It’s vitally important. We owe it to those children.
USA TODAY used a database of more than a million child placements obtained from researchers at the University of Miami to identify the families of foster children across the state sent to foster parents who have been accused of abuse.
More than 600 children spent time in those homes, the placement data shows. But most of their parents and caretakers do not know it.
Across Florida, dozens of parents, guardians and adoptive kin were stunned to learn that their children had passed through the homes of rapists and child beaters. Some suspected for years that their loved ones had been abused in foster care, but they could not get help or treatment.
One mother had no clue DCF removed her son from a Clearwater foster home over his complaints of molestation – and that the foster father is now facing criminal charges of possessing child pornography.
A grandmother in Cape Coral was unaware her grandson lived in a home where foster parents are accused of locking at least three children in dark closets, beating them with baseball bats and burning their hands on the stove because “the Bible told them to.”
An adoptive mother in North Port feared for years that her daughter had been sexually abused. During bath time, the mother said the toddler would cover her privates, and scream “please, Mommy, no.” Florida officials who arranged her adoption never told the woman her daughter had lived with a foster parent who hung himself amid his criminal trial on molestation charges related to another child in his care.
“If you have these cases where there has been sex abuse and then another 70 kids have gone through that home, I would certainly want to at least have some sort of conversation with those kids,” said Thomas Dikel, a Gainesville pediatric neuropsychologist and expert witness in foster abuse cases. “I would expect there are going to be more victims. Nobody wants to find that, but if it’s there, the children need us to know about it, to stop it before any more children are hurt.”
After USA TODAY began asking questions about these protocols, DCF formed a task force with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review them along with other rules guiding foster abuse investigations. The group acknowledged that there was no policy to seek out information from foster children who previously lived in the home. The only requirement was to review exit surveys.
In October 2019, the task force recommended amending state operating procedures to ensure it becomes mandatory that investigators seek information directly from children who have previously lived in the foster home. Officials also recommended new training for these forensic interviews.
“We are acutely aware that there have been individuals who have failed to fulfill their parental duties – or worse, mistreated and abused the children in their care,” agency spokeswoman DaMonica Smith wrote in an email statement. “To be clear, this is unacceptable, and it has not, nor will it ever be, tolerated by DCF or any of the agencies that we entrust to provide critical child welfare services.”
Rick and Shirley Hazel were considered model foster parents.
They took in children of all ages and races, including kids with autism, and adopted three of them. They were active at church and the foster parent association, meeting with biological parents on nights and weekends to make visits easier.
“Wonderful human beings, blessed, doing God’s work,” one social worker commented in their file.
“One of the very best places a child could be,” wrote another.
As they gained a rapport with workers in the system, St. Johns County sent the Hazels more and more kids, even when their home reached – and surpassed – the state-mandated capacity of five total children.
Their biological daughters shared a room with two foster children, who slept on bunk beds. Another room had a crib and two toddler beds. Two more twin beds were squeezed into a third room, and with at least seven children in the home at some times, at least one child slept with the foster parents in their master bedroom.
The stream of kids finally ended in 2019, when a 13-year-old told detectives that her foster-turned-adoptive father had “raped me like I was his wife.”
The girl came forward in June 2019 at the Wilds Christian Camp in North Carolina. She said Hazel had raped her since she was 5. In later years, he directed her to masturbate, then recorded it with his iPhone. Police found a secret video camera he installed in the bathroom to spy on her in the shower.
No claims were made against Shirley Hazel and she was not charged. The girl told deputies she did not know if Hazel had done anything similar to her foster and adoptive siblings.
Hazel eventually confessed to the crimes, blaming it on the victim, according to arrest records. In November, he pleaded no contest as part of an agreement to serve 25 years in state prison.
“I’m sorry for what happened, but it wasn’t all me, honey,” Hazel said during a recorded phone call to his wife from jail. “It happened at nights when you left … and she came to my room and pushed herself all over me. It just went on from there, and I lost control.”
Records from his foster file show Rick Hazel has a history of arrests and he and his wife faced at least two previous allegations of abusing children. Details of those allegations were not released.
The Hazels had a report of abuse in nearby Baker County in October 1996, years before becoming foster parents. It’s unclear if the allegations were founded. Neither the local lead agency nor DCF released any details of the incident despite multiple public records requests.
Another person filed an abuse report against Shirley Hazel in 2004, but the case was closed with no indicators of harm, according to caseworker notes. No other details were available.
Rick Hazel struggled with habitual drinking and driving. He was booked for a series of DUIs in the late 1970s and 1980s. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office arrested him for felony drug possession in 1980, and picked him up on marijuana charges in 1982. Deputies also charged him with disorderly intoxication in the 1990s following a drunken brawl with a neighbor, who said Hazel was having an affair with his wife.
Hazel was convicted or entered a plea with regard to all the charges against him, except one of the marijuana charges, which was dropped. The cases were too old to disqualify someone from becoming a foster parent in Florida. But experts say the patterns offer a window into the family’s troubles.
As part of the foster approval process, a counselor did not speak to any of the neighbors during a home visit because the “area where they live is very marginal” and she would “prefer not to associate with neighbors or attempt to have them complete forms,” licensing paperwork shows.
“They need to be able to recognize some of the warning signs,” said Ken Lanning, who retired from the FBI after a career of specializing in child sex abuse. “If something seems too good to be true, maybe it is, and we have to investigate why this person has so many children. You cannot look at this through the peephole – you need to open the door and look at the big picture.”
After first agreeing to an interview, St. Johns County spokesman Michael Ryan reversed course, releasing a written statement instead. The County Commission and its staff oversee the foster parent program.
“The background records in the possession of St. Johns County would not have disqualified him from licensure as a foster parent,” St. Johns County spokesman Michael Ryan wrote in an email. “With respect to the children who previously lived with the Hazels, St. Johns County was informed that an investigation was being conducted by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and DCF to determine whether any other children might have been abused.”
Of the 73 foster children who passed through Hazel’s home, USA TODAY reached family members of nearly a dozen. Each said they first learned of their children’s placements there through conversations with journalists.
Adoptive parents can request a child’s full file before they sign on to take a kid. But biological family members – to protect foster families against possible retaliation – are not always told which foster homes their children are placed with. Similar confidentiality issues can muddy whether a guardian is contacted during abuse investigations, said Rich Filson, a Sarasota attorney who specializes in cases of abuse in state care.
When a foster parent is arrested for suspected abuse, all of these families need to be informed, but that rarely happens, he said. Filson pointed to prosecutors and law enforcement, saying they typically investigate only until they have enough evidence for a conviction. Sometimes that means going back to comb for more victims, but more often not.
“Some of these homes where horrible things happened, and a lot of kids passed through,” he said. “Common sense says that other bad things happened to children, but you are never going to know who they are.”