FORT MYERS, Fla. The discovery of a 13-year-old girl alone in downtown Fort Myers on a school day is raising questions about the agencies tasked with her care.
The girl is involved with a foster program through Lutheran Services Florida, a subcontractor under the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, which itself is contracted by the Florida Department of Children and Families.
She told a woman who found her outside the Fort Myers Regional Library that she was waiting for someone to bring her birth certificate so she could get a library card.
The girl also said she was hungry, so the woman took her to the nearby Gwendolyn’s Cafe.
“She knew we would feed her,” cafe owner Gwendolyn Howard-Powell said. “And then through some time and food and conversation, it was asked of her, ‘Why aren’t you in school?’ And she said, ‘My case worker dropped me off.'”
Howard-Powell called the DCF’s hotline to report the unattended girl. Hours passed before anyone from DCF showed up.
Eventually, a woman in a black mustang pulled up to the cafe.
“The woman in the vehicle said, ‘Get in the car.’ And when we saw that, we were like, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t know who you are,'” Howard-Powell said.
The woman was Jacinta Brunson, a Lutheran Services Florida family support worker. But Brunson wasn’t forthcoming with that information.
“I asked her who she was. She said she didn’t have to give me that information,” Howard-Powell said. “Her attitude was disturbing. She was not kind or friendly to the child, which is even more disturbing.”
Brunson refused to show her badge. Howard-Powell called police and didn’t let the girl get in the car with her.
Shortly thereafter, two DCF workers arrived, showed their badges, and took the girl.
Later, another woman showed up and displayed her badge identifying herself as a Lutheran Services Florida worker. She also told Howard-Powell she was there for the girl, who’d already left with the DCF workers.
The affair left Howard-Powell feeling uneasy.
“We feel like we just threw her back into the wolves,” she said.
Who’s to blame?
Lutheran Services called what happened “inappropriate.” DCF and Children’s Network of SWFL called it “unacceptable.”
“The actions of those involved in this incident are absolutely unacceptable,” Natalie Harrell, communications director for the Suncoast Region of DCF, wrote in a statement. “We have very high standards for all employees, including those hired by case management organizations. Immediately upon learning of the incident, the department opened a child protection investigation.”
That investigation is now complete. Brunson is still employed with Lutheran Services Florida, but the child’s case manager, Regina Jeffrey, was fired, along with Brunson’s supervisor.
“The actions of the two staff were not in the best interest of the youth and as such unacceptable to both LSF and Children’s Network of SWFL,” the Children’s Network said in a statement.
Jeffrey calls her firing unfair.
“I was in shock that she [Brunson] wasn’t [fired] because she actually had custody of the child that morning. It was a total shock,” Jeffrey said. “…Basically I got fired because I was trying to do my job. I left the child with another worker who was supposed to supervise her until further notice, and I was the one terminated.”
The girl refused to go to school that day, according to Jeffrey, who said she followed protocol by taking her to the library to meet with Brunson.
“So Jacinta said that she would spend time with her [the child] during the day until they come up with a plan,” Jeffrey said. “That was, as far as I knew what happened with her that day.”
If Brunson was unable to do so, she was to bring the child back to the office, where another staff member would take care of her, according to Jeffrey.
But Children’s Network CEO Nadareh Salim contends it was ultimately up to Jeffrey to ensure the girl had supervision.
“I believe there was a communication breakdown between the staff involved on that day. The primary responsibility of the children rests with the case manager.” Salim wrote in a statement.
Brunson declined to comment. Brunson’s supervisor could not be reached for comment.