,” said McCaw, who now lives in Middleboro, Massachusetts. “She’s got blond hair, blue eyes, she’s beautiful, she’s bright, she’s amazing.”

Ryleigh’s grandfather, reeling from the loss of his wife and daughter and struggling to stay afloat himself, posted a plea on his Facebook page.

“Can anyone from my family message me,” he wrote on Oct. 16, 2017, the day Ryleigh was taken by DCF. “Have a serious issue and only family can help.”

Fourteen hundred miles away, in chilly Marshfield, Massachusetts, McGinty read her brother-in-law’s post. She had been keeping tabs on her Florida family on social media for years, knowing things were starting to get bad, wondering if she should reach out.

Now she learned that Ryleigh had been taken by child welfare officials at the courthouse and was in the foster care system.

McGinty decided to sleep on it.

The next morning, she woke up and began making calls to find her great-niece.

 

‘Conflict of interest written all over it’

McGinty said she was initially apprehensive about adopting a child at this stage in her life.

Divorced nearly 20 years ago, she raised three daughters on her own and watched proudly as they graduated from college one by one. Now ranging in age from 23 to 29, one is a third-grade teacher, another is a registered nurse and the third is studying to become a nurse.

McGinty herself works as a mentor for a nonprofit that works with low-income parents to prevent childhood abuse and neglect.

It took McGinty a dozen phone calls over the course of a week to find out that Ryleigh’s case was being managed by the Safe Children Coalition.

McGinty said she called Ryleigh’s caseworker, Leah Paskadiles, at least 10 times with no response. She then started calling Paskadiles’ supervisor, Lidia Casanova, crouching in her car during lunch breaks fruitlessly dialing number after number. Paskadiles did not respond to requests for comment from the Herald-Tribune and Casanova declined to talk.

McGinty assumed nobody was working on the case. But that was not correct.

Court documents show that the agency was working fast that same week, arranging a family match meeting and lining up the Grobleskis as prospective adoptive parents.

By late October 2017 — about two weeks after Ryleigh was removed from relatives — she was in the Grobleskis’ home, according to court documents. A DCF spokeswoman said there is no record that the Grobleskis ever applied for a foster license. But she added that in some instances, a traditional licensing process is not required.

Back in Massachusetts, McGinty was grateful when a supervisor returned her call.

Ashlee Vaughan, a top official at Youth and Family Alternatives in Manatee County, told McGinty that they could get the ball rolling on adoption proceedings — that a background check, home study and various other things were required — and that the whole process might take about a year. But Vaughan failed to mention that Ryleigh already had been placed in a pre-adoptive home, McGinty said — the home of a child welfare employee.

It wasn’t until January, three months after case managers started working with McGinty, that she got a tip that her great-niece had been placed with Grobleski, McGinty said.

In an email to the entire case management team, McGinty accused them of corruption.

Two weeks later, Safe Children Coalition programs director David Luebcke announced the case was being transferred to the 20th Judicial Circuit, a five-county region that stretches from Port Charlotte to Naples. He did not explain why.

Youth and Family Alternatives chief operating officer John Luff declined to comment on the case when contacted by the Herald-Tribune, citing confidentiality concerns. He acknowledged that Youth and Family Alternatives has no written conflict-of-interest policy, although he said employees would not be allowed to adopt a child they met through their job because it “creates a conflict or perceived conflict of interest.”

Four experts contacted by the Herald-Tribune said child welfare agencies are ethically obligated to disclose when one of their own tries to adopt a foster child.

“They should scream it from the mountaintops any time an agency tries to do this because it should be rare and it should be very carefully handled,” said Robert Latham, a child welfare attorney and instructor at the University of Miami Children and Youth Law Clinic. “It’s a conflict of interest of that whole agency.”

Chiang said he would go even further, allowing child welfare employees to adopt only when all other avenues have been exhausted, including a sweeping search for relatives and prospective adoptive families from outside the system.

He also said he tried and failed, back when he was the managing attorney for the Department of Children and Families in the circuit, to institute a policy of recording every attempt to reach out to family members, precisely to avoid this kind of situation.

“If you’re going to adopt kids that are out of the system in which you work, I think you have to make sure everybody has been exhausted, because otherwise it appears as if you tried to steer the case from the very beginning to your benefit,” Chiang said.

 

‘Children are not chattel’

Multiple members of Ryleigh’s extended family say they were never contacted by child welfare officials.

That includes the families of Ryleigh’s two half sisters, who live with their respective fathers in southeastern Massachusetts, close to McGinty. It also includes Ryleigh’s biological uncle, who lives with his wife and infant son in Maine.

Jessica Delgado, the aunt of Ryleigh’s sister Caleigh, said it was unimaginable that the Safe Children Coalition could have overlooked them, given that she and her brother, Sam Delgado, clashed frequently with the coalition in 2015 to get custody of Caleigh.

“They knew Sam. They knew Sam’s information. At no point did they contact Sam at all and ask, ‘Do you want to keep the siblings together?’” Delgado said. “We would have absolutely tried to keep them together.”

Cheryl Makuch-McKoy, the grandmother of Ryleigh’s other sister, Lexi, said she even called the Safe Children Coalition several times after Ryleigh was removed and never heard back.

“She’s a saint,” Makuch-McKoy said of McGinty. “I love her. I think she’s an incredible woman to be the only one going up against the system over there.”

Ryleigh’s great-great-aunt, Kathy Gomez, who lives in Chiefland on Florida’s northern Gulf Coast, also said she never received a phone call or letter from the agency. Gomez is helping McGinty by attending some of the court hearings, driving more than two hours each way.

“I cried all the way home last time I was here,” Gomez said. “It’s confusing her. It’s confusing her terribly. It should not be this way. If your family wants you, you should be with your family.”

Family-finding programs around the state use different methods to track down relatives. In Manatee, DeSoto and Sarasota counties, the search is handled by a special division at the Safe Children Coalition and includes online searches, genealogical databases and interviews with immediate family members. Case workers have gone as far as Puerto Rico, Mexico and Ireland to find responsible and willing relatives to take a child. If immediate family isn’t found, they will contact ex-husbands, in-laws and third cousins in an effort to find a placement, according to experts and former child welfare workers.

“Children are not chattel,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First. “They’re human beings entitled to respect and dignity. And when they come into foster care, the state is obligated to maintain connections between the family of origin.”

McGinty said that when she asked a case worker why she wasn’t contacted, the case worker claimed her organization had tried — and that it was McGinty who never called back.

But McGinty said that’s a lie. In emails to the agency reviewed by the Herald-Tribune, McGinty asked Vaughan multiple times to provide evidence that the agency attempted to contact Ryleigh’s extended family.

At the time, Vaughan said the agency was working on it. But when McGinty pressed again in November, a DCF attorney said the information was confidential. Vaughan did not respond to at least two requests from the Herald-Tribune for comment.

McGinty is still reeling from what she says is the agency’s deception.

“They’re playing with my blood relative’s life, my niece,” McGinty said.

 

‘That’s going to be the end of it’

McGinty said that the Grobleskis have accused her in court of being negligent for not reaching out to adopt Ryleigh as soon as her mother died. She said the Grobleskis also have noted that Ryleigh has been in their care for more than a year and has bonded with them.

McGinty counters that Ryleigh was under the care of family before the Grobleskis entered the picture, so there was no need to attempt adoption back then.

In May, the dispute went to a neutral committee under state auspices called the Adoption Applicant Review Committee. The secretive process is used in particularly challenging cases, such as when two families want to adopt the same child.

The committee, whose recommendations typically hold significant weight, sided with McGinty, according to a letter she received in June, naming her as “the adoptive applicant.”

“I was told ‘Get ready, it’s not a matter of if she is coming, it’s just a matter of when,’” McGinty said. She began setting up pediatricians, therapists, and day care centers, readied Ryleigh’s bedroom, stocked a closet full of dresses and put a Little Mermaid electric toothbrush in the bathroom.

A month and a half later, the Grobleskis filed a petition to adopt Ryleigh.

McGinty said proceedings have since ground to a halt, with hearings repeatedly delayed or canceled and little to no communication from case managers or child welfare attorneys.

Months after the committee sided with McGinty, DCF attorney David Silverstein told her that the entire committee review will need to be redone because a “bonding assessment” — a test of how well Ryleigh can bond with others — was outdated, McGinty said. Silverstein declined to comment.

McGinty said she realizes now that she should have hired an attorney. But the constant flights to Florida — 10 round trips in the last year — have drained her bank account. She is concerned that the delays are a stalling tactic.

“It comes to a point where somebody runs out of money and that’s going to be the end of it,” she said.

Amid all of the legal wrangling is Ryleigh: scrawny, blue-eyed, always smiling but never looking you directly in the eyes, clutching her Minnie Mouse doll.

In her three years of life, Ryleigh has had at least five different homes. She has been a ward of the state almost since birth. Experts say every removal is traumatizing and lessens Ryleigh’s chances of success, of being able to bond, attach, love and thrive.

McGinty said she agonizes over every delay in the court proceedings, every day the case drags on.

She recognizes that Ryleigh has been living with the Grobleskis for a year now. She said she believes that at some point the Grobleskis’ dogged attorney will argue that Ryleigh has permanently bonded with them and it will be in her best interest to stay. In a way that only a parent can, McGinty acknowledges that, one day, the best thing for Ryleigh may be to let her go.

McGinty aches to tell Ryleigh about their family, imperfect like many others, but filled with love. To point out that they have the same toes. To warn her that breast cancer runs in their family. To explain that her mother’s middle name was Ann, just like her grandmother’s, and her great-grandmother’s before her. To tell Ryleigh that her mother once confessed that she gave Ryleigh the same middle name because she wanted her to know her family.

“Every time I see her, I hug her and I smell her and I think this might be the last time I see her,” McGinty said. “I try to memorize everything about her. I want her to remember me and I want her to remember her sisters’ names.”

“She’s smart — really smart — and I hope and pray that she does remember us,” McGinty said. “Because she’s going to want answers one day, and I’ll be here waiting with them.”

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Source : https://www.heraldtribune.com/news/20181209/adoption-fight-pits-great-aunt-against-child-welfare-worker