Brandon and Thomas Feinsod live near Orlando, Florida with their two sons Gio aged 11, and Benny aged 9; biological half-brothers who joined their family five years ago through adoption.
Almost two years ago, the couple found out their sons had a 14-month-old brother, who was also in need of a foster home. So they immediately started the process of trying to bring the baby into their family too, where he could reunite with his brothers. And for a short time, that seemed to be the plan.
Unfortunately, the couple say the entire case was badly mishandled by both state and private agencies, which eventually led to the baby being adopted into another family without his brothers.
Brandon and Thomas have now filed complaints against the individuals from the two adoption agencies involved, and they’re claiming the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) broke state law when it failed to make “reasonable efforts” to place their son’s biological sibling with them.
“Our children are genuinely grieving,” Brandon said. “Their grades have fallen, they have been stealing from us and fighting and crying at dinner. It's awful, and people need to be held accountable for the year and a half of negligence that let this happen.”
Alleged "Failure Of The State" By Child Protective Investigator
On August 23rd 2019, the Feinsods discovered that Gio and Benny’s birth mother had another baby who had recently been removed from her home. Through a social worker-friend of theirs, they learned that the baby was being sheltered with another foster care family, and not with them and his brothers.
In accordance with Chapter 39 of Florida’s state law, the DCF should have then made “all reasonable efforts to keep siblings together if they are removed and placed in out-of-home care, unless such placement is not in the best interest of each child.”
But from the very beginning, Brandon said their sons’ brother’s case was mishandled, causing the child to be placed in a foster care home where he was eventually adopted outside of his siblings.
According to Feinsod’s complaint filed with the Office of the Inspector General last week, it started with the person who removed the baby from his birth mother, DCF Child Protective Investigator Skylar Saunders. The complaint says Saunders failed to meet his responsibility to review the birth mother’s history to see if the baby had any other siblings who had been in the foster care system.
“He did not do that,” Brandon said. “He was actually surprised to hear from me when I finally tracked him down the next day.”
The complaint also says over the following weeks that Saunders never responded to several of the Feinsods’ texts asking for the child’s case manager’s contact information. More than two weeks later, Brandon had resorted to tracking down Devereux, the state-contracted private nonprofit case management agency, himself.
“That first point was a failure on behalf of the state,” Brandon said. “They were required to try and contact us and try and see if we’re interested in placement. Instead, they placed the child in a stranger's house with no siblings.”
Alleged Missteps By Devereux, Children's Home Society Employees
Once Brandon identified Crystal Samuels as case supervisor at Devereux, he called to confirm they were interested in the baby’s placement, and that they had already adopted his two biological brothers.
Over the following weeks, they said Samuels canceled multiple appointments for home visits and fingerprints that would’ve gotten the ball rolling. At the end of September, Samuels informed the couple that the baby’s case manager would be changing. However, the couple says over the next month, Samuels did not respond to the majority of their texts asking to be connected to the new case manager. When they did finally hear from her again, it was not the news they were expecting.
“On November 5th, I texted [Samuels] asking her to please call, as we have heard nothing for weeks,” Brandon said. “She replies that she has been out of the office due to vacation, followed by a bout of bronchitis. She also states that the case has been transferred to another organization, the Children’s Home Society, while she was away, and that she will locate contact information and get back to us. She never gets back to us, and now we have nobody to reach out to.”
Several months went by, and Brandon and Thomas said their attempts to contact CHS had been “fruitless.” So, when their social worker-friend got back in touch with them to see how it was all going in April, Brandon explained what had happened, and she said she would look into what was going on.
That’s when the couple learned that, two months prior, amid the silence from CHS, the baby had been moved to a third foster home. Frustrated, Brandon quickly made calls to CHS, and was introduced to the baby’s new case manager, Bertha Smith.
Smith told them about another major misstep in the handling of the case; nobody could find their file from the original home study with Devereux. It appeared it was lost when the case was handed over between the agencies. So in May, nine months after they had first contacted the DCF about the baby, the couple essentially started from scratch, resubmitting all their files, forms, and fingerprints again.
“It was tough,” Brandon said. “The idea that we had to fight for something, according to everything we’d been told previously, that should've naturally happened, it was daunting.”
According to the complaint filed with the state Inspector General, Samuels’ loss of the file caused the Feinsods to have “zero contact with DCF, forced a second home study, second fingerprinting, and allowed the minor dependent child to be placed in a home where he was, eventually, adopted by a separate family without his siblings.”
It took until mid-July 2020 for the couple to finish their second round of documentation and background checks. Then, Brandon texted Smith to ask for an update on the baby’s case.
Smith called them back to let them know they’d hit another bump in the road; the birth mother wanted to go to court to contest the baby’s change of placement to their home, although she did not yet know why. They were told to expect a court hearing.
According to the complaint, Smith lied and misused her position by attempting to interpret the law and act as a lawyer in giving the Feinsods legal advice on how she projected the hearings would go.
Upset by the news, the couple then had to wait until November to finally be notified of the next court hearing. Brandon said they later learned the reason the hearing took so long to schedule was because the baby’s case had been handed off to three DCF attorneys after the first two left the agency one after the other.
“[At the hearing in November,] the birth mother said she was contesting placement because we had not been in contact with her at all and because the baby doesn't know our children,” Brandon said. “But the magistrate ordered a transition plan. Supervised visits, two weeks unsupervised, then weekend overnights.”
Although it had been a rocky road up until that point, the family was excited to finally be given a chance to bring the baby into their lives. After several rescheduled dates, 10 days after the transition plan was ordered by the court, Brandon, Thomas, Gio, and Benny had their first supervised visit with the baby in late November 2020.
Alleged Failure Of DCF Attorney After Transition Plan Was Ordered
“We all fell in love with him hard and fast,” Thomas said. “We literally built an extra room in our house for him, and did the whole nursery deal.”
Over the following few weeks, the boys bonded closely with their 2-year-old brother, and the Feinsods started preparing to bring him into their home for good. Sadly, the night before the court hearing to finalize the baby’s transition plan to Brandon and Thomas’ home, they got another heartbreaking call from Smith. The birth mother would be surrendering her parental rights to the foster family.
“She said the birth mother and the foster mother have conspired to hire a private adoption agency, and that the birth mother is surrendering her rights to the agency so the foster mother can adopt him, and the attorney for DCF is not going to challenge it,” Brandon said. “And they didn't. At the hearing the next day, we were nobody. We had no rights, we weren't even parties to the case. All of a sudden, we were being left with nothing.”
The couples’ lawsuit claims DCF attorney Rizpah Butler-Brannon failed to make any motions that would have attempted to place the baby with his siblings.
“The DCF attorney, in this matter, had an obligation to Object to motion to intervene for the minor child, as DCF knew the minor child has siblings. DCF also knew that the adoptive parents for the minor child's siblings were interested in fostering the dependent minor child,” the complaint says.
They were at a loss. Unsure what to do next, Brandon tracked down the birth mother’s cell phone number, and for the first time ever, he texted her. He asked her to reconsider surrendering her rights to the foster family before the hearing the next day.
That night, Thomas and Brandon sat down with their oldest son and told him everything, including what they knew of his background and the current situation with the baby.
“The birth mother and I even texted prior to the hearing,” Brandon said. “We told her we have shared everything with our oldest son, and we are open to communication with him regardless of her decision. She was grateful but unwilling to change her mind.”
The day after the devastating court hearing, Brandon said he accidentally called the attorney for the private adoption agency while he was seeking representation of their own.
“The conversation that ensued quickly became hostile as she attempted to aggressively convince us that the foster family's adoption is unavoidable, and our only option is to work towards a positive relationship with the foster family since visitation is not guaranteed,” he said. “Thomas got very heated and told her that she needs to tell her client we are getting a lawyer of our own.”
Although disheartened, they kept trying. The couple hand-wrote a 5-page letter to the foster parents and put it in the baby's suitcase on one of their remaining visits, including photos of them and their children.
“We were describing who we are, and why we are so dedicated to the baby, and asking that we connect and get to know each other,” Thomas said. “They never replied.”
After the baby’s case was being moved out of Smith’s hands, the Feinsods said Smith inaccurately conveyed case plan information related to the birth mother, which the DCF attorney later gave opposite renditions of in court.
The complaint claims Smith’s inaccurately-conveyed information led the birth mother, the potential foster parents, and the Feinsods to believe that the case plan was “close or near completion and that the mother had been forced or coerced into giving up her parental rights by an adoption agency.”
“So we called the birth mother to let her know that Bertha from CHS shared that she was close to reunification and that she was supposed to already be aware,” Brandon said. “The birth mother starts crying and says she was not aware, and that her legal aid attorney advised her to surrender her rights and said that the state would make sure she would not be allowed to see her fiance's children if her rights were terminated.”
Although they believe it is too late for the baby to ever join their home, the couple says they can try to change the law for other families in the future. According to News6, the Feinsods want social workers in Florida to be required to prove to judges that sibling groups have been contacted before adoptions are finalized.
“We want to sue the state, the two agencies they worked through, we're filing formal complaints and planning to lobby the state,” Thomas said. “But it is probably too late for us to bring this boy into our home. It’s awful.”
Whatever the outcome of their case, the couple said they want to bring awareness to the state-level mishandling of foster and adoption cases like theirs.
GaysWithKids has reached out to Devereux for comment.