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DCF Investigator in Child's Death Lacked State Certification

UPDATE 7/3/2013 - On July 3rd, the Dept. of Children and Families issued a statement in response to CBS4's July 2nd report that investigator Shauni Smith was not certified.

"All of our Child Protective Investigators are in some level of certification, whether it's precertification, certification or recertification. Shani Smith had through June of 2013 to complete her certification. Ms. Smith was six hours away from completing her certification which would have been completed within the next few weeks.

"She had been working directly with a Field Support Supervisor assigned to her in order assist her in completing her requirements."

The statement went on to say:

"Certification is something DCF takes very seriously for our CPIs. The process begins the day the person is hired," said Pete Digre, Assistant Secretary for Operations at DCF. "I am confident that all of our CPIs get properly registered when hired and enter into a program to complete the required certification process to get certified within their first year. This is something that is tracked by a point person in each of our regional offices. I am aware of no exceptions to the rule."

MIAMI (CBS4) - After 11-month-old Bryan Osceola died in a sweltering hot car in May – accidentally left in the vehicle by his mother – state officials made their own startling discovery: The person responsible for ensuring the child's safety wasn't a certified investigator.

Shani Smith may have held the title of Child Protective Investigator within state's Department of Children and Families - but she hadn't received her certification from the state to do the work she was doing.

"We have searched our database and hard copy records and do not have any record of her applying for certification," wrote Amy Peloquin, Director of Certification for the Florida Certification Board.

She went on to write: "On the good side, she completed training and passed the written test. On the bad side, she has been on the job for well over 2 years without earning any kind of certification."

The May 28 emails were first obtained by The Miami Herald.

How serious was this? Peloquin noted: "If someone wanted to make an issue of this they could since the law regarding certification and caseload carrying responsibilities has been broken."

As noted in the emails, Smith was in the process of obtaining her certification – which is allowed when you first start as a Child Protective Investigator. But she never completed the process. And she was still awaiting formal certification when she was first assigned to the responsibility of reviewing the care being provided to Bryan Osceola.

The child's parents, Catalina Bruno and Amos Osceola, were twice investigated by DCF and Smith.

The first instance was in July 2012, when Amos Osceola was arrested for domestic violence after allegedly attacking Bruno in front of her three children.

Four months later, Smith was dispatched to investigate another incident. This time Bryan Osceola had been found lying on the front seat of Catalina Bruno's Chevy Impala, while she was "passed out" drunk behind the wheel. Bruno was charged with drunken driving and child neglect. Smith closed her investigation of that incident after she claimed an outside agency decided Bruno was not in need of drug or alcohol counseling.

Bryan Osceola then died on May 16 after roasting inside his mother's car. The child's body temperature soared to 109 degrees.

Since the child's death, the focus of the investigation has remained on Shani Smith and her actions.

The May 28 emails suggest state officials may have tried to look for ways to hide Smith's lack of certification – by somehow rushing it through. "I've just been around the department long enough to see some of the strangest things become key issues," Peloquin wrote DCF's training chief. "I'd like to work with you to address the certification issues in this case. Please let me know your thoughts and how we can/you wish to proceed."

Two days later, on May 30, DCF announced they were going to begin termination proceedings against Smith, accusing her of falsifying reports and records. They claim she never sought an outside review of Catalina Bruno after the November drunk driving incident. Smith maintains she did and that DCF lost the report. Nevertheless, she resigned.

The issue of whether Shani Smith received the necessary training was something CBS4 News discussed with her when she appeared on Facing South Florida on June 2.

"You don't have time to go downtown and sit in six hour training," she told CBS4's Jim DeFede. "So you do what you have to do - your cases."

In June DCF had sent CBS4 News a list of training sessions DCF claimed Smith attended.

After reviewing the list herself, Smith told CBS4 News she didn't attend most of the sessions on that list. "I did some training, we did have training, but nowhere near that [list]," she explained.

A DCF spokeswoman said they were still reviewing files, but said Smith was only six hours of field supervised training from getting her certification.

In a statement, Smith's attorney, David Kubiliun, wrote: "DCF was aware that my client had not received her certification up to the time of her resignation. Miss Smith attempted numerous times to find out the status of her certification both in person and via email to her supervisors."

And he claimed she wasn't alone, saying supervisors rushed through certifications for other investigators in Smith's office because they were afraid they would also be discovered

Wrote Kubiliun: "This is another example of the incompetence and lack of professionalism DCF exhibits."

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