JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After an exhausting and emotional yearlong battle, a 2-year-old girl at the center of one of the longest I-TEAM investigations to date, has been legally adopted by her aunt and uncle after they came to News4Jax for help.
Our “Saving Baby Liberty” investigation began in October 2016 when Ginger and Keenan Phillips contacted the I-TEAM, fearful for Liberty after she was removed from their home by child welfare officials and given to a relative with an outstanding warrant for his arrest -- a man who also had a documented history of domestic violence.
As our Emmy Award-winning investigation uncovered, Liberty was removed from the Phillips' home one week after her court-appointed guardian ad litem found Liberty was “thriving” with them and recommended they be allowed to adopt her. A report filed with the court described the Phillips’ home as a “safe and loving” environment.
Our initial investigation explained that Liberty’s life began in the Department of Children and Families system because she was removed from the care of her birth parents, who struggled with drugs and domestic violence. At 5 months old, she was moved to the Phillips home and stayed there until she was 15 months old, spending nearly a year of crucial early development time bonding with the family.
But one week after that glowing guardian ad litem report was filed with the court, Liberty was suddenly removed in September 2016. The relative that we found had a history of domestic violence and an outstanding warrant for his arrest had been selected to be Liberty’s new adoptive father.
Our investigation exposed that Liberty’s birth parents legally surrendered their parental rights to her and asked that she be transferred to the home of the birth father’s family, where, we learned, the birth parents hoped to have greater access to Liberty.
These were the same parents the guardian ad litem found could cause “great emotional harm” to Liberty’s well-being.
Liberty's removal was executed by DCF's local community-based care partner, Family Support Services of North Florida, in fall 2016, and that same year we interviewed Liberty’s birth mother, who told News4Jax she only signed over her rights to her daughter under duress after the birth father threatened her.
“As long as we knew we had a chance, we were never going to give up,” Ginger Phillips told the I-TEAM, after successfully fighting to get Liberty back. “That little girl needed us, and we had to fight, and my son needed us to fight.”
To protect Liberty's privacy, News4Jax agreed not to show her face on camera in our follow-up interview.
We also agreed to a request from the Phillipses that we not ask questions about the legal process to bring Liberty home. Instead, they agreed to talk about the emotional toll the entire family endured during the ordeal.
“I never thought I could be stressed out so much: tension headaches, nightmares, not eating right, financial (stress), missing work,” Keenan Phillips said. “There were times where it seemed we weren't ever going to get there. It was never going to happen.”
Initially 'the system failed her'
State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, has served for six years as chair of the Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee in the Florida House of Representatives. That’s the legislative committee that oversees DCF and the guardian ad litem’s office.
The I-TEAM first contacted Harrell at the beginning of our investigation in 2016. We met with her for the first time in January 2018 at her office in Tallahassee.
“In this case, I’m so happy things turned out for Liberty, that everything worked well and, at the end of the day, she’s in the right home, and she has a great future,” Harrell said. “That’s delightful to see, but we need to do a better job. There is no doubt. We need to make sure we have systems in place that always center on the child. What is in the best interest of that child? Keeping the child safe and helping the child be in a loving home to help them have the best future possible.”
Harrell said that when Liberty was first removed from the Phillips' home, “there wasn’t adequate information there.”
“Decisions were made without proper investigation or information,” Harrell said. “In that sense, the system failed her right then and there. Fortunately, there are safeguards there, and it was a temporary situation, thank goodness.”
Harrell said she's not sure what the situation was, but the guardian ad litem, Liberty's court-appointed advocate in the child welfare process, should have spoken up to stop Liberty's transfer of custody.
At least one employee at the guardian ad litem’s office who was assigned to Liberty’s case no longer works there, News4Jax has learned. I-TEAM sources said that employee was let go weeks after our story first aired, but no one could say “on the record” if it was because of Liberty’s removal.
In fact, no one at the guardian ad litem’s office and no DCF officials have ever spoken publicly about Liberty, citing privacy restrictions.
DCF Secretary Mike Carroll released a statement to the I-TEAM:
Child safety is the first priority of the Florida Department of Children and Families. The child welfare system has checks and balances in place and we will continue to work with our partners and the court system to get positive outcomes for our kids."
What went wrong
Another source told News4Jax that the major flaw in Liberty’s case was that the home study that allowed her to be placed with the new relatives was missing a simple fingerprint check that would have turned up the outstanding warrant for the caregiver's arrest.
The I-TEAM found the warrant without a fingerprint check.
We also found the same caregiver's previous criminal history by searching Duval County court records, which are public and available online.
“I think, in this case, the individual doing the home study did not have all the information, and had they had that, it’s very clear that home study would not have been approved,” Harrell said. “That family would not have been approved.”
Harrell said Liberty’s case is fueling a new push to hire more Child Protective Investigators to work on cases like Liberty’s across the state.
Harrell said more CPIs would mean more time to work on cases and that would mean more information will be learned or uncovered, so that judges will have a more complete picture before deciding a child's future.
She also hopes to see all CPIs one day hold degrees in social work, so they can better understand complicated family dynamics.
“When you see a sweet and loving child like that, who deserves a wonderful future, and the whole situation happening with her being removed from that family and placed in another family, and all the turmoil that went on with it, to me, (it) was an example of what can go wrong in the system when you really don’t put the best interest of the child first,” Harrell said. “That is the whole mission we’ve been on the last six years, really -- that the best interest of the child, the safety of the child, comes first. … A key component of this is to make sure the judge has all the information. His decision can only be based on what comes before him.”
Harrell was a key advocate for Florida's Child’s Best Hope Law, which went into effect in 2015.
Before the law, if a parent surrendered his or her rights and asked the court to transfer a child to someone, the parent had the absolute right to do that, and no one in the court process -- DCF, GAL or a judge -- could stop that transfer if the person selected passed a home study.
Now, with the Child’s Best Hope Law, a parent's surrender is not the final say, and instead, what is in the child’s best interest is allowed to be considered in the process by any and all parties.
Home sweet home
As Liberty’s case becomes a catalyst for positive change in the system, the Phillips family is grateful she is now home with them for good.
Ginger Phillips said they had been worried Liberty might not remember them.
But she did.
“I would say, on the second (reunification) visit, she took to us,” Keenan Phillips said. “(With) no encouragement whatsoever, she said ‘Dada.'”
“We expected it to take a while to warm back up to us,” Ginger Phillips said. “It had been almost a year, but it fell right back into place.”
Liberty was legally adopted by the Phillipses more than a year after she was initially removed from their home.
Her parents said they hope that, once she is grown, she learns her story and can appreciate all they did to bring her home.
“We gave her a chance to thrive,” Keenan said.
“And I hope,” Ginger said, “(that) everyone else would see that, too.”