OSCEOLA, Fla. - The Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrested Vanessa Arias, 33, over the weekend and she was charged with official misconduct and falsifying records.
FDLE agents said she lied about checking on the welfare of children who were under a case management plan to try and keep them with their mother. The children were found in January 2015 with no food, running water or electricity. Arias was just arrested because the investigation has been ongoing for two years.
Arias was terminated in 2015 shortly after the investigation was launched, DCF confirmed.
“This is a sad case of vulnerable children reaching out to someone in a position to help them, but instead they were ignored,” said FDLE Special Agent in Charge Danny Banks.
Arias worked for Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, which is a Department of Children and Families subcontractor.
9 Investigates reporter Daralene Jones found at least five other employees who have been investigated for similar claims of falsifying records in the last five years.
Arias was responsible for developing a safety plan once a DCF investigator determined the children were being neglected. Arias was supposed to make sure the children's mother was following that plan. Sometimes the plans can include substance-abuse treatment, conflict resolution counseling because of domestic violence, or even job and education cases.
In the investigative report, agents noted Arias went by the home and wrote a report describing “the children were dressed appropriate and they were free from any visible signs of abuse/neglect with all their basic needs met.”
The next day, Kissimmee police were called to the home and found the five children, who said their mother was only staying at the home sporadically. The power had been turned off for about three weeks and there was no food in the house and no running water. One child told a police officer they tried to call other family members and Arias, but nobody helped, so she called police.
Nan Connolly is an outspoken critic of DCF, and how it trains its child protective investigators and contracts work for its case managers.
“We send them into that job, some of the worst qualified, youngest, greenest, most inexperienced people in state government. It's outrageous,” Connolly said.
9 Investigates earlier this month exposed more than 250 cases statewide, over the last five years, in which DCF child protective investigators and contracted case managers were accused of falsifying case notes.
About 60 percent of the cases were supported with clear evidence that the case managers or child protective investigators claimed to check out allegations of abuse or neglect and didn’t. In some cases, they checked out the claims and even performed followups and implemented case management plans, but didn’t always follow up as noted in reports.
A majority of workers complained about trying to manage too many cases. The same day our 9 Investigates story was published earlier this month, DCF announced a major effort to reduce caseloads. Since then, we have received weekly updates.
In the latest update, the DCF secretary said: “I remain committed to ensuring our maximum caseload does not exceed 25 cases for a CPI at any given time and it will take all of us working together to meet that goal. About six percent of our CPI’s are carrying a caseload greater than 25 and we will continue to get those caseloads down in an effort to provide the best possible services to the families we serve.”
Connolly believes the agency should arm their CPI’s and case managers with cameras, in an effort to hold them more accountable.
“Just as police have gone over to recording devices in many areas, everything a CPI does from the state, what they call commencement of a case, should be recorded, whether it's a phone call, whether it's a face-to-face visit with the child. Sometimes they go into a school, wherever they are, they should be recorded so there's an accurate, memorialized record that a judge can use. Judges have no choice but to rely on what these CPIs say, there's no alternative for that information,” Connolly said.
The five children in the DCF investigation were removed from the home and placed in the foster care system.
Arias was not home when 9 Investigates stopped by, but her father told us the mother of two is now working a new job and believes she’s innocent.