One Can Return Home Again!!!

It has been said by many, including myself from time to time, that one cannot go home again. Well this past weekend I in fact did go home again. It is not your typical home but it was home for me for seven plus years of my youth.

I had spent the first eleven years of my youth moving from one home to another; fourteen moves altogether. This ended shortly after my eleventh birthday.

On April 16, 1961, I arrived at the place that would truly be my home and the place I call home until this day. This place I returned to this past weekend for only the sixth time in the forty plus years since I graduated high school from. This special place is Father Flanagan’s Boys Home; better known throughout the world as Boys Town, Nebraska.

Every two years those who were once young boys, and now also young girls, return to Boys Town from across the country. For many of us it is the only place we ever had to call home. It is a time to remember our youth, renew old friendships, swap stories and ask whatever happen to. Though I had visited a few other times on my own this would be only the third actual reunion I have attended.

I arrived at Boys Town after a drive of about seven hours from Fargo, North Dakota. There upon my arrival I was greeted by three alumni from my era…Chris, Chuck & Carl. Just seeing them and giving big hugs made me feel immediately that I had come home.

After greetings as well as a reminder of something I had said upon graduation day back on June 2, 1968, “I will never come back to this %$#&@ place” we quickly moved on to the Alumni Office on campus to let them know we had come home.

While here I got to see the welcoming of the oldest alumni attending the reunion. He was at Boys Town 1937-1939 and is now 88 years old. He returned with his children and grandchildren. Though he was here only two years he stressed how much those two brief years changed his life and how grateful he was to be an alumnus of Boys Town. The oldest surviving alumnus of Boys Town had passed away only a few months ago at age 93.

After a lunch at the Visitor Center Chuck, Chris and I were off on a walking tour of the place we had spent so much time at, our old high school cottage, the high school, the old trade school and the field house. There would be more walks around the campus over the course of the weekend. While visiting these places we began almost immediately to do as returning Boys Town boys do…telling stories of the past. Yes, stories that may have taken but a few minutes when first told now took much longer as some seemed to expand as the years passed.

One thing I can tell you now is whenever Boys Town alumni gather for a visit DO NOT expect just a short visit. When we gather we can spend hours upon hours remembering stories of our youth at Boys Town…and many do this over the days of reunion weekend.

Before leaving campus to check in to my hotel for the weekend I had to make one stop alone. I went to Dowd Chapel to briefly visit and say a prayer of thanksgiving at the tomb of Father Flanagan. It is something I have done upon each return visit to Boys Town. Though I did not fully appreciate things during my years at Boys Town I have since. If not for a simple priest seeing the need to found a place for boys in need back in 1917 I do not know where I would be today. I admit each time I do this a few tears come as I am so grateful now for those seven plus years I spent in this place I call home.

In the early evening a pre-reunion weekend pizza party was in store. This had been planned by a small group of us to accommodate those who had arrived early for the weekend. The official Reunion Weekend did not start until Friday. Over 100 alumni, some with family in tow, gathered at a local pizza establishment to begin the story telling. Here I had a chance to greet and hug a number of my former classmates; each eager for the weekend ahead.

Friday brought the official beginning with registration at the Great Hall on campus. Each registrant received a bag with the weekend program and several goodies. One also had their first chance to purchase a few mementos. There appeared to be a steady stream of cars arriving bringing alumni home. The big event of this day besides a golf tournament for those who play golf would not come until the evening hours.

I would spend part of this day continuing my walking journey around campus. One should note that walking was the way we got around the 1400 acre campus back in my day. Today the youth are driven everywhere they go. I prefer the old mode of transportation…my own two feet! Today I visited Chambers Chapel (where those not of the Catholic faith attend services and not on campus when I was here), Father Flanagan’s official home on campus until Dowd Chapel & rectory was built, the Boys Town Lake and the Music Hall. As I walked I could see many others doing the exact same thing. In some cases alumni were bringing their children and grandchildren to the home for the first time to show them where that had grown up.

Late afternoon brought me back to Dowd Chapel to supposedly listen to a period of reflections by Father Clifford Stevens, class of 1944). Usually Father Stevens talks of his memories as a youth of Father Flanagan. Today was different. He gave a very moving tribute to Msgr. Schmidt. Smittie, as some of us call him now that he can’t get us) was Choir Director at Boys Town for over thirty years. The Boys Town Concert Choir was known throughout the country as one of the finest youth choirs that toured all over the country each fall. Smittie was also one of my father figures throughout my years at Boys Town. At the conclusion I could only go to Father Stevens with tears in my eyes to say thank you for his very emotional tribute. Seems I get teary eyed rather easily these days -:)

The time came for the first official gathering of the weekend in the Great Hall…the Alumni Social. Here at the hall, as with many other buildings on campus, hung a huge banner welcoming alumni home. Hundreds began pouring into the hall. You could hear the greeting of old classmates, much laughter, stories being told. Though it may have been years in some cases of seeing each other one could see how easily old classmates interacted as if it had only been yesterday since they had seen each other.

I had one such experience that evening. There was one person whom I had lived with in Cottage 38 for part of my high school years who graduated with me but I had not heard from or seen since 1968. Am grateful he still recognized me as I would not have him as he had completely changed hairstyles since then…he came over to me saying he recognized me immediately. We sat down with his wife and son and just immediately began sharing what we had done since our days at Boys Town, recounted stories and other boys we had known. You would not have known over forty years had passed since we last saw each other. Thank you John, Candy & Shamus for one of my highlights of the weekend. We also determined that evening we would not let forty years go by again without speaking to or seeing each other. The fortunate thing is we found out live only a few hour drive from each other.

I saw so many of my former classmates that evening. We took a photo which included many of us though throughout the weekend we never seemed to be able to gather everyone from the class of 1968 together in one spot for a complete picture.

Three more highlights were added to the weekend experience on Saturday. Jim Acklin had been one of my closest friends during my final two years at Boys Town. He had also been my debate partner in our senior year. Our winning record in 1968 still stands today. Jim went on to Notre Dame then joined the Air Force. Jim became a test pilot and on one training mission in the fall of 1987 his plane’s window was hit by a flock of birds. After seeing to it that as many of his crew as possible could be saved Jim, along with two crew members, went down with the plane. Jim had given his all for his country and fellow men. This day Jim was honored by the BTNAA (Boys Town National Alumni Association) as one of the outstanding alumni of Boys Town. I had hoped and prayed Jim would be honored in this manner for years.

The second highlight came after a luncheon for alumni in the Great Hall. Each reunion weekend includes a short but solemn memorial service at the Armed Forces Memorial. Boys Town alumni have been a part of each of our armed services as well as war since WWII. Over 40 alumni gave their all in WWII and alumni have been lost in each war since. A  color guard of present day ROTC members is presented, the pledge is recited, words of remembrance given, a wreath is laid,  taps are played and a prayer is offered not only for those who lost their lives in war but for all who have been willing to answer the call of their country yesterday as well as today. 

The third highlight of the day was the gathering of the Alumni Choir for rehearsal. The alumni choir had become a part of reunion weekend in 1997. The choir would rehearse to sing the high mass on Sunday as well as give a short Patriotic concert. The choir section back in the old days lived in one building during grade school years (Gregory Hall) or old Section 4 (Cottages 34-39) during high school years. Since we lived in one area we probably developed some of the stronger relationships during our years there. The choir section seems to bring a number back for reunion weekend. Over forty of us gathered in the upper room of the Music Hall this Saturday afternoon to rehearse the mass and concert; it was just so much like the old days…especially with some of the Latin liturgical selections to be used for the mass. It is amazing how the Latin comes back to one even after so many years.

Another highlight within this highlight deserves mentioning here. Reggie, a member of the class of 1967, attended. This was a highlight because of what Reggie has endured the past ten plus years. In 1998 it was discovered that Reggie had kidney cancer. Though he overcame it there was not a kidney transplant available thus Reggie had to go on dialysis. He then experienced testilcal cancer and prostate cancer…each of which he overcame but also until he was cancer free for three years made him ineligible for a transplant. Two weeks before the reunion Reggie finally got his new kidney. Though still very weakened and in pain Reggie was determined to make the reunion. Reggie had been prayed for by many of us over the years and to see him present was truly an inspiration for all of us!

That evening a dinner and dance was held at the DC Centre. Besides the dinner it is also a time to give special recognition to some of the classes returning home. Very special recognition is given to those commemorating their 25th & 50th anniversary of their graduation. Those remembering their 30th & 40th are highlighted in a smaller fashion. It was great however when it was aksed that those celebrating their 40th anniversary (classes of 1968 & 1969) to stand up…close to 50 alumni stood in unison…the largest contingent of the reunion. John, Alumni Advisor, could only say, “WOW boy did they ever storm Nebraska this weekend.” We are quite proud of this accomplishment!

I was excited by The Alumni Ambassador Program introduced by Fr. Boes, current BT Director, at the Reunion Banquet.  This program is designed to challenge and empower us as alumni to spread the good work, by public speaking, that Fr. Flanagan started by giving us the proper tools and education to do so.   In addition, this Ambassador program will give us the opportunity to welcome new alumni to our communities by introducing them to the community and aid them in their transition period and all the potential conflicts that might arise—sort of like a Welcome Wagon.

This is the first time Boys Town has challenged alumni to give back though we asked for a challenge many times before. In the past we were just asked to return for reunions, pay our membership dues and try to uphold the traditions of Boys Town. Now for those of us who accept the challenge we can become true partners in the efforts of the Boys Town of today.

Sunday morning brought another choir rehearsal followed by mass and concert. Dowd Chapel was packed to the rafters as many had to stand in the aisles throughout the service. The church was filled with present day youth, their teaching parents, local parish members and of course the alumni and families. The closing song of the concert proved to be the highlight of the concert. Those in attendance were asked to sit, they had been standing throughout the concert to this point, and stand when their branch of service song was sung…it was a medley to the armed forces of our country. As each song was sung alumni stood to cheering from the others in tribute to their service to the country. The concert ended with a standing ovation and shouts of more, more, more. We gave them what they asked for by singing Salve Mater which had been sung earlier in the mass.

The final event of the weekend is a picnic at the Boys Town Lake; a site which many tales can be told about. Here final photos are taken, the final stories are told and promises to return in two years hence are given. As quickly as the weekend began it also ends.

Boys Town has undergone many changes over the past forty plus years, some I agree with and others not, but this was not a weekend to dwell on those changes. It was a time to remember our youth, our friends and what Boys Town meant to each of us. A bond of brotherhood has been established amongst those of us who call Boys Town home and it is a bond not broken even after many years since leaving Boys Town. To us we are family and for many the only family they will ever know.

Though the reunion was over I was to have one more highlight before arriving home in Fargo. A fellow member of the class of 1968 who had planned to attend in the end was unable to. We had reconnected after forty years earlier in the year via E mail and phone calls but had not seen each face to face since graduation. On my way home I made a call to him and he said I had to come by the house. He lives only three miles off the interstate I was travelling. What was planned to be but a half hour visit turned into over two and a half for us. Just like John a few days earlier in the weekend we talked like we had seen each other just the day before rather than it having been over forty years. Thank you Tom & Linda for making the perfect ending to a perfect weekend!!

I have made an album of photos from the weekend, some of the photos I personally took while others were provided by fellow alumni. They tell the story in photos while here I have tried as simply as I can to put it all into words…the photos probably tell it better than I can.

Those who may have looked at the album already may wish to do so again as many more have been added (up to 70 now) and a few more will yet be added. Though it is on Facebook one does NOT need to be a member of Facebook to view it. Just go to:

http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/album.php?aid=133962&id=721232585&ref=mf

I know this blog entry is rather lengthy or wordy some might say. I however could not let the weekend pass without putting into words what I felt on this inside over the course of the weekend. This was only the third reunion of the twenty held since my graduation and it was the best of the three. If health wise and financially able I hope to attend each reunion from this point on.

If for some unfortunate reason I am not able to attend another reunion gathering I wish to thank fellow alumni who were not part of my class such a Chuck, Tom, Chico. John, Javier, Reggie & Joe but especially members of the class of 1968: David, John C, John G, Renato, Chris, Gregory, Tom B, Juan, Dan, Pat, Bruce, Vernon, LaVerne, Joe, Stan & Jim as well as John Mollison and the Alumni Office staff including Tom & Mark  for making this weekend one I will always remember….thank you for the cherished memories!

One can go home again and this weekend proved it to me!

Peace~

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A Return to Boys Town!!

Early Thursday morning I will depart for Boys Town to attend my 40th class reunion. It is a trip I have looked forward to for the past year; though at times it appeared doubtful I would be able to make the trip. This is only the 3rd reunion I will be attending in 40 years and only the 6th return trip to Boys Town. The last trip was on July 4, 2003, when I made a day trip there with my cousin Carol to show her where I grew up for seven years.

After experiencing 14 moves within the Michigan foster care system from the day of my birth until age eleven, the system gave up on me and decided to send me off to become someone elses worry…to Boys Town, Nebraska.

Though during my 7 years at Boys Town I did not believe it was a great decision…twenty years later I realized it was the best decision the system ever made for me.

Boys Town became my first stable enviorment. It became the place where I got a moral compass, a good education and the opportunity to further my education after high school…to name just a few of the positives offered me. I realized Boys Town had become my childhood home for me and I continue to call Boys Town my home today; 40 years later! I dedicate four chapters of my book to my years at Boys Town as well as one of my past visits there and how Boys Town has changed since I was there.

http://www.larrya.us/boystown.html

http://www.larrya.us/boystown1.html

http://www.larrya.us/boystown2.html

http://www.larrya.us/boystown3.html

Though Boys Town has changed greatly over the years since my years there, some for the better and some I feel for the worse, it is still a place where one who is open to what they have to offer and take advantage of the opportunities offered them can change their lives for the better.

There will be alumni of Boys Town there this weekend from 1939 to 2008…each coming back to the place they called home; some for just a year or so while those of us prior to the mid 70’s spent much of our youth there.

There were 126 members of my class in 1968, only 108 of us remain today as we have lost 18 of our brothers since then. This will be the largest gathering of the class of 1968 since our graduation. Most of us are reaching 60 or already have. We do not know how many such gatherings remain for us. It is an opportunity for us to renew our friendships, share old “war” stories of our fays there.

I will be reconnecting with some I have had no contact with for these past 40 years while others I will be renewing friendships since I last saw them in 1997…the last reunion I was able to attend.

The system made a lot of mistakes during my first years of life but I remain thankful they finally made the right decision the day they decided to send me to Boys Town (April 16, 1961).

One of the first places I will stop, as I have done during each visit home is the tomb of Fr. Flanagan (founder of Boys Town) in the chapel. There I will say a silent prayer thanking him for founding Boys Town and giving me the opportunity to have a place called home for seven years.

I will blog about the trip upon my return home here in North Dakota next week.

Peace!

ORPHAN…A Movie to Boycott!!

Orphan, a new thriller about a demonic adopted child, has enraged adoptive parents who are calling for a boycott.

Melissa Faye Greene—mother of five orphaned kids recently wrote a blog entry on The Daily Beast advocating a boycott against this movie. I completely agree with her views as well as many other adoptive parents across the country!

Warner Brothers’ latest horror movie, called Orphan, is scaring the bejabbers out of thousands of Americans well in advance of its July 24 debut.

The posters display the single word OrPHAN, scrawled in red over black in that font we all recognize as the favorite of kidnappers, assassins, and sociopaths. The movie trailers, already in theaters and on TV, include the ominous line: “It must be difficult to love an adopted child as much as your own.”

Truly horrified—not happily, screamingly horrified, not throwing-the-popcorn-and-hugging-your-date and getting-what-you-paid-for horrified, but horrified at the callousness of Warner Brothers—adoptive and foster parents and others concerned with the fragile welfare of the world’s most vulnerable citizens are calling for a boycott of the movie.

None of them have seen it yet, though some have tried. (Two screenings in New York were canceled.) But when a movie’s trailers are this offensive, it’s hard to imagine the feature-length version will lighten anyone’s mood. It’s difficult to love Warner Brothers as much as you love your own children by adoption.

In the trailers, we learn that an affluent white American couple with two cute biological children are grieving a miscarriage when they decide to adopt an older child, a black-haired thick-browed creepy 9-year-old girl of obscure provenance named Esther. They drive to an old-fashioned orphanage (what year is this?), talk to a nun (what year is this?), and then leave with a 9-year-old Russian girl who lives there for some reason.

There’s no hint that parents actually spend months and years on legal work, social work, background checks, home visits, and courtroom appearances in order to adopt a child. The trailer gives the impression that any couple with a yen for “a replacement child” (as this psychologically unhealthy practice is known) can stroll into an orphanage, pick one out, and take her home.

Even Humane Societies have an application process before handing out kittens and puppies. Even civic groups who want to “Adopt a Highway” fill out a few forms first.

Almost immediately it becomes clear that Kate and John have not brought home a sweet little girl but have introduced into their family a mythic amalgam of Rosemary’s Baby, The Bad Seed, Grendel, and the shark from Jaws. Pure evil has appeared in this upscale family home, and you can tell it’s pure evil because of that scary font, the disturbing soundtrack, that black hair, and the fact that she’s a Russian orphan adopted as an older child. Can it get scarier than that?

Grassroots protests began against the film’s PR campaign. Protesters include parents of older children adopted from foreign orphanages, aware that their own children waited a long time for families because most prospective parents are looking for healthy babies to adopt. Protesters include people who believe that TV newsmagazines and sensationalistic reports have demonized orphanage children from Eastern Europe enough already and that OrPHAN is just piling on.

With the overthrow of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, a concentration camp-like world of imprisoned children was exposed to the world. A majority of them were black-haired, brown-skinned Roma children discarded in a land of unrepentant racism; many of the white children had been born with conditions like cleft palate, Down ayndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, crossed eyes, or club feet in a society that found disabilities shameful. Thousands were adopted by families in North America and Western Europe. Few arrived unscathed.

It turns out that profound neglect, prenatal exposure to alcohol, exposure to extreme heat and cold, malnutrition, denial of health services, silence, and cruelty give children a rough start in life!

While the vast majority of the post-institutionalized children—fondly called “resilient rascals” by one researcher—adapted to family life and thrived, a few (the stuff of headlines) showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological challenges. Some began to steal, to lie, and to act out violently, especially toward their new mothers. A handful of stories, real or exaggerated, entered popular culture. No one knows this better than adoptive parents of older post-institutionalized children (of which I am one) because of the dire warnings freely offered by concerned friends and relations. “Older children from orphanages are incapable of love!” you are warned. “They set fires! They hoard food! They kill pets! Beware!”

The movie OrPHAN comes directly from this unexamined place in popular culture. Esther’s shadowy past includes Eastern Europe; she appears normal and sweet, but quickly turns violent and cruel, especially toward her mother. These are clichés. This is the baggage with which we saddle abandoned, orphaned, or disabled children given a fresh start at family life.

Dog lovers (of which I am also one) wouldn’t stand for a movie like this. What if last summer’s hit, Marley & Me, had been a horror flick called SHeLTeR Dog, in which a rescued Golden Retriever turns out to be Satan’s spawn, mutilating Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson with bloody pointed teeth and tearing apart their baby? Animal lovers everywhere would have been up in arms, fearing that such myth-making could actually scare people away from taking in shelter dogs.

Adoptive parents organized a Facebook group called “I Am Boycotting Warner Bros’ ‘Orphan’ Movie,” which has 4,392 members (of which I am one). The Christian Alliance for Orphans launched an initiative called Orphans Deserve Better. Its poster keeps the scary font and the word “OrPHAN,” but replaces the chilling face of Esther with a chubby smiling brown-skinned toddler under the tagline, “There’s something beautiful in the face of an orphan.”

Someone in the Warner Brothers hierarchy must have said, “Uh oh.” In the minds of movie-industry people, the word “BoYCOTT” appears scrawled in red over black, in the Font of Evil.

Scott Rowe, senior vice president of corporate communications at Warner Bros., contacted Bethann Buddenbaum, co-founder of the Facebook group, to say that her concerns had been heard. He explained that there is a “hook to the plot that ultimately removes the child/orphan stigma.”

What does that mean? That Esther is neither a child nor an orphan? What a spoiler! Rowe also promised that the offensive tagline, “It must be difficult to love an adopted child as much as your own” was being replaced.

The new tagline is: “There’s something wrong with Esther.”

Is this an improvement? Jane Aronson, head of the nonprofit group World Wide Orphans and a pediatrician devoted to institutionalized and post-institutionalized children, doesn’t think so. “There’s something wrong with Esther” continues “to perpetuate negative stereotypes that there is something dysfunctional or inherently wrong with children who need families,” she recently wrote. “The fact remains that millions of children around the globe are parentless due to circumstances beyond their control.”

I didn’t see this one coming. I was watching basketball on TV with my 14-year-old son Jesse, who is a Rom adopted at age 4½ from an orphanage in Bulgaria. The movie trailer came on. The word OrPHAN caught our attention. “Adopting an older child is not an easy decision,” says the nun, but the couple chooses Esther anyway. They show her a beautiful house, a pretty room. Then all hell breaks loose, involving thunder, lightning, squealing tires, broken glass, screaming, pop-outs, and car accidents.

“There’s something wrong with Esther,” appears in black letters, filling the screen.

Jesse’s jaw dropped. Then he looked over at me with a half-laugh and offered, “That’s kind of weird.”

It’s more than weird. It’s lazy, irresponsible, and cruel. There’s something wrong with Warner Brothers.

Melissa Fay Greene is the author, most recently, of There Is No Me Without You: One Woman’s Odyssey to Save Her Country’s Children, and she is the mother of nine, five of whom joined the family at older ages from orphanages in Bulgaria and Ethiopia. Visit her online at www.thereisnomewithoutyou.com

Florida child-welfare employees put kids at risk!

Below is a recent article in the Orlando Sentinal. This situation is not unique to Florida. However, please note there are many, many dedicated case workers in the field who give their all to children. Until those “bad apples” who put children at risk are dealt with by more than a hand slap stories such as this will continue.

More than 70 caseworkers lied about efforts to protect children

Florida child-welfare employees put kids at risk, records show — some cite staggering caseloads

By Rene Stutzman Sentinel Staff Writer

July 12, 2009

During the past two years, more than 70 Florida child-welfare workers have been caught falsifying records — lying about their on-the-job efforts to protect children, according to state and county records reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel.

As a consequence, the Florida Department of Children and Families temporarily lost track of at least six children, sometimes for months. Fourteen children were left in unsafe homes, the Sentinel found in a review of agency records.

Despite passage of a state law intended to punish cheaters, dishonest caseworkers remain a persistent problem in Florida’s system to protect at-risk children:

•The day after a caseworker reported that she had inspected a foster home in Wildwood, police found its four foster children living in tents in the yard. The house had no running water, no food and no clean clothes.

•After a Hardee County social worker lied about making home visits, one child wound up living with an uncle awaiting trial on child-rape charges.

•Two children in Hernando County lived, for a time, with a grandfather who had been arrested two years earlier and accused of physically abusing his own child.

No child was hurt or killed because of phony paperwork, DCF said. But an investigation into the 2007 death of a neglected Jacksonville newborn revealed that his caseworker had falsified records in four other cases.

Once they were questioned about false records, workers time and again complained that they had been assigned too many children to watch, records show.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon, a former lawmaker who has run the agency since last year, said he has no sympathy for workers who lie.

“If you’re overworked and can’t get to cases, go to your supervisor and say that, but don’t say you made the visit when you didn’t make the visit,” Sheldon said. “If you falsify, you’re not going to get away with it, and there’s going to be a cost to doing it.”

The agency’s Office of Inspector General, its internal watchdog, investigated most of the falsification cases reviewed by the Sentinel and provided data and reports about them. The agency watches for employees who dummy up reports, fires most of them and hands over information to state attorneys for prosecution, DCF officials say.

Few workers end up punished, however, beyond losing their jobs.

Child advocates said they were not surprised by the cheating.

The cases identified by theSentinelare most likely “the tip of the iceberg,” said Gerard Glynn, a law professor at the Barry University law school in Orlando. He runs a legal clinic that represents children, many of them DCF clients.

“I’m happy they don’t sweep this under the rug and hide the facts,” he said, “but it still means the system is failing these children, and one failure is too many.”

How caseworkers lie

Of the 70-plus workers who lied in children’s cases, half were DCF staffers, according to department data. The others worked for private organizations hired by DCF to supervise child-safety cases.

Offenders generally falsified two kinds of records: those documenting mandatory monthly visits with foster children and those showing that child-abuse investigators had chased down every lead. Some also forged signatures to cover their tracks, according to court and department records.

Many problems came to light by accident, when workers doing follow-up interviews or investigations discovered inconsistencies in case files. Sometimes, foster parents or family members complained, prompting an investigation. Other times, supervisors spotted suspicious paperwork.

However it happened, the false documents often reported that children were safer than they truly were.

In the Wildwood case, the foster children living in tents were assigned to case manager Angie L. Diaz, who worked for one of DCF’s biggest contractors, Children’s Home Society of Winter Park. She filed paperwork saying that on Jan. 2, 2007, she went to the house, checked it inside and out, and found everything fine.

The next day, however, police went to the house and arrested the foster mother on child-neglect charges.

The home, which also housed the foster mother’s three biological children, had a broken water pipe and an inch of water standing on the floor. There was no electricity on the first floor, no working refrigerator and no food, according to a police report.

Officers said they found piles of dirty clothes, trash and rotting food scattered around, along with rooms crawling with roaches.

DCF immediately took custody of all seven children. The agency concluded that Diaz had gone to the house the day before but had not gone inside, a violation of agency policy.

Four times, Diaz fabricated details of what she saw inside the house, DCF’s inspector general concluded. The foster mother also accused Diaz of forging her signature on one form — the woman’s name was misspelled.

Children’s Home Society fired Diaz a few weeks later, DCF reported.

Diaz now lives northwest of Ocala and is named Angie Rivera, according to the department. Contacted by phone recently, she said she left Children’s Home Society voluntarily and doesn’t remember anything similar to what the police or the inspector general described.

She said she did not believe those things happened.

The vanished caseworker

Lenore Charles, 61, of Belleview, near Ocala, has helped raise more than 20 foster children. Three years ago, she took in a 5-year-old boy who was disabled and couldn’t talk or dress himself or use a toilet.

The child made progress in her home, Charles said, but with almost no help from the social worker in charge of his case.

Merrie Hanmann, who worked for a DCF contractor, came to the house just once in nine months, Charles told the agency’s inspector general.

“She was supposed to come every month, and she didn’t,” Charles told the Sentinel.

After Charles complained, Hanmann was placed under investigation and resigned. DCF’s inspector general concluded she was guilty. She was prosecuted by Sumter County authorities, pleaded guilty to making a false report and wound up paying a fine.

She did not respond to a letter from the Sentinel, seeking comment.

One of the most prolific offenders, according to DCF, was Andrew Joseph Jr., 37 of Riverview, who worked for a DCF contractor in Hillsborough County.

Prosecutors charged him with 33 counts of falsifying records. He pleaded guilty to seven falsehoods and was placed on three years’ probation.

Among the things he did wrong, according to the DCF inspector general: He falsely reported that he was making home visits to a foster child. He did drop the girl off for a visit with her aunt one weekend but never returned, leaving the girl stranded for three or four months.

The department considered leaving her there but, in the end, did not. That’s because every adult in that home had a criminal record.

Joseph did not respond to a letter from the Sentinel seeking his comments.

In Orange County last year, Erica A. Johnson, 31, a child-abuse investigator, claimed she worked overtime one Saturday, visiting the homes of two local children.

But DCF became suspicious and checked her agency cell phone, which had a satellite link that showed where it had been. Instead of working in Orange County, Johnson had gone on an overnight trip to Fort Pierce, agency records show.

Johnson resigned within the week. She now lives in Fort Pierce.

“It was a bad decision,” she said. “It’s something I really regret.”

Rilya Wilson, lost child

Florida overhauled its child-welfare system after authorities discovered in 2002 that a Miami foster child, 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, had been missing for 15 months without DCF knowing. Her caseworker had stopped making face-to-face visits.

The child has never been found.

In response to the scandal, the agency began outsourcing much of its child-safety work to private contractors.

What’s left today is a much smaller government agency with limited oversight of the companies in charge of child safety.

In general, DCF still sends out its own employee-investigators when it receives a hotline call about a child who might be in danger, but once a case advances beyond that, children who’ve been neglected or abused or need foster care are tended to by private companies. Many of them, in turn, hire subcontractors to deal directly with the children.

DCF requires that contract workers who do “case management” — oversee children — have a bachelor’s degree in social work. They also must undergo weeks of training.

But the agency does not limit the number of cases workers can be assigned.

The Child Welfare League of America, the nation’s oldest organization dedicated to at-risk children, recommends that social workers handle no more than 12 to 15 foster children at any one time. DCF, by contrast, does not mandate caseload caps for contractors or its own staff.

In 2007, its inspector general was worried about caseworkers being overloaded. It had discovered that Ruben Bouissa, who worked for a Palm Beach County nonprofit, had lied about checking on four foster children, according to DCF documents.

Bouissa’s supervisor admitted that she had piled on the work. Because Bouissa was the only Spanish-speaker in the office, he was forced to handle 40 to 50 cases, double the usual, his boss told the investigator. Bouissa resigned, was charged with a misdemeanor by Palm Beach County prosecutors and wound up in a pretrial-diversion program.

The inspector general’s office presented DCF senior management with the facts of that case and pointed out the welfare league’s caseload recommendation, but Assistant Secretary for Programs David L. Fairbanks said the agency should not impose those or any caseload limits on contractors.

Judi Spann, the agency’s deputy chief of staff, wrote the Sentinel in May that caseloads are an important issue to the department, one it monitors, and the statewide average workload was 14 to 22 cases per foster-care caseworker.

The cases reviewed by the Sentinel, however, show that workers DCF identified as cheaters routinely complained about unmanageable caseloads.

Samuel Orejobi, who worked for a Fort Myers-area nonprofit hired by DCF, told the department that his caseload was 63 foster children. He said he worked 13-hour days, did not have time to see his own children and endured constant complaints from his wife about his long hours.

He was fired after DCF concluded he had falsified records in one case.

Neither Bouissa nor Orejobi returned phone calls.

“Are workers continuing to be overworked? Too few workers? Too many children? Yes,” said Glynn, the child advocate at Barry University

DCF contends that any caseworkers who feel overworked need to speak up and ask for help.

Search for cheaters

As part of the reforms that followed Rilya Wilson’s disappearance, Florida legislators passed a law making it a felony for child-welfare workers to falsify records.

Nearly half of the DCF employees and contract workers who falsified records in 2007 and 2008 were prosecuted, according to state and court records.

The most common sentence: probation. More than a dozen others were placed in pretrial-diversion programs. In the overwhelming majority of cases that were prosecuted, judges withheld an adjudication of guilt, meaning there’s no official record that workers were convicted of a crime.

Almost all were fired or quit. Agency managers decide what to do on a case-by-case basis, the department reported.

The number of confirmed falsifications amounts to about half a percent of the department’s total caseload, said John Cooper, acting assistant DCF secretary for operations.

However, “When an employee does falsify a record,” Cooper said, “they betray the sacred public trust that we instill in them.”

Sheldon said the agency plans to police workers more closely. DCF has $9.8 million in funding to outfit workers with hand-held global-positioning units.

The idea is to enable workers to write up notes in the field — not require them to return to the office and type them into a computer. But the same technology will allow the agency to confirm that a home visit took place at a certain time and place, Sheldon said.

Hundreds of the units are being tested in Miami. But a dispute over who should provide software for the system has stalled the effort.

Longtime child advocate Jack Levine of the 4Generations Institute in Tallahassee, a family-policy advisory group, said DCF clearly is policing itself, firing bad workers and trying to make children safer.

But the state also has a legacy of failing to meet its goals.

“Florida is a state that has always had among the finest child-protection laws and among the most paltry budgets to pay for those good intentions,” Levine said.

The next day, however, police went to the house and arrested the foster mother on child-neglect charges.

The home, which also housed the foster mother’s three biological children, had a broken water pipe and an inch of water standing on the floor. There was no electricity on the first floor, no working refrigerator and no food, according to a police report.

Officers said they found piles of dirty clothes, trash and rotting food scattered around, along with rooms crawling with roaches.

DCF immediately took custody of all seven children. The agency concluded that Diaz had gone to the house the day before but had not gone inside, a violation of agency policy.

Four times, Diaz fabricated details of what she saw inside the house, DCF’s inspector general concluded. The foster mother also accused Diaz of forging her signature on one form — the woman’s name was misspelled.

Children’s Home Society fired Diaz a few weeks later, DCF reported.

Diaz now lives northwest of Ocala and is named Angie Rivera, according to the department. Contacted by phone recently, she said she left Children’s Home Society voluntarily and doesn’t remember anything similar to what the police or the inspector general described.

She said she did not believe those things happened.

The vanished caseworker

Lenore Charles, 61, of Belleview, near Ocala, has helped raise more than 20 foster children. Three years ago, she took in a 5-year-old boy who was disabled and couldn’t talk or dress himself or use a toilet.

The child made progress in her home, Charles said, but with almost no help from the social worker in charge of his case.

Merrie Hanmann, who worked for a DCF contractor, came to the house just once in nine months, Charles told the agency’s inspector general.

“She was supposed to come every month, and she didn’t,” Charles told the Sentinel.

After Charles complained, Hanmann was placed under investigation and resigned. DCF’s inspector general concluded she was guilty. She was prosecuted by Sumter County authorities, pleaded guilty to making a false report and wound up paying a fine.

She did not respond to a letter from the Sentinel, seeking comment.

One of the most prolific offenders, according to DCF, was Andrew Joseph Jr., 37 of Riverview, who worked for a DCF contractor in Hillsborough County.

Prosecutors charged him with 33 counts of falsifying records. He pleaded guilty to seven falsehoods and was placed on three years’ probation.

Among the things he did wrong, according to the DCF inspector general: He falsely reported that he was making home visits to a foster child. He did drop the girl off for a visit with her aunt one weekend but never returned, leaving the girl stranded for three or four months.

The department considered leaving her there but, in the end, did not. That’s because every adult in that home had a criminal record.

Joseph did not respond to a letter from the Sentinel seeking his comments.

In Orange County last year, Erica A. Johnson, 31, a child-abuse investigator, claimed she worked overtime one Saturday, visiting the homes of two local children.

But DCF became suspicious and checked her agency cell phone, which had a satellite link that showed where it had been. Instead of working in Orange County, Johnson had gone on an overnight trip to Fort Pierce, agency records show.

Johnson resigned within the week. She now lives in Fort Pierce.

“It was a bad decision,” she said. “It’s something I really regret.”

Rilya Wilson, lost child

Florida overhauled its child-welfare system after authorities discovered in 2002 that a Miami foster child, 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, had been missing for 15 months without DCF knowing. Her caseworker had stopped making face-to-face visits.

The child has never been found.

In response to the scandal, the agency began outsourcing much of its child-safety work to private contractors.

What’s left today is a much smaller government agency with limited oversight of the companies in charge of child safety.

In general, DCF still sends out its own employee-investigators when it receives a hotline call about a child who might be in danger, but once a case advances beyond that, children who’ve been neglected or abused or need foster care are tended to by private companies. Many of them, in turn, hire subcontractors to deal directly with the children.

DCF requires that contract workers who do “case management” — oversee children — have a bachelor’s degree in social work. They also must undergo weeks of training.

But the agency does not limit the number of cases workers can be assigned.

The Child Welfare League of America, the nation’s oldest organization dedicated to at-risk children, recommends that social workers handle no more than 12 to 15 foster children at any one time. DCF, by contrast, does not mandate caseload caps for contractors or its own staff.

In 2007, its inspector general was worried about caseworkers being overloaded. It had discovered that Ruben Bouissa, who worked for a Palm Beach County nonprofit, had lied about checking on four foster children, according to DCF documents.

Bouissa’s supervisor admitted that she had piled on the work. Because Bouissa was the only Spanish-speaker in the office, he was forced to handle 40 to 50 cases, double the usual, his boss told the investigator. Bouissa resigned, was charged with a misdemeanor by Palm Beach County prosecutors and wound up in a pretrial-diversion program.

The inspector general’s office presented DCF senior management with the facts of that case and pointed out the welfare league’s caseload recommendation, but Assistant Secretary for Programs David L. Fairbanks said the agency should not impose those or any caseload limits on contractors.

Judi Spann, the agency’s deputy chief of staff, wrote the Sentinel in May that caseloads are an important issue to the department, one it monitors, and the statewide average workload was 14 to 22 cases per foster-care caseworker.

The cases reviewed by the Sentinel, however, show that workers DCF identified as cheaters routinely complained about unmanageable caseloads.

Samuel Orejobi, who worked for a Fort Myers-area nonprofit hired by DCF, told the department that his caseload was 63 foster children. He said he worked 13-hour days, did not have time to see his own children and endured constant complaints from his wife about his long hours.

He was fired after DCF concluded he had falsified records in one case.

Neither Bouissa nor Orejobi returned phone calls.

“Are workers continuing to be overworked? Too few workers? Too many children? Yes,” said Glynn, the child advocate at Barry University

DCF contends that any caseworkers who feel overworked need to speak up and ask for help.

Search for cheaters

As part of the reforms that followed Rilya Wilson’s disappearance, Florida legislators passed a law making it a felony for child-welfare workers to falsify records.

Nearly half of the DCF employees and contract workers who falsified records in 2007 and 2008 were prosecuted, according to state and court records.

The most common sentence: probation. More than a dozen others were placed in pretrial-diversion programs. In the overwhelming majority of cases that were prosecuted, judges withheld an adjudication of guilt, meaning there’s no official record that workers were convicted of a crime.

Almost all were fired or quit. Agency managers decide what to do on a case-by-case basis, the department reported.

The number of confirmed falsifications amounts to about half a percent of the department’s total caseload, said John Cooper, acting assistant DCF secretary for operations.

However, “When an employee does falsify a record,” Cooper said, “they betray the sacred public trust that we instill in them.”

Sheldon said the agency plans to police workers more closely. DCF has $9.8 million in funding to outfit workers with hand-held global-positioning units.

The idea is to enable workers to write up notes in the field — not require them to return to the office and type them into a computer. But the same technology will allow the agency to confirm that a home visit took place at a certain time and place, Sheldon said.

Hundreds of the units are being tested in Miami. But a dispute over who should provide software for the system has stalled the effort.

Longtime child advocate Jack Levine of the 4Generations Institute in Tallahassee, a family-policy advisory group, said DCF clearly is policing itself, firing bad workers and trying to make children safer.

But the state also has a legacy of failing to meet its goals.

“Florida is a state that has always had among the finest child-protection laws and among the most paltry budgets to pay for those good intentions,” Levine said.