MIAMI – Top Florida officials say they treated the politically charged custody fight over a young Cuban girl like any other case, but documents obtained by The Associated Press show they took extraordinary steps to stop the youngster's father from taking her back to the communist island.
E-mails obtained from the state through an open-records request and other documents show that the Department of Children & Families spent more than $250,000 and accepted many hours of free legal assistance in its unsuccessful effort to have a wealthy Cuban-American couple, former sports agent Joe Cubas and his wife, become the permanent guardians for Rafael Izquierdo's 5-year-old daughter.
Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and aides to his successor, Charlie Crist, were kept apprised of developments, the documents show.
The state also tried unsuccessfully to keep the case secret, apparently to avoid the kind of furor that surrounded Elian Gonzalez in 1999 and 2000, according to the documents.
The state's stance runs counter to federal and state policies that say families should be kept intact whenever possible, no matter where they live. Children from other poor countries in Latin America, such as Guatemala, are regularly sent back to their home countries by DCF.
Many members of Miami's highly influential Cuban exile community oppose sending children back to the island while Fidel Castro and the communists retain power.
In 2000, President Clinton used armed federal agents to take 5-year-old Elian from a Miami uncle's home and send him back to his father in Cuba. The political fallout may well have cost Vice President Al Gore the White House, since he lost Florida by 537 votes to George W. Bush later that year.
Immigration attorney Ira Kurzban, who represented Izquierdo, said he believes decisions in the case were made out of the state capital from the beginning "to pander to the right-wing elements in the Cuban community."
DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth declined to comment for this story, but spokeswoman Flora Beal said the department was happy "that we were able to come to a mutually agreeable settlement in the case."
The saga began in 2005 after the girl's mother won a visa to leave Cuba and bring her daughter and her son by another man to the United States. Izquierdo, a pig farmer in Cuba, had fathered the girl during a temporary separation from his common-law wife.
The girl's mother attempted suicide days before Christmas of that year and her children were taken into state custody. They were placed with the Cubases and, by all accounts, the couple doted on their charges.
The boy's father eventually let the Cubases adopt his son, but Izquierdo demanded that his daughter be returned to Cuba. State officials and the girl's state-contracted guardian did not want her to go back.
Attorneys gave a host of reasons, including that she would be rejected by her stepmother because she was the result of an affair. They also sought unsuccessfully to call experts to testify about Cuba's poor social services and medical care.
"They pulled out all the stops," said University of Miami child welfare expert Bernard Perlmutter.
According to a Dec. 29, 2006, e-mail written by an outside agency contracted to conduct the home study of Izquierdo in Cuba, the girl's independent guardian "appeared very biased in favor of keeping the child in the U.S. no matter what and indicated that she wished for a negative report."
Eventually, DCF argued in court that Izquierdo was an unfit parent who abandoned and neglected his daughter by spending little time with her in Cuba and then failed to contact her for nine months once she had moved to the U.S.
The documents show that the Cubases' lawyer, Alan Mishael, helped with the state's strategy, including persuading Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen to initially seal the case — a request that the girl's father also supported.
"This case has the potential to become very high profile very fast and we want to try to prevent that," Mishael said at a hearing. He added: "Nothing could be more injurious to these children than having them become another Elian."
Meanwhile, state attorneys ignored the judge's repeated warnings that their case was weak and took the case to trial. As early as April 2006, Cohen told state attorneys that in any other case, if they had a father like Izquierdo, they would not be trying to remove his child.
In September of this year, Cohen ruled in Izquierdo's favor, but the state appealed.
Last month, it dropped its appeal after Izquierdo promised to remain with the girl in the U.S. for the next three years and allow the Cubases visitation rights.
All told, the state spent the equivalent of eight DCF child caseworker salaries to fight Izquierdo and received hundreds more pro bono hours from half a dozen private attorneys.