Nubia Barahona Case: Was Gruesome Death of Florida Girl in Foster Care Preventable?

In gruesome foster child killing, young girl's body was found badly beaten.

April 21, 2011— -- Florida's top child welfare official, David Wilkins, admitted his department mishandled the foster care case surrounding the gruesome murder of Nubia Barahona, a little girl whose body was found decomposing in a garbage bag in a pickup truck.

In an interview with "Nightline" anchor Cynthia McFadden, Wilkins, secretary of Florida's Department of Children and Families, said there were "failures" in his department's protection of the Barahona twins.

"We made a lot of mistakes in the process," he said.

DCF has come under scrutiny for failing to remove 10-year-old Nubia Barahona and her twin brother Victor Barahona from the care of their adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, despite a series of warning signs that abuse was occurring inside their home.

On Feb. 14, 2011, Nubia was found dead and Victor was found severely burned inside of a red pickup truck pulled over to the side on I-95 outside of West Palm Beach, Fla.

Thomas Butler, a transportation worker, called 911 after spotting the truck and discovering the grisly scene. Butler said that, at first, all he saw was a young boy sitting inside the truck.

"Soon as I opened the door, I got hit with this: I don't know what it was, but it wasn't right," he said. "It was some type of odor."

Victor Barahona had been doused with chemicals, was covered in burns and was convulsing. The fumes were so strong that four of the emergency workers called to the scene later needed medical treatment.

"It was like an uncontrollable shiver, you know?" Butler said. "He was just shaking and shaking and shaking."

Jorge Barahona, 53, has since been charged with attempting to murder Victor. He and his wife Carmen, 60, have both been charged with Nubia's murder. Prosecutors announced last month that they will seek the death penalty for both adoptive parents. Both have pled not guilty.

Authorities believe the twins were subjected to years of abuse culminating in a torture session that ended with the girl's death just one day after DCF case worker Andrea Fleary visited the home. During that Feb. 10 visit, Fleary said she spoke with Carmen Barahona, who told her that she and her husband had separated, and that the twins were living with him, because he had flexible work hours and was supervising their home schooling. Barahona later admitted to having lied.

Fleary also said she tried to reach Jorge Barahona, but believing that the children were not living in the home, she filled out an assessment dated Feb. 11, describing the home as safe and did not call police.

Fleary has since been dismissed by DCF -- a decision she is appealing. Her lawyer told ABC News that she was being used as a scapegoat in the case.

According to Jorge Barahona's arrest warrant, "On Feb. 11, 2011 in the presence of [Victor], the defendant removed [Nubia] from the bathtub while her feet and hands were still bound and took her to the [Barahonas'] bedroom. The defendant repeatedly punched and beat [Nubia] about her body while she screamed and cried until she was dead."

David Lawrence, a children's advocate and chairman of the Children's Movement of Florida, was a member of the three-person independent investigative panel appointed by the state to hear testimony last month about what happened to the Barahona children.

The panel's report, released in March, cited "fatal ineptitude" by the Florida Department of Children and Families. Lawrence called Nubia's death "preventable."

"It just makes you want to cry," he said. "We now know their problems had only just begun."

The Nubia Report: Read the Independent Review Panel's final report.

The panel heard from Christine Lopez Acevedo, an attorney who was involved in the Barahona children's custodial case. Acevedo told the panel that Nubia's kindergarten teacher expressed concerns to a judge prior to their adoption. The teacher described an incident in which Nubia wet her pants at school and became "hysterical" when the teacher told her she was going to call home. She then said Nubia claimed her mother would hit her on the bottom of her feet.

"If you beat someone on the soles of their feet, I'm not trying to give anybody ideas, but far less chance of any bruises, right?" Lawrence said. "You know there are enormous nerve endings in your feet. It is torture."

State Officials Failed to Respond to Barahona Children's Case

Wilkins said he had been on the job for less than a month when Nubia was found dead. He told ABC News that foster families bear responsibility for the children the agency places in their care.

"DCF is the last line of defense for children that are in need, and what's obviously happening is the families are failing these kids for many numerous reasons," he said.

Read Sec. David Wilkins' announcement of DCF's response to the Independent Review Panel's recommendations.

Despite routine visits, state investigators repeatedly missed clues that the Barahona children were being abused in their new home.

As early as 2004, a nurse told the children's case worker that Nubia was missing critical appointments, saying "this child is very medically needy and should not be missing appointments because the foster parent does not want to take her."

In 2006, another report stated that Nubia was seen at school "with a huge bruise located under her chin and neck area ... about the size of a tangerine." But it was 11 days before she was taken to see a doctor, at which point the doctor found no evidence of abuse.

In 2007, the department received a complaint to its abuse hotline from a caller saying, "Nubia's hunger has been uncontrollable, she sneaks and steals food, steals money, has hair loss, is very thin, nervous and jittery. Nubia also has an unpleasant odor."

The court ordered a psychological evaluation in 2007 by psychologist Vanessa Archer to determine whether Nubia should be allowed to testify in a court proceeding. Archer wrote that "Nubia is depressed" and that she and Victor had thoughts of suicide.

But the following year, Archer said she again was asked to evaluate the children to determine whether they should be legally adopted by the Barahonas and her report was glowing, saying "in light of their history of multiple placements, it is astounding how these children have thrived," and noting that Carmen Barahona had told her the children were excelling academically, although both were in danger of being held back.

Archer told ABC News she was never told of any hotline calls alleging abuse, nor of any concerns from the children's school, although she conceded she did not ask for them.

At the start of the police investigation in February 2011, police searched the Barahonas' home and described a house of horrors where the children were "repeatedly hit, punched, beaten with multiple objects about their bodies and bound and left for days on end, locked inside the only bathroom in the family home."

After the children were found, the state removed the Barahonas' two other adopted children from their home and placed them in protective foster care. Victor recovered from his burns, but remains in a therapeutic foster home.

The Department of Children and Families has promised reforms in the wake of the Barahona case. The agency plans to "reengineer" the way in which cases are handled, bringing on an additional 80 investigators to South Florida to help reduce caseload for workers. Additional training also will be provided for hotline abuse operators who were rated for how quickly they handled calls.

ABC News' Russell Goldman contributed to this report.