#ChildMolester | A foster father was investigated for abuse. Parents had no idea. | #parenting | #parenting | #kids

Amy Russell, child protection consultant
There’s red flags flying all over the place.

Victor Vieth, a prominent child protection trainer and the director of research at the Zero Abuse Project, said investigators should have talked to everybody who was going in and out of the home to see if they could corroborate details in the boy’s story.

“There’s an open question of whether they knew that these nurses were in the house,” Vieth said. “But if they did, then they should be talking to them.”

In addition, bathing and sleeping in the same bed are common grooming techniques, according to experts.

“There’s red flags flying all over the place,” Russell said. 

DCF’s own operating procedure directs child protective investigators to interview a wide range of so-called collateral contacts during the course of their investigation. Supervisors are supposed to double check that investigators have been thorough. 

But Florida’s child protective investigators have struggled to keep up with large caseloads and inadequate training.

In May 2019, after the USA TODAY Network reported on a foster father accused of molesting three toddlers, DCF and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement assembled a task force to examine their handling of child sex abuse cases.

The task force found that child protective investigators across Florida are overworked, undertrained and sloppy about documenting evidence. Supervisors, who are supposed to sign off on each case, often rubber-stamp cases without assessing their thoroughness, the task force found.

USA TODAY’s wider investigation also found that child welfare officials frequently allow foster parents to keep their licenses despite repeated accusations of abuse or neglect or clear licensing violations, such as use of corporal punishment or sleeping in the same bed as the foster children. 

Eckerd decided to take another chance on Metzner.

Shortly after DCF’s investigators closed the case, Fleishauer said she overheard Eckerd employees on the phone, reminding the foster father that it was inappropriate to sleep in the same bed as a foster child and asking him to take more training to refresh him on boundaries.

Card denied this, stating in an email that Eckerd was not aware of any concerns about Metzner and the boy sleeping in the same bed.

Three months later, Eckerd sent Danny.

Overcrowding takes its toll

By then, the situation at the agency was worse.

In February 2019, Eckerd told state officials that three previous infusions of emergency funding hadn’t been enough to stabilize the agency, which was still projecting a $4.2 million shortfall and surging numbers of foster kids. 

National standards set by the Child Welfare League of America call for a maximum of 12 cases per child abuse investigator and 17 families per caseworker. 

At Eckerd, more than half of child protective investigators in the circuit were juggling 12 or more investigations at a time, according to DCF data. Meanwhile, the average Eckerd caseworker was responsible for 23 children at any given time.

The overcrowding was taking its toll, with annual turnover among case managers nearing 100%, according to risk pool reports.

It’s a cycle that Franck Meyer, the founder of Alia, said she’s seen play out across the country.

“It’s a compounding effect,” she said. “When you’re that stretched and people leave, who takes the cases? The people who are left, who are exhausted. It’s a really challenging situation to get out of.”

Franck Meyer said child welfare agencies have historically focused on taking kids from their families rather than investing in preventive services to help parents. In Florida and nationwide, the vast majority of kids end up in foster care not because of abuse but because of neglect due to substance abuse and mental health issues. 

Mandi Jo knew nothing of Eckerd’s turmoil. But the 34-year-old said her caseworkers seemed distracted and were unsupportive. 

At first, they praised Mandi Jo for sharing custody with her ex. Then, they argued she put her kids in danger by moving in with him, resulting in the boys being sent to foster care. Then, Mandi Jo said it took caseworkers weeks or months to sign off on her required domestic violence counseling and parenting classes. 

Mandi Jo in her yard.

Mandi Jo in her yard.
Bruce R. Bennett

Eckerd also moved her sons so often that she couldn’t keep up. Like the first foster child, Danny was often moved to a different foster home from one day to the next. In a month and a half, he changed homes 13 times, placement records show.

Mandi Jo hoped things would be different at Metzner’s home, where Danny landed in March 2019.

The foster father doted on the 6-year-old, lavishing him with new clothes, drones, tablets and scooters, family said. But “the more he talked, the more it seemed to me that he was obsessed with Daniel,” said Danny’s grandmother.

Over Facebook, Metzner wrote the family lengthy messages, sending them photos of the boy sitting on his lap and giving unsolicited advice about the family dynamics.

“Eckerd thinks it’s best for the two boys to be together,” Metzner wrote in one message shared with the USA TODAY Network by the family. “I don’t. … Brotherhood is overrated. I haven’t talked to my brother in 2 years.”

Suddenly, less than two weeks into his stay, Mandi Jo said her caseworker told her Danny was being moved again because of a “paperwork” issue. 

What the caseworker didn’t say was that there had been a second report.

The alleged victim was Danny.

‘Cascade of cruelty’

The reporter was Fleishauer, the nursing assistant.

The first week, she watched with growing alarm as Metzner drove around in his Mercedes-Benz with the boy on his lap and went camping with him in the backyard in a two-person tent.

The second week, Metzner took Danny to the beach, where they stayed overnight at a hotel, according to Fleishauer. The next day, the foster father told her the boy had been shy about taking a shower and tried to cover his privates, calling it “cute,” she said.

Fleishauer wrestled with whether to lodge a report.

The nursing assistant was concerned that investigators dismissed the first child’s allegations as implausible. And it disturbed her that Eckerd had treated Metzner allegedly sleeping in the boy’s bed so casually.

Fleischauer also worried that if she made a report but wasn’t believed, she could lose her job – and the ability to keep an eye on the boy and Metzner’s nonverbal son.

Rita Fleishauer, seen here on Nov. 21, 2019, in Clearwater, reported her concerns about former foster father Robert Metzner to authorities.

Rita Fleishauer, seen here on Nov. 21, 2019, in Clearwater, reported her concerns about former foster father Robert Metzner to authorities.
Thomas Cordy/Palm Beach Post

Then, on April 1, after an argument with Metzner, one of the aides vented in a text to Fleishauer that he had seen the foster father molesting not just Danny but also the previous foster boy.

Fleishauer called the hotline.

This time, investigators talked to the caretakers, she said. But once again, both police and DCF’s child abuse investigators concluded there was no evidence to support the accusations.

Days later, Metzner fired Fleishauer.

Child abuse investigators are required by law to interview parents of alleged victims when investigating foster parents. But Mandi Jo, living 20 miles away in Palm Harbor, said she was never contacted.

Even if it were not a legal requirement, Russell, the Washington child protection expert, said parents have a right to know about alleged abuse involving their children. 

Sex abuse can affect a child’s mental health, physical health, relationships, education and career outcomes for years to come if they are not believed and given appropriate support, Russell said. Their behavior can be interpreted as aggressive or manipulative when they are actually acting out trauma responses.

Child sex abuse victims are also at greater risk of being revictimized, and less likely to report future abuse. 

Vieth pointed out that youth organizations like the Boy Scouts and USA Swimming have cracked down on sexual misconduct in recent years, becoming far more likely to cut off a coach or leader once accused. 

“A child in foster care is about as high a risk to be abused as any child in the nation,” Vieth said. “So it raises a good question: How many chances do you want to take with children in foster care? I would argue that you want to take as little chance as possible.”

Richard Wexler, National Coalition for Child Protection Reform Executive Director
The agency’s failure set off this whole cascade of cruelty and pain.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, questioned whether DCF and its contracted lead agencies can objectively investigate abuse allegations against the very foster parents they approved, especially given the severe foster home shortage in Florida.

“The agency’s failure set off this whole cascade of cruelty and pain,” said Wexler. “Clearly, they were vastly more interested in protecting themselves than protecting this child.”

In the 2000s, foster care officials were required to report every allegation of foster parent abuse to regional volunteer-led watchdog groups called Local Advocacy Councils.

The councils were empowered by the Legislature to advocate on behalf of vulnerable Floridians receiving state services, like children in foster homes or disabled people in adult day cares. The councils conducted hundreds of site visits and investigations per year, at one point even suing DCF for access to foster care records that it said the agency was withholding.

But the Legislature defunded the system in 2009 amid the Great Recession, saving $500,000.

Fighting back tears

Metzner’s story might have ended there.

But a week after she was fired, Fleishauer found a black thumb drive in her purse. She used them often at Metzner’s house while doing schoolwork, and she had spotted this one on the floor and scooped it into her bag, she said.

When the nurse plugged it into her computer, her stomach turned at the images that flashed before her eyes.

A forensic analysis of the thumb drive later confirmed 160 images of child pornography. A search warrant on Metzner’s home turned up a dozen more on a Toshiba hard drive with boys ranging in age from 12 to 14 engaging in sex acts with adults, sometimes appearing “in distress,” according to police affidavits.

Eckerd had made Metzner’s home “inactive” after the second abuse allegation. Now, they asked him to surrender his license.

None of the pornographic images featured boys in Metzner’s care. But Pinellas Park police investigated the foster father for a third time, according to a press release.

Robert Metzner in court

Robert Metzner in court

This time, Metzner’s statements corroborated the first foster boy’s allegations, police said. According to the arrest affidavit, a nursing assistant in the home also overheard the first foster child saying “no, no,” while in the bathroom with Metzner.

Metzner was arrested in May 2019.

But the news didn’t reach Mandi Jo, who was still struggling to finish her case plan with Eckerd and address Danny’s sexual behavior with his younger brother.

At an interview at her mother’s house in Palm Harbor, surrounded by boxes of paperwork and walls of old family photos, Mandi Jo buried her face in her hands as a reporter shared details of the allegations against Metzner. She then excused herself to cry in the backyard.

Her mother, Frani, fought back her own tears.

“I just cannot understand and believe that they did that,” the grandmother said. “DCF is the one who abused them.”

The family, which disputes whether the boys should have been taken from Mandi Jo in the first place, is now considering its legal options against Eckerd. 

Mandi Jo in her home workshop.

Mandi Jo in her home workshop.
Bruce R. Bennett, Palm Beach Post

Meanwhile, Eckerd has continued to struggle. In September 2019, the agency parted ways with one of its subcontractors, a nonprofit called Directions for Living, for poor performance in managing cases. The nonprofit, which was involved in Mandi Jo’s case, criticized Eckerd for making caseworkers undertake double or triple the number of appropriate cases.

“Despite repeated requests for more funding, oversight, advocacy and support, the child welfare system remains in crisis,” CEO April Lott told reporters.

Six months later, DCF worked with lawmakers to introduce an “accountability” bill that singled out Eckerd for substandard performance, including rising rates of abuse in foster care. Lawmakers voted to give the agency two years to show improvement, setting aside $8.3 million to fund the program.

Meanwhile, Metzner has been out on bond for more than a year.

Prosecutors, citing a lack of evidence, dropped the molestation charges against the former foster father, leaving only the 18 counts of child pornography. If Metzner is convicted, he faces a potential sentence of 15 years for each image and possible deportation.

Metzner’s trial has been delayed because of COVID-19. His lawyer, David Parry, declined to comment on behalf of Metzner. 

Fleishauer makes it a point to attend the pre-trial hearings whenever she can.

“Bob never should have gotten a kid,” she said. “And he never, ever should have gotten a second one.”

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