Children and Families hit with $6.4 million verdict
A circuit court jury in Hillsborough County has awarded a $6.45 million judgment against the Florida Department of Children and Families to the families of two children who were treated by an improperly licensed counselor and convicted felon.
The verdict Tuesday found that the long-troubled department failed to properly investigate Robert Taylor, who provided substance abuse and other counseling to minors despite not having a license to treat them.
Taylor was sentenced to 130 years in prison in 2000.
One of the children, Gregory Chapman, hanged himself May 31, 1998.
"The only protection (the victims) had was DCF doing its job, and they didn't do it," said Joe Magri of the Merkle and Magri law firm, who tried the case. "The verdict hopefully sends a strong message by the jury that DCF needs to be responsible." The verdict can be appealed, but a decision has not yet been made.
DCF leadership had not seen the verdict as of Wednesday because they were attending meetings in South Florida, said Al Zimmerman, the department's spokesman. "Within the next week," he said, "they plan to sit down and discuss the verdict."
According to Magri, the two children saw Taylor in 1997 and 1998. Chapman suffered from an attention-deficit disorder, while another girl who saw him had a substance abuse problem.
A couple years before, several of Taylor's former clients had accused him of defrauding them out of money. DCF is required to investigate such claims and do background checks and fingerprint counselors who have contact with unmarried minors.
According to Magri, DCF "claimed that it did all it could do when it asked Taylor if the complaints were true and he denied them." A background check would have revealed that Taylor had several felony convictions for fraud, including a adoption scam; had outstanding arrest warrants in Chicago; and had a consent degree entered against him by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation for the unauthorized practice of psychology.
DCF told Taylor that he needed to get a license to provide substance abuse treatment, and that he wouldn't need to go through a background check and fingerprinting to get a license to treat adults only.
Taylor provided the department with a fake Master's degree, which DCF failed to properly look into. Despite lacking the right license to treat minors, Taylor started seeing Chapman and the teenage girl, along with other minors.
According to the lawsuit against DCF, Taylor traumatized the children, pitting the girl against her parents while scaring minors such as Chapman into thinking they would be sent to a boot camp if they didn't "shape up" and stop causing trouble for their parents.