What holiday season is like at Miami-Dade Children's Courthouse
In modern setting, judges rule on difficult family cases
Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Karen Kallman listened to a teenage girl with wild blond curls. An adjustable strap, similar to a seat belt, hung over the girl’s high-top sneakers like shackles.
The girl said she had run away before to "do drugs and have sex" because she didn’t like the way she was treated at some of the foster homes, but she liked the home where her sister was staying and she wanted a 24-hour pass from the treatment center to visit her sister for Christmas. A therapist said she wasn't ready.
"Why does everybody get to see their families for Christmas and I can't?" the girl asked the therapist before regaining self-control.
Cases of divided families in Miami-Dade County usually end up at the new $140 million Children’s Courthouse at 155 NW Third St., in downtown Miami. Court security officers hand out stuffed animals to toddlers waiting in one the 18 courtrooms. The 14-story building houses 17 agencies dealing with cases from juvenile delinquency, abuse, neglect and the wreckage of addiction. The holiday season makes these all the more painful.
Zoraine Rodriguez said the entrance to the 375,000-square-foot building makes her sick to her stomach. Records show she had a case of domestic violence in 2009 and has a pending case for forging a check. The 37-year-old mother of five said she doesn’t trust the Department of Children and Families.
Her worst nightmare, she said, came true Dec. 1 in Judge Cindy Lederman’s courtroom. The veteran judge terminated her parental rights. Those cases are known as the child welfare "death penalty."
To terminate parental rights, there needs to be a full trial, where both DCF and the parents present witnesses and evidence to support their case and a public defender can be appointed.
"While the goal of dependency law is to reunite and rehabilitate families whenever possible, there are cases of egregious or persistent child abuse, abandonment and neglect that may result in a termination of parental rights," Miami-Dade County courts spokeswoman Eunice Sigler said.
Rodriguez had a 10-month-old, a 2-year-old girl, a 4-year-old boy and a 7-year-old cancer survivor.
"They are giving them all up for adoption," Rodriguez said through tears. "If I would have given birth to them in Cuba, this would not be happening. You have no idea how much I have regretted leaving Cuba. It's like the judge forgot that I was the domestic violence victim."
Lederman lead the creation of the Miami-Dade County domestic violence court. She was a member of the advisory committee of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence at the Yale Child Study Center and was a member of the National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women during President Bill Clinton's administration.
Lederman is highly respected in the legal community. But the sole mention of her name sends Carolina Contreras into a raging rant.
The 41-year-old mother of four is from El Salvador. In 2005, she was charged with battery, assault, battery against a police officer and resisting arrest with violence. Records show Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Veronica Diaz discharged the case against her in 2007, after she received mental health treatment.
About nine years later, after giving birth to a baby boy, Contreras said two police officers, who did not speak Spanish, went to her home and "kidnapped" her 4-year-old son and her two daughters, who are 11 and 6 years old. She later learned that a social worker at Jackson Memorial Hospital -- where her son remained in an incubator -- reported her.
"This is the second Christmas that I don't see my children, and I don't understand why," Contreras said in Spanish. "They are mine. I gave birth to them. God gave them to me."
Records show she was arrested again Oct. 31 in a case of domestic violence. She was charged with battery, resisting arrest with violence, and assaulting a police officer and a firefighter. Her criminal case is pending. A few weeks before Christmas, Contreras said she learned that her parental rights were terminated.
Some parents in and out of courtrooms had Christmas gifts to deliver. In Judge Jeri Cohen’s courtroom, a thin woman with long black hair, who was a victim of domestic violence, quickly dropped a garbage bag full of new toys, to step up to a podium next to her attorney. Her husband, whom she is not allowed to meet with yet, blamed drugs and alcohol for the violence and pleaded, "I'm a new man. … I have changed."
After a discussion about what he had done to change, Cohen said he was going to be able to see his son during baseball practice. Cohen suggested that he spend a lot of time in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He said he was going every day.
"Christmas and New Year's [Eve] are very big relapse triggers," she warned the alcoholic in recovery.
Back in Kallman's courtroom, an undocumented 16-year-old from Guatemala spoke to his mother in Mam, a Mayan language. He wore a pair of new black Converse to court and a nervous smile. The teen tested positive for alcohol. The legal drinking age in Guatemala is 18, but it's rarely enforced. He was also not focused on his education. Kallman was angry. She scolded him like he was her own child.
The boy wore headphones to listen to a translator in Spanish. Kallman told him he had to get "his act together" or else he was going "to be removed." She ordered him to go back to school to learn English, and he would have to come to downtown Miami twice a week to get tested for alcohol.
He walked away, seemingly confused, but he had attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, from Florida International University's immigrant children's justice clinic, to explain the judge's expectations. After crossing the border, the teen was reunited with his parents, who live in Homestead. This will be his first Christmas with them in eight years.
NOTE: Local 10 News is not identifying the children to protect their privacy.
Follow Local10.com reporter Andrea Torres on Twitter @MiamiCrime
Copyright 2015 by WPLG Local10.com - All rights reserved.