Florida state ‘leadership’ involved in case to strip child custody from ex-watchdog

The state’s effort to strip a vocal critic of Florida’s child welfare system of custody of her own adoptive son and have her charged with a felony is being led at the highest levels of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, a state lawyer said in court Friday.

For eight years, Heather Cox Rosenberg served as the state’s Children’s Ombudsman, a position that allowed her to advocate for children and parents caught up in the Department of Children and Families’ orbit. Her bosses had accused her of perhaps advocating too strongly, saying she sometimes “disparaged” the department in efforts to help struggling families.

Earlier this month, DCF sought custody of a 12-year-old boy Rosenberg adopted from foster care. The boy and his two adoptive siblings had become the subject of a tug-of-war between DCF and Rosenberg, who claimed the agency reneged on promises of financial help raising the three children if she agreed to adopt them. All three children had been born with significant special needs.

The 12-year-old, who is not being named by the Miami Herald to protect his privacy, has spent the last 18 months in a Brevard County psychiatric center for troubled children. Hospital administrators say he is ready for release, but Heather and Evan Rosenberg, her husband, say neither the 12-year-old nor his siblings would be safe without substantial in-home behavioral supports.

Paying for intensive behavioral intervention at the home – without reimbursement from the state — could cost the family $120,000-per-year, all out-of-pocket, Rosenberg testified. Much of the family’s conflict with DCF — including a lawsuit that remains under appeal — has been about who is responsible for the costly care and services the boy and his siblings require.

“I’m sorry, but we’re not independently wealthy here,” she said. “We are not wealthy, and we can’t afford that.”

When the couple refused to reclaim the child from the Devereux Behavioral Health center, DCF filed a petition to take custody of him. Administrators also referred the Rosenbergs to the Leon County Sheriff’s Office to face possible charges of felony child abandonment.

Though the Rosenbergs have not been charged with any crimes, the investigation itself already has had serious consequences: Heather Rosenberg testified Friday that the Boy Scouts of America stripped her of a leadership post she held in Leon County. That, in turn, prompted the group to shutter a scouting troop to which Rosenberg’s adoptive daughter belonged.

“The troop is now suspended,” Rosenberg testified. “Our daughter and the other girls in the troop can’t meet.”

READ MORE: Florida child welfare agency wages legal battle, seeks felony charge for ex-watchdog

Leadership ‘involved in the conversation’

DCF’s pursuit of the couple has been unusual from the beginning. Heather Rosenberg worked as DCF’s Children’s Ombudsman from 2016 until last year, a position that required her to fight on behalf of kids and parents in the foster care system — and sometimes against the wishes of her own bosses.

A DCF lawyer complained to the agency’s Inspector General that she gave advice to families on “how to challenge and undermine department rules, policy and legal counsel,” and suggested that some families file legal claims when their requests for help were rebuffed. She even sued her bosses in an effort to get help for her own adoptive children.

DCF’s decision to seek criminal charges against their own former watchdog also was remarkable: such charges are so rare as to be almost unheard-of. A retired child welfare judge in Miami told the Herald she never once saw a family charged with abandonment during a two-decade career on the bench.

For much of the week, lawyers for DCF and the family have been seeking a resolution to the dispute short of formally removing the boy from the Rosenbergs’ custody.

But at a hearing Friday morning before Leon Circuit Judge Anthony Miller, a DCF lawyer said he was not authorized to settle the dispute on his own. Nick Dolce, a DCF child welfare lawyer, told the judge decisions in the case were being made “at levels far above mine.”

“Leadership,” Dolce said, “needs to [be] involved in the conversation.” He added: “I do know that I won’t be able to resolve this without consulting my leadership.”

From the beginning, Heather Rosenberg had suggested that agency administrators were using her personal misfortune to make an example for other potential critics.

“They’re frustrated with me for holding them accountable to the promises that they’ve made to the children of this state,” she told the Herald earlier this week following earlier testimony.

‘I want my child home’

On Friday, Rosenberg took the stand — virtually, as the hearing was being held via the Internet — for the second time this week. She testified her middle child, who was born with significant special needs as the result of his mother’s alcoholism during pregnancy, is “the light and joy of [their] universe.” But when he reached puberty, he became increasingly aggressive and difficult to manage. Mood-stabilizing drugs helped, but he could not remain on them due to side effects.

“We adopted all these kiddos because we love them,” she said of her three children. ”That’s why we are fighting so hard for them. Sometimes, when we are advocating for what we need, some parties think they’ve been antagonized.”

“I want my child home,” she added.

She testified that, prior to the boy’s hospitalization, he had been repeatedly committed under the state’s Baker Act for psychiatric treatment. In most cases, he was released after only a few days with little improvement.

Because there are so few mental health beds in Leon County, Rosenberg testified, the boy sometimes had to wait. Once or twice, she said, hospital workers told her she and her son could stay in the emergency department for a week waiting for a bed to open — an option that would have left her other children without a mother at home.

While living with his parents in Tallahassee, the boy had become increasingly unstable both at home and in school, Rosenberg testified. Under questioning by the judge, she said he had “eloped” from his school one day, ran into some nearby woods, grabbed a piece of wood to use as a weapon and “slapped a group of kindergarteners” as he ran back into the school.

The incident was one of the events that prompted the family to seek in-patient treatment for their son.

During his stay at the Brevard County residential center, the boy showed progress in reducing the frequency of his aggressive outbursts, a development that led the center to seek his discharge. But, Rosenberg added, records showed he still had to be physically restrained by staff five times over the last four months — including once for attacking a staff member, once for assaulting another resident, and one time for exposing himself.

Under cross examination, Dolce asked Rosenberg if it was true that staff at the psychiatric hospital believed the boy was no longer a threat to himself or others. Rosenberg said conditions were entirely different at a locked behavioral health facility than a private home. “He is receiving an intensive level of care” at the institution, she said, including the presence of staff trained and physically capable of restraining him.

“That’s all we ever asked for,” she said. “We wanted all our children to be safe in the home.”