Lawsuits against Department of Children & Families cost state $2.26 million
February 4th, 2008
Foster parent, 79, accused of molesting girls in his care
Sun-Sentinel--Feb. 4, 2008
By Jon Burstein
Lawsuits accusing the Department of Children & Families of mishandling reports that a foster parent was molesting young girls will end up costing the state almost $2.26 million. The child welfare agency agreed last month to a $175,000 settlement in the third — and last — remaining case resulting from allegations that Southwest Ranches foster parent Thomas Ferrara, 79, preyed on girls under his care. The state previously paid settlements totaling $1.5 million and $100,000 and has spent $483,000 to defend the cases involving two girls. Even though there were sexual misconduct allegations against Ferrara in 1992, 1996 and 1999, the Department of Children & Families continued to place foster children with Ferrara and his then-wife until 2000, according to one of the lawsuits. No criminal charges resulted from the 1992 and 1996 allegations after agency officials found the reported victims not credible or that there was no evidence to support the accusations, according to one of the lawsuits.
The Broward Sheriff's Office arrested Ferrara in 2001 after a 9-year-old girl told detectives he regularly molested her over two years and threatened to hurt her mother if she told anyone. Ferrara pleaded no contest to criminal charges but denies he ever hurt his foster children.
"Nobody at the department ever bothered to look back [at the previous reports]," said Joel Fass, one of the attorneys representing the girl. "If they had gone back, they would have seen a pattern."
Ferrara had as many as 400 children go through his home during his 16 years as a licensed foster parent from 1984 to 2000.
DCF Southeast Regional Director Jack Moss said several mid-level managers lost their jobs in an October 2001 shake-up because of the Ferrara case.
The recent settlement reflects the philosophy of Gov. Charlie Crist's administration that if a child was harmed while under agency's supervision, the state should "remedy it as quickly and best that we can," Moss said.
While taxpayers foot the bill in the civil cases, Ferrara hasn't paid a cent in the civil cases and avoided prison time with a plea deal. He pleaded no contest in 2006 to eight criminal charges — including two counts of sexual battery — in exchange for two years of house arrest followed by 20 years' probation. He successfully petitioned a judge to cut his house arrest short at 14 months.
Ferrara said all the allegations against him are false, and are attempts by his former foster children to get money. He chose to take the plea deal because he didn't want to risk dying behind bars, he said.
"At the time I was going to court, I had heart surgery," he said. "I wasn't going to take a chance of going to court and some kid in pigtails accuse me, a 79-year-old man [of molestation.]"
Assistant State Attorney Stacey Honowitz said her office cut a plea deal with Ferrara because the criminal case involving the 9-year-old girl was "extremely problematic."
Despite other foster children's reports that Ferrara was abusing her, the girl denied it on three occasions to law enforcement before telling her new foster parent and then authorities, Honowitz said. In addition, there was a lack of physical evidence and the fear that having to testify in court could result in an emotional setback, the prosecutor said.
Fass said the girl was reluctant to come forward because she feared Ferrara would follow through on his threat to hurt her mother. Fass called the plea deal "an absolute travesty."
Of the three civil cases filed against DCF, two were brought on behalf of the 9-year-old — one in federal court and one in state court. The federal civil rights lawsuit — against individual DCF workers — settled for $1.5 million in April 2005, and the state case — against the agency itself — settled for $100,000 in January 2005.
The third case, the one awaiting a judge's approval of the $175,000 settlement, was filed for a then 6-year-old girl who lived in Ferrara's house in 1999. She said Ferrara threatened to hurt her mother if she told anyone he was sexually abusing her. She is also suing Ferrara.
"I have no money. I gave all my money to the lawyer to defend me," said Ferrara, who lives in a home assessed at $646,000. He said DCF officials must be "out of their minds" to have settled the civil cases rather than fight them.
Both girls, now teenagers, suffer from serious psychological problems, said Fass, who represents them. The girl at the center of the criminal case has spent time in a residential treatment facility and dealt with substance abuse problems.
Fass said DCF's $175,000 settlement last month marks the end of litigation with the agency involving Ferrara.
"Unfortunately it's not the final chapter for [the two girls,]" he said. "Throwing $1.5 million at a problem doesn't equal a cure."