FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – An angry judge grilled child welfare workers over why they missed opportunities to intervene just days before authorities found a 10-year-old boy doused with chemicals and his twin sister's decomposing body in their father's truck along a Florida highway.
A state worker first found the boy in the front seat of an exterminator's red pickup alongside the busy interstate, convulsing from seizures, dripping in chemicals so toxic they sickened rescue workers. Nearby, the boy's father lay on the ground, unresponsive and doused in gasoline in what he later told police was a futile attempt to kill himself.
Because the truck was too toxic to search, it was hours later Monday before officials found the deteriorating body of Victor's twin sister, Nubia, wrapped in plastic bags, wedged between chemical containers in the enclosed pickup bed.
Victor was in critical condition, his burns, mostly below the waist, getting worse and doctors unsure of what chemical was used. His father, Jorge Barahona, 53, was also in the hospital. He faces aggravated child abuse charges, but more charges were expected and he was scheduled for a hearing Thursday.
At a hearing Wednesday, Judge Cindy Lederman questioned why an anonymous abuse allegation about the twins that was called into a hotline Feb. 10 — four days before the children were found by the highway assistance — wasn't more thoroughly investigated.
The caller said the twins' feet and hands were bound with duct tape and they were kept in a bathtub as punishment. Child welfare officials also believe the girl was being starved. State officials described a disturbing picture of Jorge and Carmen Barahona, who adopted the twins, an 11-year-old autistic boy and a 7-year-old girl from foster care.
After the call, child protective investigator Andrea Fleary went to the home looking for the twins Friday night, but Carmen told them she was separated from her husband and didn't know where he or the twins were. Officials now believe she was covering for him.
"How could we have gotten a call to a hotline on Feb. 10 and a child died" a few days later, Lederman said at the hearing.
When asked why Fleary didn't interview the two other children in the house, she said it was 9 p.m. on a Friday night. The judge was furious with the answer.
Authorities haven't said how Nubia was killed or when they think the chemical was put on Victor.
Barahona told officers he put his dead daughter in the truck and began driving with his son, intending to commit suicide. He was distraught, gave his son a handful of sleeping pills and, with the boy's head in his lap, poured gasoline on himself, according to police documents.
He told police he intended to light himself on fire but said he could not do it because the boy was in the truck, according to the documents.
Barahona is remorseful but was not giving statements consistent with the evidence, said Capt. Maria Santos-Olsen of the West Palm Beach Police.
Fumes from the boy were so toxic, workers were overcome just by being close to him when they were wheeling him into the hospital. Four firefighters working the scene were also treated for chemical exposure.
The Department of Children and Families began investigating the family last week after the Barahona's 7-year-old granddaughter told an adult the twins were kept locked in the bathroom. The child said Nubia was sometimes kept in the tub all day.
A doctor who interviewed the little girl who reported the alleged abuse said she did so even though her grandmother told her they were "family secrets" and warned her to stay quiet.
Dr. Walter Lambert also said at a court hearing that Victor had "many, many scars." Doctors also found the boy had previously broken his collarbone and an arm.
Child welfare worker Fleary tried to interview one of the children when she went to the home, but Carmen Barahona became angry and made her stop, child welfare officials said after the hearing. The other adopted children have been placed in a foster home.
Carmen Barahona attended Wednesday's hearing with a piece of paper covering her face, crying and whispering at times. Her attorney Grissel Picot declined comment.
The Barahonas seemed like good foster parents on paper. Before the twins were adopted, one therapist wrote in a report that the children were thriving. Only a guardian Ad Litem expressed concern about the adoption and asked for an expert to review the case, but the adoption went through anyway, child welfare officials said.
Nubia also suffered from a medical condition where her genitals looked like a boy's. She had corrective surgery in July, Lambert said.
Child welfare officials said classmates teased Nubia mercilessly and her parents decided to home school her last fall.
It's unclear when she was last seen before her body was found Monday.
Neighbors said they didn't even realize children stayed at the home, a modest orange one story house with tropical landscape, including palm trees and a wrought-iron fence.
"I never saw these kids outside. No one knows anything about this family," said neighbor Gerardo Rodriguez, 72.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Kay contributed to this report in Miami and Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach.