Traffic stop, ‘agitated’ passenger leads to deadly Jacksonville police shooting

Dan Scanlan, Florida Times-Union

A Tuesday-night traffic stop on a Westside Jacksonville street ended with an officer-involved shooting that left an 18-year-old dead, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Four officers were involved in the confrontation at about 10:40 p.m. that began when police pulled over a vehicle with three men inside it in the 5000 block of San Juan Avenue, Chief T.K. Waters said. The front-seat passenger was “very agitated” during the stop, and as officers tried to calm things down the situation escalated, he said.

“After several minutes of discussion with that subject, the officers ended up firing their service weapons and striking the suspect,” Waters said.  “… A handgun was located in the passenger seat area where the suspect was located.”

The Sheriff’s Office identified 18-year-old Devon Tillman Gregory as the suspect. Family telling WJXT TV-4 he worked at a nearby McDonald’s and was with his cousins.

Police released an image of the Taurus handgun they said was found in the car and that Gregory possessed.

More:Officer-involved shooting in St. Augustine leaves 1 dead

More:Jacksonville-area homicide suspect killed in Maryland police shootout

The incident marks the 14th officer-involved shooting by Jacksonville police this year, according to Times-Union records. Of those, nine were fatal. It is the most since 2009, when 15 people were shot by police, leaving nine dead. And in 2019, nine were shot, leading to six deaths. 

The last officer-involved shooting was less than two weeks ago when 34-year-old Justin Darryel Reed was killed outside his East 63rd Street home after confronting detectives in a small Chevrolet SUV parked in front, police said.

In the most recent incident, all four officers fired their guns in Tuesday-night’s traffic stop, Waters said. It was the first officer-involved shooting for each of them, identified as three-year veteran Officers B.M. Shea and N.C. McDonald, 10-year-veteran Officer A.J. Roe and Officer J.D. Mills with 25 years on the force. 

All four officers were identified as members of a Zone 4 Task Force in the incident report. They also were wearing bodycams.

Police do not know yet what might have caused Gregory ‘s agitation, Waters said. No other injuries were reported, and the chief did not specify what traffic violation the suspects were being pulled over for.

More:Triple shooting kills 18-year-old man in Green Cove Springs

Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549

LAMBORGHINI AND PORSCHE VEHICLES SEIZED IN $16M PPP FRAUD CASE IN HOUSTON

By Steven Romo, ABC-13

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — While scores of business in the area and worldwide are hurting and even closing permanently due to the pandemic, a team of scammers allegedly conned federal COVID-19 relief programs out of $16 million, according to prosecutors.

The 20-page federal indictment unsealed Tuesday accuses the team of using that money to buy luxury items like Porsches and Lamborghinis.

The suspects from the Houston area are Amir Aqeel, Pardeep Basra, Rifat Bajwa, Mayer Misak, Mauricio Navia, and Richard Reuth. Their first court appearance was 2 p.m. Tuesday on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud. Aqeel is also charged with three counts of money laundering.

An additional suspect, Siddiq Azeemuddin of Naperville, Illinois, was also charged in the indictment.

SEE ALSO: Man accused of stealing $1.6 million in CARES Act money to buy cars and take trips

They’re accused of falsifying applications to the program and to banks.

“These defendants allegedly participated in a scheme to capitalize on the pandemic by filing at least 80 fraudulent PPP applications and enriching themselves by $16 million, spending it on luxury items such as a Porsche and Lamborghini automobiles,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian Rabbitt said in a press release. “The department and our law enforcement partners will continue to aggressively pursue those who would seek to illegally exploit the ongoing national emergency for their own benefit.”

Court documents accuse the defendants of making 80 fraudulent PPP loan applications and faking the number of employees and their payroll expenses. Prosecutors allege they also created fake tax documents to cover their tracks.

The indictment also alleges others were involved, such as third-party businesses that got kickbacks for helping funnel funds.

The group is also accused of writing checks to nonexistent employees and sending that money to themselves or family members, according to a DOJ press release.

This alleged scheme comes as many businesses continue to struggle due to the pandemic, some worrying about paying back PPP loans, while others say the amount they received is not enough to save them from shutting down.

Rape, abuses in palm oil fields linked to top beauty brands

By MARGIE MASON and ROBIN McDOWELL, Associated Press

SUMATRA, Indonesia (AP) — With his hand clamped tightly over her mouth, she could not scream, the 16-year-old girl recalls – and no one was around to hear her anyway. She describes how her boss raped her amid the tall trees on an Indonesian palm oil plantation that feeds into some of the world’s best-known cosmetic brands. He then put an ax to her throat and warned her: Do not tell.

At another plantation, a woman named Ola complains of fevers, coughing and nose bleeds after years of spraying dangerous pesticides with no protective gear. Making just $2 a day, with no health benefits, she can’t afford to see a doctor.

Hundreds of miles away, Ita, a young wife, mourns the two babies she lost in the third trimester. She regularly lugged loads several times her weight throughout both pregnancies, fearing she would be fired if she did not.

These are the invisible women of the palm oil industry, among the millions of daughters, mothers and grandmothers who toil on vast plantations across Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, which together produce 85 percent of the world’s most versatile vegetable oil.

Palm oil is found in everything from potato chips and pills to pet food, and also ends up in the supply chains of some of the biggest names in the $530 billion beauty business, including L’Oréal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Avon and Johnson & Johnson, helping women around the world feel pampered and beautiful.

The Associated Press conducted the first comprehensive investigation focusing on the brutal treatment of women in the production of palm oil, including the hidden scourge of sexual abuse, ranging from verbal harassment and threats to rape. It’s part of a larger in-depth look at the industry that exposed widespread abuses in the two countries, including human trafficking, child labor and outright slavery.

Women are burdened with some of the industry’s most difficult and dangerous jobs, spending hours waist-deep in water tainted by chemical runoff and carrying loads so heavy that, over time, their wombs can collapse and protrude. Many are hired by subcontractors on a day-to-day basis without benefits, performing the same jobs for the same companies for years – even decades. They often work without pay to help their husbands meet otherwise impossible daily quotas.

“Almost every plantation has problems related to labor,” said Hotler Parsaoran of the Indonesian nonprofit group Sawit Watch, which has conducted extensive investigations into abuses in the palm oil sector. “But the conditions of female workers are far worse than men.”

Parsaoran said it’s the responsibility of governments, growers, big multinational buyers and banks that help finance plantation expansion to tackle issues related to palm oil, which is listed under more than 200 ingredient names and contained in nearly three out of four personal-care products – everything from mascara and bubble bath to anti-wrinkle creams.

The AP interviewed more than three dozen women and girls from at least 12 companies across Indonesia and Malaysia. Because previous reports have resulted in retaliation against workers, they are being identified only by partial names or nicknames. They met with female AP reporters secretly within their barracks or at hotels, coffee shops or churches, sometimes late at night, usually with no men present so they could speak openly. 

The Malaysian government said it had received no reports about rapes on plantations, but Indonesia acknowledged physical and sexual abuse appears to be a growing problem, with most victims afraid to speak out. Still, the AP was able to corroborate a number of the women’s stories by reviewing police reports, legal documents, complaints filed with union representatives and local media accounts.

Reporters also interviewed nearly 200 other workers, activists, government officials and lawyers, including some who helped trapped girls and women escape, who confirmed that abuses regularly occur.

___

This story was funded in part by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

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Indonesia is the world’s biggest palm oil producer, with an estimated 7.6 million women working in its fields, about half the total workforce, according to the female empowerment ministry. In much-smaller Malaysia, the figures are harder to nail down due to the large number of foreign migrants working off the books.

In both countries, the AP found generations of women from the same families who have served as part of the industry’s backbone. Some started working as children alongside their parents, gathering loose kernels and clearing brush from the trees with machetes, never learning to read or write.

And others, like a woman who gave the name Indra, dropped out of school as teenagers. She took a job at Malaysia’s Sime Darby Plantations, one of the world’s biggest palm oil companies. Years later, she says her boss started harassing her, saying things like “Come sleep with me. I will give you a baby.” He would lurk behind her in the fields, even when she went to the bathroom.

Now 27, Indra dreams of leaving, but it’s hard to build another life with no education and no other skills. Women in her family have worked on the same Malaysian plantation since her great-grandmother left India as a baby in the early 1900s. Like many laborers in both countries, they can’t afford to give up the company’s basic subsidized housing, which often consists of rows of dilapidated shacks without running water.

That ensures the generational cycle endures, maintaining a cheap, built-in workforce.

“I feel it’s already normal,” Indra said. “From birth until now, I am still on a plantation.”

____

Out of sight, hidden by a sea of palms, women have worked on plantations since European colonizers brought the first trees from West Africa more than a century ago. As punishment in Indonesia back then, some so-called female “coolies” were bound to posts outside the boss’ house with finely ground chili pepper rubbed into their vaginas.

As the decades passed, palm oil became an essential ingredient for the food industry, which saw it as a substitute for unhealthy trans fats. And cosmetic companies, which were shifting away from animal- or petroleum-based ingredients, were captivated by its miracle properties: It foams in toothpaste and shaving gel, moisturizes soaps and lathers in shampoo.

New workers are constantly needed to meet the relentless demand, which has quadrupled in the last 20 years alone. Women in Indonesia are often “casual” workers – hired day to day, with their jobs and pay never guaranteed. Men receive nearly all the full-time permanent positions, harvesting the heavy, spiky fruit bunches and working in processing mills.

On almost every plantation, men also are the supervisors, opening the door for sexual harassment and abuse.

The 16-year-old girl who described being raped by her boss – a man old enough to be her grandfather – started working on the plantation at age 6 to help her family make ends meet.

The day she was attacked in 2017, she said the boss took her to a remote part of the estate, where her job was to ferry wheelbarrows laden with the bright orange palm oil fruits he hacked from the trees. Suddenly, she said, he grabbed her arm and started pawing her breasts, throwing her to the jungle floor. Afterward, she said, he held the ax to her throat.

“He threatened to kill me,” she said softly. “He threatened to kill my whole family.”

Then, she said, he stood up and spit on her.

Nine months later, after she says he raped her four more times, she sat by a wrinkled 2-week-old boy. She made no effort to comfort him when he cried, struggling to even look at his face.

The family filed a report with police, but the complaint was dropped, citing lack of evidence.

“I want him to be punished,” the girl said after a long silence. “I want him to be arrested and punished because he didn’t care about the baby … he didn’t take any responsibility.”

The AP heard about similar incidents on plantations big and small in both countries. Union representatives, health workers, government officials and lawyers said some of the worst examples they encountered involved gang rapes and children as young as 12 being taken into the fields and sexually assaulted by plantation foremen.

One example involved an Indonesian teen who was trafficked to Malaysia as a sex slave, where she was passed between drunk palm oil workers living under plastic tarps in the jungle, eventually escaping ravaged by chlamydia. And in a rare high-profile case that sparked outrage last year, a female preacher working at a Christian church inside an Indonesian estate was tied up among the trees, sexually assaulted by two workers and then strangled. The men were sentenced to life in prison.

While Indonesia has laws in place to protect women from abuse and discrimination, Rafail Walangitan of the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection said he was aware of many problems identified by the AP on palm oil plantations, including child labor and sexual harassment.

“We have to work hard on this,” he said, noting the government still has a long way to go.

Malaysia’s Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development said it hadn’t received complaints about the treatment of women laborers so had no comment. And Nageeb Wahab, head of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association, said workers are covered by the country’s labor laws, with the ability to file grievances.

Those familiar with the complexities of plantation life say the subject of sexual abuse has never drawn much attention and that female workers often believe little can be done about it.

“They are thinking it happens everywhere, so there’s nothing to complain about,” said Saurlin Siagan, an Indonesian activist and researcher.

Many families living on plantations struggle to earn enough to cover basic costs, like electricity and rice. Desperate women are sometimes coerced into using their bodies to pay back loans from supervisors or other workers. And younger females, especially those considered attractive, occasionally are given less demanding jobs like cleaning the boss’ house, with sex expected in exchange.

In the few cases where victims do speak out, companies often don’t take action or police charges are either dropped or not filed because it usually comes down to the accuser’s word against the man’s.

“The location of palm oil plantations makes them an ideal crime scene for rape,” said Aini Fitri, an Indonesian official from the government’s women and children’s office in West Kalimantan province. “It could be dangerous in the darkness for people, especially for women, but also because it is so quiet and remote. So even in the middle of the day, the crime can happen.”

Many beauty and personal goods companies have largely remained silent when it comes to the plight of female workers, but it’s not due to lack of knowledge.

A powerful global industry group, the Consumer Goods Forum, published a 2018 report alerting the network’s 400 CEOs that women on plantations were exposed to dangerous chemicals and “subject to the worst conditions among all palm oil workers.” It also noted that a few local groups had cited examples of women being forced to provide sex to secure or keep jobs, but said few workers were willing to discuss the sensitive issue.

Even so, almost all of the pressure aimed at palm oil companies has focused on land grabs, the destruction of rainforests and the killing of endangered species such as orangutans.

Those concerns led to the 2004 formation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an association that promotes and certifies ethical production, including provisions to safeguard laborers. Its members include growers, buyers, traders and environmental watchdogs. But of the nearly 100 grievances lodged in Indonesia and Malaysia in the last decade, most have not focused on labor until recently. And women are almost never mentioned.

The AP reached out to representatives affiliated with every cosmetic and personal goods maker mentioned in this story. Some didn’t comment, but most defended their use of palm oil and its derivatives, with many attempting to show how little they use compared to the roughly 80 million tons produced annually worldwide. Others said they were working with local nonprofits, pointed to pledges on their websites about commitments to sustainability and human rights, or noted efforts to be transparent about the processing mills in their supply chains.

But the AP found that labor abuses regularly occur industrywide, even from mills that source from plantations bearing the RSPO’s green palm stamp.

That includes Indonesian companies like London Sumatra, which withdrew from the RSPO last year after the association cited it for a series of labor abuses. London Sumatra told the AP that it adheres to labor laws and takes “the health of our workers very seriously.” 

In some cases, women working at various palm oil companies illegally said they were ordered to hide in the jungle when sustainability auditors arrived, while others were told to smile if they encountered any visitors.

The AP used U.S. Customs records, product ingredient lists and the most recently published data from producers, traders and buyers to link the laborers’ palm oil and its derivatives from the mills that process it to the Western brands’ supply chains – including some that source from mills fed by plantations where women said they were raped and young girls toiled in the fields.

Abuses also were linked to product lines sought out by conscientious consumers like Tom’s of Maine and Kiehl’s, through the supply chains of their giant parent companies Colgate-Palmolive and L’Oréal. And Bath & Body Works was connected through its main supplier, Cargill, one of the world’s biggest palm oil traders.

Coty Inc., which owns global staples like CoverGirl and is tapping into partnerships with Gen Z newcomers like Kylie Cosmetics, did not respond to multiple AP calls and emails. And Estee Lauder Companies Inc., owner of Clinique, Lancome and Aveda, acknowledged struggling with traceability issues in its RSPO filing. When asked by AP whether specific products used palm oil or its derivatives, there was no response.

Both companies, along with Shiseido and Clorox, which owns Burt’s Bees Inc., keep the names of their mills and suppliers secret. Clorox said it would raise the allegations of abuses with its suppliers, calling AP’s findings “incredibly disturbing.”

Johnson & Johnson makes its mill list public, but refused to say whether its iconic baby lotion contains palm oil derivatives.

One case uncovered by the AP involved a widow named Maria who said her supervisor began sexually harassing her when she first started working at a Malaysian-owned company in Indonesia. She said she successfully fought off his advances until she returned home one night to find him inside, waiting for her.

“I tried to remind him about his wife and his children in the village, but he hugged me tighter while pulling my pants down. Then he raped me,” she said. “After that, he left me. But almost two hours later, he came back and raped me a second time.”

She said she stayed quiet at first because he threatened her life and her job. But the attacks continued, she said, including once when he jumped her while she was working in the field “crushing me so that I couldn’t move.”

That time, she said, she kept a semen-filled tissue as evidence. She later confronted the man and his wife and also complained to company and union officials. She attempted to file a police report, but instead was directed to seek compensation directly from the man, a union representative said. She was never paid and ended up moving to another plantation to get away from the boss, who has since quit.

Rosita Nengsih, the director of the Women, Children and Family Legal Aid Institution in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, said most victims are reluctant to report rapes to authorities, adding it’s typical to settle complaints through so-called “peace solutions” in which the victim’s family may be paid off. Sometimes parents force their daughter to marry her rapist to lessen the shame, often after pregnancy occurs.

The province where Nengsih works borders Malaysia on the island of Borneo, which is shared by the two countries. It is a porous corridor for Indonesian workers, including women and young girls hoping to earn enough in the wealthier neighboring country to pull themselves out of poverty. Many travel there illegally, sometimes falsifying documents or lying about their ages, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

Nengsih recalled a case involving two Indonesian girls as young as 13 who were working on a Malaysian plantation with their parents and said they were repeatedly raped by the same supervisor until both became pregnant four months apart.

“Nothing happened to the foreman,” she said. “He’s still free.”

___

The conditions these workers endure stand in stark contrast to female empowerment messages promoted by industry leaders such as L’Oréal, one of the world’s top cosmetic companies, and Unilever, one of the biggest palm oil buyers for consumer goods, which sources from more than 1,500 mills.

As Unilever’s popular soap brand proclaims: “Dove believes that beauty is for everyone.” And L’Oréal says it is working to stamp out sexual harassment “because we are all worth it.”

In a global industry expected to reach $800 billion within the next five years, cosmetic legacy brands – together with fast-growing celebrity and niche startups – proudly tout $300 anti-wrinkle creams or glittery eyeshadows as sustainable and free of labor abuses, with little or no evidence.

In response, L’Oréal said it “has put particular emphasis on supporting and empowering women, who are the first victims of many of the social and environmental challenges our world faces.” Unilever said progress needs to be made more quickly, but that “the safety of women in global agricultural supply chains … including in the palm oil industry, remains a key concern.”

The women in Southeast Asia’s rugged, steamy plantations are a world away. Some haul tanks of toxic chemicals on their backs weighing more than 13 kilograms (30 pounds), dispensing 80 gallons each day – enough to fill a bathtub.

“Our lives are so hard,” said Ola, who has been employed as a day worker in Indonesia for 10 years and wakes each day aching from repeatedly lifting heavy loads. “After spraying, my nose bleeds occasionally. I think it’s connected to the pesticide.”

She doesn’t wear a mask because it’s too hot to breathe. She said the company doesn’t provide medical care to casual workers, and she has no money for a doctor.

Paraquat, one of the chemicals Ola and others spray, has been banned by the European Union and many other countries over possible links to a wide range of health issues, including an increased chance of developing Parkinson’s disease.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in popular weedkiller Roundup, also is commonly used. Roundup’s parent company, Bayer, agreed earlier this year to pay more than $10 billion to end tens of thousands of lawsuits filed in the U.S. alleging the chemical caused serious illnesses, including cancer.

Some palm oil workers who use agrochemicals daily showed the AP raw webbing between their fingers and toes, along with destroyed nails. Others had milky or red eyes and complained of dizzy spells, trouble breathing and blurry vision. Activists reported that some totally lost their sight.

The workers said pesticides routinely blow back into their faces, splash onto their backs and seep into the sweaty skin on their stomachs.

“If the liquid shakes and spills out, it’s also running into my private area. Almost all women are suffering the same itching and burning,” said Marodot, whose five children also work to help their father meet his daily target. “I have to keep going until I finish working, and then clean it up with water. There’s too many men around.”

She said she has trouble seeing, and her face is dark and cracked from years in the sun.

When handed a $20 lipstick by a journalist, a worker named Defrida was told it contained palm oil. She twisted the silver case and stared at the glistening pink stick – first with intrigue, then with disgust.

Noting she would have to spray pesticide on 30 acres of rough jungle terrain just to afford a single tube, she pleaded with women who buy products containing palm oil: “Oh, my God!” she said. “Please pay attention to our lives.”

She, along with nearly all the women interviewed, complained of pelvic pain and explained how almost every phase of their reproductive health is affected.

Some women are forced to undergo humiliating checks to prove they are bleeding in order to take leave during their periods.

Others suffering from collapsed uteruses – caused by the weakening of the pelvic floor from repeatedly squatting and carrying overweight loads – create makeshift braces by tightly wrapping scarves or old motorbike tire tubes around their mid-sections. Some workers described the pain as so agonizing that they could find relief only by lying on their backs with their legs in the air.

Despite a national health care program launched by the Indonesian government, many palm oil workers still don’t have access to medical services and, even when basic care is available, it typically is not extended to female day workers. The nearest clinics can be more than a day’s drive by motorbike, so most workers just use aspirin, balms or home remedies when they’re sick.

Still, they are better off in many ways than migrant women working without papers in Malaysia, mostly in the bordering states of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo.

The AP confirmed a horrific story involving a pregnant Indonesian woman who escaped captivity on a Malaysian estate owned by state-run Felda, one of the world’s biggest palm oil companies. She gave birth in the jungle and foraged for food before finally being rescued. In September, U.S. Customs and Border Protection banned all palm oil imports from FGV Holdings Berhad, which is closely affiliated with Felda, after finding indications of child and forced labor and other abuses on its plantations.

Even on a day-to-day basis in Malaysia, migrant women fear arrest and deportation. Many rarely leave their plantations, even to give birth, at times risking their own lives and their babies’. And those who do venture out during emergencies can be held for weeks at the hospital until family members can collect enough money to pay exorbitant rates.

At one government facility in a border town, a menu of maternity ward prices was posted on a blue bulletin board. A natural birth costs foreign migrants about $630 – several times more than it would cost a Malaysian citizen, an amount that could take some women at least a year to pay back.

And that’s if they’re able to conceive and carry their babies to full term.

Groups of women interviewed by the AP in Indonesia wondered whether their arduous jobs, combined with the chemicals they handle and breathe, caused their infertility, miscarriages and stillbirths.

Ita was among those who said her work affected her ability to deliver healthy babies. She said she hid two pregnancies from her boss, knowing she likely wouldn’t be called for daily work otherwise. With two children already at home to feed, she had no choice but to keep working for $5 a day. In contrast, a permanent full-time female worker is entitled to three months of paid maternity leave.

Every day, as her belly grew, Ita said she continued to carry back-breaking loads over acres of fields, spreading 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of fertilizer – nearly a half-ton – over the course of a day. She lost both babies in her third trimester and, with no health insurance, was left with medical bills she couldn’t pay.

“The first time I miscarried, and the doctor had to pull the baby out,” said Ita, who has worked on the plantation alongside her mother since the age of 15. “The second time, I gave birth at seven months and it was in critical condition, and they put it in an incubator. It died after 30 hours.

“I kept working,” she said. “I never stopped after the baby died.”

Sucker-punch suspect arrested for attack on actor Rick Moranis on Upper West Side

By ELIZABETH KEOGH, NY Daily News

The man who allegedly sucker-punched “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” star Rick Moranis was arrested Saturday, police said.

Marquis Ventura, 35, was collared about 3:30 p.m.by transit officers who recognized his face from wanted pictures and video released after the bizarre Oct. 1 attack.

Ventura was hit with second-degree assault and was awaiting arraignment.

Marquis Ventura is escorted by NYPD Detectives from the 20th Precinct. Ventura, 35, was collared about 3:30 p.m.by transit officers who recognized his face from wanted pictures and video released after the bizarre Oct. 1 attack. (Jeff Bachner/for New York Daily News)

Moranis, 67, was walking south on Central Park West near W. 70th St. around 7:30 a.m. when a man dressed in a black “I Love New York” hoodie with a backpack slung over his shoulders punched him with a closed fist, police sources said at the time.

He went to a nearby hospital to be treated for pain in his right hip, head and back, and then to the 20th Precinct stationhouse on the Upper West Side to report the confrontation, authorities said.

“Rick Moranis was assaulted on the Upper West Side yesterday,” his agent Troy Bailey told the Daily News after the attack. “He is fine but grateful for everyone’s thoughts and well wishes.”

Rick Moranis, 67, was walking south on Central Park West near W. 70th St. around 7:30 a.m. Oct. 1 when a man dressed in a black “I Love New York” hoodie with a backpack slung over his shoulders punched him with a closed fist.

Rick Moranis, 67, was walking south on Central Park West near W. 70th St. around 7:30 a.m. Oct. 1 when a man dressed in a black “I Love New York” hoodie with a backpack slung over his shoulders punched him with a closed fist. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

The NYPD’s new Community Affairs Rapid Response Team, which visited Moranis afterward, told media outlets the actor had just one request.

“He just wants us to catch the bad guy all this to go away,” Det. Kaz Daughtry said at the time.

New Hampshire woman posed as prosecutor, dismissed her own charges: cops

By KATE FELDMAN, NY Daily News

A New Hampshire woman accused of drug possession and stalking brazenly pretended to be a prosecutor and dropped her own charges, according to police.

Lisa Landon, a 33-year-old woman from Littleton, allegedly used the court system’s electronic system late last year to file documents that would drop charges in three separate cases, the New Hampshire Union Leader reported Tuesday.

A state forensic examiner, who was scheduled to interview Landon, noticed in the system that the charges had been dropped and raised questions up the food chain with Hillsborough County prosecutors.

“It quickly became evident to the State that the document, as well as other documents in the file, had been filed fraudulently,” Superior Court Judge David Anderson wrote in a ruling, according to the Union Leader.

Lisa Landon was charged with false personation and falsifying physical evidence.

Landon also allegedly falsified documents to waive filing fees in a lawsuit she had filed and to halt guardianship proceedings for her child.

It’s unclear how Landon was able to gain access to the system.

Landon has been charged with one charge of false personation and six charges of falsifying physical evidence, as well as the already standing charges she tried to dismiss.

https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/ny-prosecutor-landon-charges-dropped-20201028-n6fiovb5anfhbi5shpisxquzta-story.html

“He wasn’t on anybody’s radar”: Police arrest man in Green Bay’s oldest cold case

By Sarah Thomsen and WBAY news staff

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) – Green Bay Police have made an arrest in the city’s oldest cold case murder investigation.

Lisa Holstead was found dead in August of 1986. She was 22-years-old. Investigators say Lisa had been murdered.

On Thursday, police announced the arrest of Lou Archie Griffin, 65 [corrected age], on a charge of 1st Degree Intentional Homicide. He’s being held in the Brown County Jail.

“Recent developments in the case and physical evidence were used by investigators to link Mr. Griffin to this homicide,” police say.

Article continues below the video

We do not yet know a possible motive. Green Bay Police Chief Andrew Smith says there’s no known connection between Griffin and Holstead.

“I don’t know of any connection. It wasn’t dating, relationship or friends or anything like that, as far as I know,” says Smith.

On Aug. 12, 1986, Lisa Holstead left a family gathering with her boyfriend. Witnesses say they saw Lisa get out of her boyfriend’s car in the area of Mason and Taylor Streets. That was about 2:30 a.m.

Lisa’s body was located in a marsh in what is now the Ken Euers Nature Park area. She had been strangled.

At the time, police were hesitant to say that Holstead was sexually assaulted before her death, but today we’re learning it’s DNA from that which led investigators to Griffin, a man who wasn’t considered a suspect for decades.

“He wasn’t on anybody’s radar back in 1986 when this homicide occurred,” Chief Smith said.

Police investigate the murder of Lisa Holstead. August, 1986.(WBAY)

Her murder went unsolved for 34 years.

Investigators are still mum on exactly how Griffin was developed as a suspect recently, but they say once he was they discovered he lived within a few miles of the area where Holstead was last seen alive.

Smith says Detective David Graf worked for a year to uncover evidence leading to the arrest of Griffin on Oct. 28.

Police traced Griffin’s current address to Racine, where last month a Racine County drug unit officer conducted surveillance on Griffin, spotting him smoking and drinking outside.

The complaint says he watched Griffin “throw away beer cans (in) a dumpster… and smoke a cigarette … then throw it on the ground.”

Three weeks ago, crime lab analysts matched DNA from Griffin’s cigarette and beer cans to the DNA found on Holstead’s body.

Griffin was arrested outside his home in Racine without incident.

Prosecutors say Griffin denies killing Holstead but admits being “high on cocaine… drinking (alcohol) that night” and was familiar with the area, having driven near it after work. Prosecutors say Griffin eventually told police he might have had sex with Holstead and “remembered seeing her on the news.”

“This is one of those cases that was always there, that people would always bring up, that we would continue to pull the books out and take a look at. Witnesses were re-interviewed. People were re-interrogated. Evidence was reviewed. Until Det. Graf was able to put everything together and make some real progress on it, it was just one of those cases that was there nagging at us. We want this case to be closed,” says Smith.

“Det. Graf worked in conjunction with the FBI, with the State of Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation, and the Racine County Sheriff’s Department. And together, this team really did a great job putting all the evidence together and making that arrest yesterday morning,” he said.

Griffin does have a criminal history, according to online court records. He’s served jail time for cases of disorderly conduct with a dangerous weapon and battery. Police say these charges did not require the collection of DNA.

A news conference is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 2. Action 2 News will be there and have coverage.

Article continues below the video

Chief Smith said, “All the technology behind how we made this arrest, that’s going to have to come out on Monday or as the case progresses. Our detectives, the investigators, and the district attorney have asked us not to expand on any part of the case or talk any more about the case. Just the basic facts today, and we’ll have more for everybody on Monday.”

Smith says generations of detectives have worked on this case. They worked with them during the investigation and hope they’ll be able to attend Monday’s news conference.

“There’s a certain amount of satisfaction you get when you can finally close the books on a case like this. However, we’re still very sad because Ms. Holstead lost her life. Her family was without their loved one. Her child was without his mother all these years. So we do get satisfaction solving these cases, but it’s still a sad day because we’re reminded of what was taken away from Lisa Holstead in 1986,” says Smith.

“It’s a huge deal for us, huge deal for our community,” the police chief said. “Hope it sends a message that even if you get away for something for a while here in G.B., eventually you’ll be brought to justice.”

https://www.wbay.com/2020/10/29/arrest-made-in-green-bays-oldest-cold-case-murder-investigation/

Top Fort Hood general asks for information after anonymous officers allege misconduct on base

By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent

(CNN) — The top commanding general at Fort Hood army base in Texas has taken the unusual step of posting a message on Facebook asking seven anonymous noncommissioned officers (NCOs) to give him details of misconduct allegations they described in a news article.

The allegations were published late last week by The Intercept. The article describes the views of five sergeants and two staff sergeants responsible for overseeing some of the 38,000 soldiers at Fort Hood, characterizing the environment as having “become so dangerous that they fear for the safety of their soldiers,” according to the article.

“I would be scared to send my kid to Fort Hood,” one NCO told The Intercept.

Lt. General Pat White, Third Corps commanding general, said in a Facebook post Saturday that he read the article with “great concern.”

“Seven anonymous NCOs describe events and attitudes that I’d like to know more about in order to fix it,” White said in the social media post. “The allegations in the article are serious and I firmly believe in the chain of command; since these NCOs feel their immediate leaders have failed them, I ask that these sergeants—and anyone else—use their personal courage” to call him or the senior enlisted official on base directly.

White listed the Fort Hood hotline number as part of the effort to encourage personnel to directly report problems. Since the post over the weekend, a handful of calls have been received but none of the them are confirmed to be from any of the original seven, according to a defense official with knowledge of the calls.

The anonymous NCOs also alleged to The Intercept that there have been drugs on base, as well as cases of sexual harassment or assault.

There are number of ongoing reviews into Fort Hood’s problems. An outside independent panel may finish its report as soon as this week. An internal Army review — which could lead to some top personnel being disciplined — may be done by the end of the year, according to one defense official.

The concern over soldier deaths and assaults at Fort Hood increased significantly earlier this year when the remains were found this summer of Specialist Vanessa Guillen, who went missing in April. Her family has spearheaded action to get the Army to bring families into missing soldier cases right away in case they can offer valuable information.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy has been pressing for answers at Fort Hood for months. When he visited in the summer, he noted the base has one of the highest of murders, sexual assault and incidents of harassment in the Amy among the largest installations.

Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, the base commander, has already been reassigned to another job. White just recently returned to command at Fort Hood after serving as the head of the US-led military coalition in Iraq.

https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/26/politics/fort-hood-the-intercept-top-general-facebook/index.html

Massachusetts Asks FBI To Investigate Fire Set Inside Ballot Drop Box

By Sanjana Karanth

Election officials in Boston said about 122 ballots were inside a drop box that was set on fire early Sunday morning. Some 87 are still legible.

Sanjana Karanth

The Massachusetts secretary of state asked the FBI to investigate a fire that was set inside a ballot drop box in Boston early Sunday morning.

The Boston elections department notified Secretary of State Bill Galvin on Sunday about a fire that was set at about 4 a.m. inside a ballot drop box outside the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, according to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s office. City officials last collected ballots from the drop box at 2:29 p.m. Saturday.

The Boston Police Department is conducting an arson investigation into the fire and is working to identify a person caught on surveillance footage igniting something at the drop box. Firefighters extinguished the fire by filling the ballot box with water.

Election officials are working with authorities to take inventory of the ballots collected from the drop box from Saturday afternoon through early Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, Galvin asked the FBI to investigate the fire and referred the incident to Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

“What happened in the early hours of this morning to the ballot drop box in Copley Square is a disgrace to democracy, a disrespect to the voters fulfilling their civic duty and a crime,” Walsh and Galvin said in a joint statement to HuffPost. “Our first and foremost priority is maintaining the integrity of our elections process and ensuring transparency and trust with our voters, and any effort to undermine or tamper with that process must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Neither Lelling’s office nor the FBI’s Boston office immediately responded to HuffPost’s request for comment.

Election officials continue to inventory the drop box’s contents, but the city said that an immediate review showed about 122 ballots inside, 87 of which were legible enough to be processed.

The city will mail a new ballot to every voter whose ballot was identified as being in the drop box at the time. If those voters do not recast their ballots, the city will hand-count the ballots recovered from the box. Early voting is still available through Oct. 30, officials said. Election Day is Nov. 3.

The elections department encouraged any voter who deposited a ballot in the drop box between Saturday afternoon and early Sunday to check the status of that ballot by tracking it online or calling the department.

“We ask voters not to be intimidated by this bad act and remain committed to making their voices heard in this and every election,” Walsh and Galvin said in their statement.

The Copley Square drop box did not appear to be damaged on the outside. It will remain available for voters to deposit ballots, city officials said.

All drop boxes in Boston are under 24-hour surveillance and emptied on a daily basis. Collected ballots are brought to the elections department to be counted on election night.

The Boston incident is believed to be the second suspected arson attack on a ballot drop box in a week. 

Someone set a fire inside an official ballot collection box outside a public library in Baldwin Park, California, on Oct. 18. Officials said the individual dropped a flaming piece of newspaper into the ballot box that evening.

Los Angeles County firefighters cut open the box and doused the flames. The city’s mayor, Manuel Lozano, estimated that as many as 100 ballots were affected.

Election officials there asked local police, the FBI and the attorney general to investigate the suspected arson. Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement that the incident “has all the signs of an attempt to disenfranchise voters and call into question the security of our elections.”

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/massachusetts-asks-fbi-investigate-fire-ballot-drop-box_n_5f95f03dc5b673c60824dbe5

Fire in Los Angeles County ballot box investigated as arson

BALDWIN PARK, Calif. —

A fire inside an official Los Angeles County ballot drop box is being investigated as arson and has been reported to the FBI, authorities said Monday.

The fire was reported Sunday night in a curbside box outside a library in suburban Baldwin Park, east of Los Angeles.

Firefighters put out the fire, cut open the box and pulled out envelopes, some charred.

The county registrar-recorder’s office said the items were being reviewed “to determine the appropriate notifications to voters whose ballots may have been impacted and will ensure they can exercise their fundamental right to vote.”

Ballots were last collected from the box shortly after 10 a.m. Saturday. Voters who dropped off ballots after that time were asked to call the registrar recorder.

County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis said the fire had “all the signs of an attempt to disenfranchise voters and call into question the security of our elections.”

The frequency of ballot pickups at all boxes was being increased immediately.

Local voter John Rios told KABC-TV the incident made him angry.

“I’m 80 years old. I’ve been voting since I was 19. I’ve never seen something like this,” he said.

Janice Hahn, also a member of the county Board of Supervisors, said the fire was reprehensible.

“Burning ballots is not just vandalism, it is an attack on our democracy and on our residents’ right to vote,” she said. “Whoever did this must be found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Baldwin Park Mayor Manuel Lozano noted frustrations in America about the voting process and told KABC the incident sends “a very bad message.”

The fire came at the end of a week of controversy over unofficial ballot drop boxes placed in various locations in California by the state Republican Party.

California’s secretary of state said Friday that the GOP removed the unstaffed, unofficial ballot drop boxes, and subpoenas were being issued to get more information about them as the state attorney general looks into possible election law violations.

Republicans confirmed they pulled boxes improperly labeled “official.” But they say they will continue to use dozens of other boxes without the labels that have been sent to various counties.

https://www.kcra.com/article/fire-los-angeles-county-ballot-box-investigated-arson/34418231

Foster kids lived with molesters. No one told their parents

Josh Salman, Daphne Chen and Pat Beall

USA TODAY Network

Inside his double-wide trailer off a swampy north Florida road, longtime foster father Rick Hazel repeatedly raped a child in his care, taking videos of the molestation and hiding a camera in the bathroom to watch her shower.

Unaware of the abuse, caseworkers continued to pack the mobile home beyond capacity with children. For seven years, foster kids came and went, at times living in such cramped quarters that at least one child slept with Hazel and his wife in the master bedroom.

When deputies arrested him in 2019, the Hazels were the longest-tenured foster parents in St. Augustine. More than 70 kids had passed through their home. In addition to the rape victim, the family members of two other foster children came forward with concerns of abuse or neglect.

But following Hazel’s arrest, no one – not caseworkers, not child abuse investigators, not law enforcement – talked to all of the other children who had lived in the home to see if they had seen or suffered abuse.

Those children were all adopted or moved on to new homes. Until contacted by reporters, the adults in their lives had no idea they had spent time with a man who ultimately was convicted of child sex abuse.

Six years ago, Florida officials announced sweeping changes to the state’s foster care system and declared that the Department of Children and Families would put child safety and welfare first. Then-Gov. Rick Scott said the changes made Florida a leader in the nation when it came to caring for foster kids.

But a USA TODAY investigation showed Florida lagged behind other states when it comes to identifying and offering assistance to children who were placed with foster parents accused of sexual and physical abuse – at least until it started reviewing its policies over the last few months.

About the series

This is an ongoing investigative series about Florida’s child welfare system, which has taken an increasing number of kids into foster care without enough safe places to put them. Reporters at USA TODAY spent more than a year analyzing data and interviewing families, insiders and advocates, revealing how overwhelmed state officials put nearly two hundred foster children into the arms of abusers.

More than two dozen experts in child protection told USA TODAY reporters that it is critical for foster care agencies and government regulators to interview children who have lived with a known abuser. Not doing so leaves victims of abuse unidentified and prevents them from getting victims’ compensation, counseling and other critical services. That could put them at greater risk for becoming abusers themselves, the experts said.

A growing number of states, including those considered to be the best when it comes to protecting children, all said they conduct such interviews when a foster parent is convicted. Florida does not.

“You have to go back and interview the other kids who passed through that home,” said Nancy Buckner, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources, which oversees foster care. “It’s vitally important. We owe it to those children.” 

Nancy Buckner, Alabama Department of Human Resources Commissioner

It’s vitally important. We owe it to those children.

USA TODAY used a database of more than a million child placements obtained from researchers at the University of Miami to identify the families of foster children across the state sent to foster parents who have been accused of abuse. 

More than 600 children spent time in those homes, the placement data shows. But most of their parents and caretakers do not know it.

Across Florida, dozens of parents, guardians and adoptive kin were stunned to learn that their children had passed through the homes of rapists and child beaters. Some suspected for years that their loved ones had been abused in foster care, but they could not get help or treatment.

One mother had no clue DCF removed her son from a Clearwater foster home over his complaints of molestation – and that the foster father is now facing criminal charges of possessing child pornography. 

A grandmother in Cape Coral was unaware her grandson lived in a home where foster parents are accused of locking at least three children in dark closets, beating them with baseball bats and burning their hands on the stove because “the Bible told them to.”

An adoptive mother in North Port feared for years that her daughter had been sexually abused. During bath time, the mother said the toddler would cover her privates, and scream “please, Mommy, no.” Florida officials who arranged her adoption never told the woman her daughter had lived with a foster parent who hung himself amid his criminal trial on molestation charges related to another child in his care. 

“If you have these cases where there has been sex abuse and then another 70 kids have gone through that home, I would certainly want to at least have some sort of conversation with those kids,” said Thomas Dikel, a Gainesville pediatric neuropsychologist and expert witness in foster abuse cases. “I would expect there are going to be more victims. Nobody wants to find that, but if it’s there, the children need us to know about it, to stop it before any more children are hurt.”

Pediatric neuropsychologist Thomas Dikel says child welfare agencies should have a conversation with any children who have lived in the home of a suspected abuser.

After USA TODAY began asking questions about these protocols, DCF formed a task force with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review them along with other rules guiding foster abuse investigations. The group acknowledged that there was no policy to seek out information from foster children who previously lived in the home. The only requirement was to review exit surveys.

In October 2019, the task force recommended amending state operating procedures to ensure it becomes mandatory that investigators seek information directly from children who have previously lived in the foster home. Officials also recommended new training for these forensic interviews. 

“We are acutely aware that there have been individuals who have failed to fulfill their parental duties – or worse, mistreated and abused the children in their care,” agency spokeswoman DaMonica Smith wrote in an email statement. “To be clear, this is unacceptable, and it has not, nor will it ever be, tolerated by DCF or any of the agencies that we entrust to provide critical child welfare services.”

They took in children of all ages and races, including kids with autism, and adopted three of them. They were active at church and the foster parent association, meeting with biological parents on nights and weekends to make visits easier.

“Wonderful human beings, blessed, doing God’s work,” one social worker commented in their file.

“One of the very best places a child could be,” wrote another.

As they gained a rapport with workers in the system, St. Johns County sent the Hazels more and more kids, even when their home reached – and surpassed – the state-mandated capacity of five total children. 

Their biological daughters shared a room with two foster children, who slept on bunk beds. Another room had a crib and two toddler beds. Two more twin beds were squeezed into a third room, and with at least seven children in the home at some times, at least one child slept with the foster parents in their master bedroom.

The stream of kids finally ended in 2019, when a 13-year-old told detectives that her foster-turned-adoptive father had “raped me like I was his wife.”

The girl came forward in June 2019 at the Wilds Christian Camp in North Carolina. She said Hazel had raped her since she was 5. In later years, he directed her to masturbate, then recorded it with his iPhone. Police found a secret video camera he installed in the bathroom to spy on her in the shower. 

No claims were made against Shirley Hazel and she was not charged. The girl told deputies she did not know if Hazel had done anything similar to her foster and adoptive siblings.

Hazel eventually confessed to the crimes, blaming it on the victim, according to arrest records. In November, he pleaded no contest as part of an agreement to serve 25 years in state prison.

“I’m sorry for what happened, but it wasn’t all me, honey,” Hazel said during a recorded phone call to his wife from jail. “It happened at nights when you left … and she came to my room and pushed herself all over me. It just went on from there, and I lost control.”

Records from his foster file show Rick Hazel has a history of arrests and he and his wife faced at least two previous allegations of abusing children. Details of those allegations were not released. 

The Hazels had a report of abuse in nearby Baker County in October 1996, years before becoming foster parents. It’s unclear if the allegations were founded. Neither the local lead agency nor DCF released any details of the incident despite multiple public records requests.

Another person filed an abuse report against Shirley Hazel in 2004, but the case was closed with no indicators of harm, according to caseworker notes. No other details were available.

Rick Hazel struggled with habitual drinking and driving. He was booked for a series of DUIs in the late 1970s and 1980s. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office arrested him for felony drug possession in 1980, and picked him up on marijuana charges in 1982. Deputies also charged him with disorderly intoxication in the 1990s following a drunken brawl with a neighbor, who said Hazel was having an affair with his wife. 

Hazel was convicted or entered a plea with regard to all the charges against him, except one of the marijuana charges, which was dropped. The cases were too old to disqualify someone from becoming a foster parent in Florida. But experts say the patterns offer a window into the family’s troubles.

As part of the foster approval process, a counselor did not speak to any of the neighbors during a home visit because the “area where they live is very marginal” and she would “prefer not to associate with neighbors or attempt to have them complete forms,” licensing paperwork shows.

“They need to be able to recognize some of the warning signs,” said Ken Lanning, who retired from the FBI after a career of specializing in child sex abuse. “If something seems too good to be true, maybe it is, and we have to investigate why this person has so many children. You cannot look at this through the peephole – you need to open the door and look at the big picture.”

After first agreeing to an interview, St. Johns County spokesman Michael Ryan reversed course, releasing a written statement instead. The County Commission and its staff oversee the foster parent program.

“The background records in the possession of St. Johns County would not have disqualified him from licensure as a foster parent,” St. Johns County spokesman Michael Ryan wrote in an email. “With respect to the children who previously lived with the Hazels, St. Johns County was informed that an investigation was being conducted by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and DCF to determine whether any other children might have been abused.”

Of the 73 foster children who passed through Hazel’s home, USA TODAY reached family members of nearly a dozen. Each said they first learned of their children’s placements there through conversations with journalists.

Adoptive parents can request a child’s full file before they sign on to take a kid. But biological family members – to protect foster families against possible retaliation – are not always told which foster homes their children are placed with. Similar confidentiality issues can muddy whether a guardian is contacted during abuse investigations, said Rich Filson, a Sarasota attorney who specializes in cases of abuse in state care.

When a foster parent is arrested for suspected abuse, all of these families need to be informed, but that rarely happens, he said. Filson pointed to prosecutors and law enforcement, saying they typically investigate only until they have enough evidence for a conviction. Sometimes that means going back to comb for more victims, but more often not. 

“Some of these homes where horrible things happened, and a lot of kids passed through,” he said. “Common sense says that other bad things happened to children, but you are never going to know who they are.”

Before Penny Amos could adopt her two grandchildren, the boys had been shuffled through seven foster homes.

After spending three months under the Hazels’ care, the 4-year-old told his new foster parent that someone had been molesting him in the past. The child went to therapy for a year. He is withdrawn, acts out in school and struggles to show compassion. 

Yet Amos said she was never contacted about the time her boys spent with the Hazels.

“That makes me sick,” she said. “You think they would have called me to let me know that my grandson was in his care. This is just so negligent. … They didn’t reach out, knowing my grandson was talking about sexual assault the whole time.”

The first few nights after Tammy Voyles Shirley got her grandson back from foster care, the 3-year-old would scream and howl for hours.

Tammy Shirley remembers seeing the clip of Hazel’s arrest in the local newspaper. She had no idea the grandchild she adopted had lived with him until USA TODAY journalists used state records and data to piece together the placement.

“I don’t know what happened, I just know he wasn’t right when I got him back,” Tammy Shirley said. “Usually people who do this sort of thing have done it before. There’s a pattern. How many other kids has he done this to?”

His older half-brother went to a different foster home – a loving family, Tammy Shirley said. He returned with no signs of trauma. But in Hazel’s house, her other grandson seemed to regress, especially with potty training and behavior at day care. He was thin, sick with a cough and lacked medical attention, she said.

Tammy Shirley says she complained about his condition to caseworkers in St. Johns County immediately after coming from the Hazels. But she said the state did nothing. 

“He had nightmares,” Tammy Shirley said. “He didn’t want to go anywhere with anyone. I could not leave him alone. I told them something was not right.”

Without contacting families and combing for more victims, the state has no handle on the true scope of physical and sexual abuse in foster care.

Andrew Caswell, a former child protective investigator in Gainesville, said it was standard practice to talk to all children currently living in the home of a suspected abuser. But he said it was not required to go back to other kids who previously lived there.

Had state investigators interviewed the more than 600 children who passed through the homes of abusive foster parents identified by USA TODAY, experts say, abuse and neglect numbers certainly would be higher.

“It should be standard,” Caswell said. 

DCF estimates 700 to 800 kids have been abused in out-of-home care each year since 2015. Because the number of foster care placements has been increasing, the rate of abuse appears to be declining.

But those statistics only count the complaints that are fully verified. Every year, thousands of additional abuse cases are classified as partially verified or inconclusive.

DCF’s calculations come amid a sharp increase in hotline calls about abuse and neglect in institutional settings, which include foster homes, group homes, day care centers, schools and hospitals. Such calls spiked 45% from 11,500 in 2013 to nearly 17,000 by 2018, according to DCF records.

DCF could not say how many calls involved foster homes because its system does not capture that data, an agency spokeswoman said. 

Other states, including Delaware, Illinois, Missouri and Texas, can provide such breakdowns. 

Experts say not going back to these families perpetuates a vicious cycle for generations to come.

“The rate of abuse in foster care is much worse than official statistics suggest,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “That’s because official statistics are just agencies investigating themselves. The problem is compounded when you have an artificial shortage of foster homes.

“The more children you have – and with not a lot of places to put them – you have an enormous incentive to hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file,” he said. “Agencies have a tremendous incentive to turn a blind eye.”

Child molesters use the relationships forged through their positions – as teachers, pastors, mentors, foster parents – to trap children into sexual encounters.

And if they do it once, they frequently don’t stop.

More than two dozen experts interviewed by USA TODAY said that’s why it’s vital to go back and interview all of the children who’ve passed through these homes.

No amount of screening by foster care agencies can guarantee sexual predators won’t slip through. So once an abuse allegation surfaces, it’s imperative to talk to as many people as possible and take what the children say seriously, said Lisa Cohen, professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. She was among those stunned to learn the families of foster children placed with convicted abusers were not always contacted.

“The person has a disorder,” Cohen said. “The institution has no excuse.”

The experts interviewed by USA TODAY said it’s critical for parents whose kids were exposed to abuse to know what happened so that they can provide mental health counseling and have a chance to head off lifelong ramifications. People abused as children are more likely to experience depression and drug abuse and to molest their own kids.

These families “definitely need to know,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO at CHILD USA, a Philadelphia think tank focused on preventing child abuse and neglect. “These children can be traumatized in ways that are hard for them to articulate. Why are they scared of the color blue? They adopt behaviors of adjustment that are very hard to explain. If you don’t understand what happened, it will be hard to help them.”

Following reporting by the USA TODAY Network on a prolific Sarasota County foster father accused of molestation, a task force of child abuse investigators, law enforcement officials and agency subcontractors agreed Florida was not doing enough. The group recommended the state bolster its procedures for handling sex abuse cases. That includes creating a new requirement that investigators must seek information directly from children who have previously lived in the foster home.

Reporters checked to see if there were any similar policies at several other child welfare agencies cited as the best by national experts, including Alabama, Michigan, Maine, Nebraska, Maryland and New York City. 

Those states stressed the importance of these interviews and insist that they talk to the children who’ve passed through abusive foster homes. But most did not have written policies to interview each and every one of them. Many stopped short of saying they always interview every child.  

There are families in therapy trying to figure things out, and the state knew all along.

In Michigan, investigators are bound by legislative and policy requirements to interview every alleged victim within 72 hours. Child protective service workers have the ability to interview other children – who could be potential witnesses or victims – with permission from caregivers. But the agency also said that it only did this when necessary and noted that the state only has the legal authority to interview children when an allegation has been made.

Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services coordinates with law enforcement when such allegations arise, including reviewing the alleged perpetrator’s history to determine if any children previously placed into their care should be interviewed.

In New York City – one of the largest child welfare systems in the country – the agency’s office of special investigations will speak with children, parents, foster parents and other people who may have information about the case, which may include interviews with former children placed in the home.

“It’s criminal,” said Mary Anderst, who was never contacted when her grandson was sent to live in a Cape Coral foster home where kids were allegedly brutalized and forced to live in squalor. “There are families in therapy trying to figure things out, and the state knew all along. How is that possible? The fact that DCF never contacted me is beyond me … It’s kind of like the Catholic Church or Boy Scouts of America. It’s horrible.”

www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/investigations/2020/10/15/no-one-checks-on-kids-who-previously-lived-with-abusive-foster-parents/5896724002/