Inside his double-wide trailer off a swampy north Florida road, longtime foster father Rick Hazel repeatedly raped a child in his care, taking videos of the molestation and hiding a camera in the bathroom to watch her shower.
Unaware of the abuse, caseworkers continued to pack the mobile home beyond capacity with children. For seven years, foster kids came and went, at times living in such cramped quarters that at least one child slept with Hazel and his wife in the master bedroom.
When deputies arrested him in 2019, the Hazels were the longest-tenured foster parents in St. Augustine. More than 70 kids had passed through their home. In addition to the rape victim, the family members of two other foster children came forward with concerns of abuse or neglect.
But following Hazel’s arrest, no one – not caseworkers, not child abuse investigators, not law enforcement – talked to all of the other children who had lived in the home to see if they had seen or suffered abuse.
Those children were all adopted or moved on to new homes. Until contacted by reporters, the adults in their lives had no idea they had spent time with a man who ultimately was convicted of child sex abuse.
Six years ago, Florida officials announced sweeping changes to the state’s foster care system and declared that the Department of Children and Families would put child safety and welfare first. Then-Gov. Rick Scott said the changes made Florida a leader in the nation when it came to caring for foster kids.
But a USA TODAY investigation showed Florida lagged behind other states when it comes to identifying and offering assistance to children who were placed with foster parents accused of sexual and physical abuse – at least until it started reviewing its policies over the last few months.
More than two dozen experts in child protection told USA TODAY reporters that it is critical for foster care agencies and government regulators to interview children who have lived with a known abuser. Not doing so leaves victims of abuse unidentified and prevents them from getting victims’ compensation, counseling and other critical services. That could put them at greater risk for becoming abusers themselves, the experts said.
A growing number of states, including those considered to be the best when it comes to protecting children, all said they conduct such interviews when a foster parent is convicted. Florida does not.
“You have to go back and interview the other kids who passed through that home,” said Nancy Buckner, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources, which oversees foster care. “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.
Investigators interview Hazel.
St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office
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.”
Before Penny Amos could adopt her two grandchildren, the boys had been shuffled through seven foster homes.
After spending three months under the Hazels’ care, the 4-year-old told his new foster parent that someone had been molesting him in the past. The child went to therapy for a year. He is withdrawn, acts out in school and struggles to show compassion.
Yet Amos said she was never contacted about the time her boys spent with the Hazels.
“That makes me sick,” she said. “You think they would have called me to let me know that my grandson was in his care. This is just so negligent. … They didn’t reach out, knowing my grandson was talking about sexual assault the whole time.”
The first few nights after Tammy Voyles Shirley got her grandson back from foster care, the 3-year-old would scream and howl for hours.
Tammy Shirley remembers seeing the clip of Hazel’s arrest in the local newspaper. She had no idea the grandchild she adopted had lived with him until USA TODAY journalists used state records and data to piece together the placement.
“I don’t know what happened, I just know he wasn’t right when I got him back,” Tammy Shirley said. “Usually people who do this sort of thing have done it before. There’s a pattern. How many other kids has he done this to?”
His older half-brother went to a different foster home – a loving family, Tammy Shirley said. He returned with no signs of trauma. But in Hazel’s house, her other grandson seemed to regress, especially with potty training and behavior at day care. He was thin, sick with a cough and lacked medical attention, she said.
Tammy Shirley says she complained about his condition to caseworkers in St. Johns County immediately after coming from the Hazels. But she said the state did nothing.
“He had nightmares,” Tammy Shirley said. “He didn’t want to go anywhere with anyone. I could not leave him alone. I told them something was not right.”
Without contacting families and combing for more victims, the state has no handle on the true scope of physical and sexual abuse in foster care.
Andrew Caswell, a former child protective investigator in Gainesville, said it was standard practice to talk to all children currently living in the home of a suspected abuser. But he said it was not required to go back to other kids who previously lived there.
Had state investigators interviewed the more than 600 children who passed through the homes of abusive foster parents identified by USA TODAY, experts say, abuse and neglect numbers certainly would be higher.
“It should be standard,” Caswell said.
DCF estimates 700 to 800 kids have been abused in out-of-home care each year since 2015. Because the number of foster care placements has been increasing, the rate of abuse appears to be declining.
But those statistics only count the complaints that are fully verified. Every year, thousands of additional abuse cases are classified as partially verified or inconclusive.
DCF’s calculations come amid a sharp increase in hotline calls about abuse and neglect in institutional settings, which include foster homes, group homes, day care centers, schools and hospitals. Such calls spiked 45% from 11,500 in 2013 to nearly 17,000 by 2018, according to DCF records.
DCF could not say how many calls involved foster homes because its system does not capture that data, an agency spokeswoman said.
Other states, including Delaware, Illinois, Missouri and Texas, can provide such breakdowns.
Experts say not going back to these families perpetuates a vicious cycle for generations to come.
“The rate of abuse in foster care is much worse than official statistics suggest,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “That’s because official statistics are just agencies investigating themselves. The problem is compounded when you have an artificial shortage of foster homes.
“The more children you have – and with not a lot of places to put them – you have an enormous incentive to hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file,” he said. “Agencies have a tremendous incentive to turn a blind eye.”
Child molesters use the relationships forged through their positions – as teachers, pastors, mentors, foster parents – to trap children into sexual encounters.
And if they do it once, they frequently don’t stop.
More than two dozen experts interviewed by USA TODAY said that’s why it’s vital to go back and interview all of the children who’ve passed through these homes.
No amount of screening by foster care agencies can guarantee sexual predators won’t slip through. So once an abuse allegation surfaces, it’s imperative to talk to as many people as possible and take what the children say seriously, said Lisa Cohen, professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. She was among those stunned to learn the families of foster children placed with convicted abusers were not always contacted.
“The person has a disorder,” Cohen said. “The institution has no excuse.”
The experts interviewed by USA TODAY said it’s critical for parents whose kids were exposed to abuse to know what happened so that they can provide mental health counseling and have a chance to head off lifelong ramifications. People abused as children are more likely to experience depression and drug abuse and to molest their own kids.
These families “definitely need to know,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO at CHILD USA, a Philadelphia think tank focused on preventing child abuse and neglect. “These children can be traumatized in ways that are hard for them to articulate. Why are they scared of the color blue? They adopt behaviors of adjustment that are very hard to explain. If you don’t understand what happened, it will be hard to help them.”
Following reporting by the USA TODAY Network on a prolific Sarasota County foster father accused of molestation, a task force of child abuse investigators, law enforcement officials and agency subcontractors agreed Florida was not doing enough. The group recommended the state bolster its procedures for handling sex abuse cases. That includes creating a new requirement that investigators must seek information directly from children who have previously lived in the foster home.
Reporters checked to see if there were any similar policies at several other child welfare agencies cited as the best by national experts, including Alabama, Michigan, Maine, Nebraska, Maryland and New York City.
Those states stressed the importance of these interviews and insist that they talk to the children who’ve passed through abusive foster homes. But most did not have written policies to interview each and every one of them. Many stopped short of saying they always interview every child.
In Michigan, investigators are bound by legislative and policy requirements to interview every alleged victim within 72 hours. Child protective service workers have the ability to interview other children – who could be potential witnesses or victims – with permission from caregivers. But the agency also said that it only did this when necessary and noted that the state only has the legal authority to interview children when an allegation has been made.
Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services coordinates with law enforcement when such allegations arise, including reviewing the alleged perpetrator’s history to determine if any children previously placed into their care should be interviewed.
In New York City – one of the largest child welfare systems in the country – the agency’s office of special investigations will speak with children, parents, foster parents and other people who may have information about the case, which may include interviews with former children placed in the home.
“It’s criminal,” said Mary Anderst, who was never contacted when her grandson was sent to live in a Cape Coral foster home where kids were allegedly brutalized and forced to live in squalor. “There are families in therapy trying to figure things out, and the state knew all along. How is that possible? The fact that DCF never contacted me is beyond me … It’s kind of like the Catholic Church or Boy Scouts of America. It’s horrible.”