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Florida agency defends its work after children found in canal

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: Brown "deserved a chance to have her children back," a state official said
  • NEW: "The Felicia we knew would have died to protect these children," lawyer says
  • Brown's children were found dead in a canal in early March
  • Her body was identified after her children were found dead

(CNN) -- Child welfare officials Tuesday defended their involvement with the family of a woman whose two children were found dead in a south Florida canal, saying Felicia Brown "deserved a chance to have her children back."

The state Department of Children and Families had worked to reunite Brown with her children after Brown -- a "child victim" in previous investigations herself -- completed a drug-treatment program and "established a suitable home for her children," Perry Borman, the regional director of Florida's Department of Children and Families, told reporters Tuesday.

"Felicia Brown had demonstrated that she deserved a chance to have her children back, and that's a decision we support," Borman said.

The bodies of 10-year-old Jermaine McNeil and 6-year-old Ju'Tyra Allen were found stuffed into luggage and floating in a Delray Beach canal in early March. The discovery led police to identify the body of Brown, which had turned up in a landfill in August. She had never been reported missing.

"The Felicia we knew would have died to protect these children," Walsh said.

Brown was 15 when she gave birth to Jermaine, and both were listed as victims in "a series of investigations" in the year after his March 2000 birth, the agency said Tuesday. Both were placed in foster care, it said.

The Department of Children and Families workers investigated 10 reports of abuse, neglect or abandonment involving Brown's children, the last of which was in June 2005. A second child was put up for adoption. But with Ju'Tyra, her third child, "You saw her grow up and you saw her become responsible," Walsh said.

Caseworkers monitored the family for nine months before full custody of her son was returned to Brown in November 2008, said Judith Karim, head of Child and Family Connections in Palm Beach, a DCF contractor. In addition, Brown ended up with custody of a younger brother, who was the first member of family to graduate from high school.

Brown's ex-boyfriend, Clem Beauchamp, has been taken into federal custody on charges unrelated to the killings and has not been charged in any of the deaths. Three other children who lived in the same home as Brown and Beauchamp were taken into state custody after Beauchamp's arrest, police said.

Jennifer Gardner, who represented Jermaine's interests during the process, said Brown was living with a different man with no criminal background and was in a "stable relationship" at the time her children were returned.

Tuesday's report by Borman and other officials came as the department found itself under scrutiny in a separate case, in which 10-year-old twins were found last month in a pest control truck on the side of a West Palm Beach freeway. The girl was dead; her brother suffered severe burns.

Days before the twins were found, the Department of Children and Families received tips alleging poor treatment of children at their Miami-area home. The twins' adoptive parents -- Carmen Barahona, 60, and Jorge Barahona, 43 -- have been charged with first-degree murder in the girl's death, as well as seven counts each of aggravated child abuse and child neglect.

But Walsh defended the department's actions in the Brown case.

"This is a separate and distinct matter, and it needs to be critically looked at," Walsh said. "But we'd really appreciate it if it could not get caught in the wake of that disastrous tragedy in Miami."

The agency underwent an extensive overhaul after a 2002 scandal surrounding 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, who was lost while in the department's care and whose whereabouts are still unknown. The case triggered a lengthy investigation, which found that the girl's caseworker repeatedly vouched for her safety despite failing to make required visits to check on her.

The head of the department was replaced a few months after the findings came out, and more than 140 child welfare workers across the state were fired for various reasons, including failure to visit children in their care.

CNN's Vivian Kuo contributed to this report.