The website features photographs and short biographies of children, some with special needs. Choices can be narrowed by gender, age, race and ethnicity.
Washington state turns to such sites, like the Washington Adoption Resource Exchange, to help find adoptive parents for children. The state’s goal is to keep the children near family and familiar surroundings, but if officials cannot find a suitable match, they consider homes out of state — even across the country in New York.
That is how Washington first found Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu, who lives in Ridge, N.Y., on Long Island. He reached out after seeing children online in 2009.
Gonzales-Mugaburu eventually took in three boys from Washington, two of whom he adopted. They were among more than 100 children he cared for during about 20 years, a vast majority of whom came from New York City.
Some states use such long-distance placement because their own systems are struggling to find a place for children with special needs. Advocates say such long-distance arrangements can be positive because they can help children find homes more quickly.
But Gonzales-Mugaburu, a foster parent trusted by so many social workers, is now in jail awaiting trial on charges of sexually abusing five of his adopted sons and endangering the welfare of two foster children.
Gonzales-Mugaburu’s arrest prompted questions about why it took so long for the alleged abuse to be revealed. But it also drew attention to the practice of sending foster children far from the communities they knew — in this case, nearly 3,000 miles — to find a home.
Some states use such long-distance placement because their own systems are struggling to find a place for children with special needs. Advocates say such long-distance arrangements can be positive because they can help children find homes more quickly. But effective oversight of even local foster care providers has proved difficult for many child welfare agencies nationwide; distance adds another obstacle.
Records obtained by The New York Times show that social workers in Washington were confused about the status of a 2014 investigation into abuse in Gonzales-Mugaburu’s home. At that time, they continued to guide Gonzales-Mugaburu in his efforts to adopt a third boy because they did not know details of the investigation.
“#1 Do you know anything about the investigation,” Amy Herring, a social worker in Washington, wrote in an email to Erin Coyle, who at the time was a director at SCO Family of Services, a nonprofit foster care agency in New York that monitored Gonzales-Mugaburu on behalf of Washington. “#2 Do you know when the adoption paperwork may be done by?”
Coyle “is no longer employed by the agency,” SCO said. Coyle did not respond to requests for comment through messages left by phone and sent via Facebook.
For his part, Gonzales-Mugaburu, who was licensed to run a therapeutic home for special needs children, continued to be paid. From September 2010 through January 2016, when he was arrested, he received nearly $145,000 from Washington for caring for children placed with him, in addition to money he received from New York City for caring for local foster children.
Gonzales-Mugaburu has pleaded innocent to charges of sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child. His lawyer, Donald Mates Jr., said the allegations were false.
A ‘good placement’
The first mention of Gonzales-Mugaburu’s name in Washington’s records was in late 2009, and it was positive. He was interested in adopting a boy listed on an adoption website.
Lori Whittaker, a social worker, wrote in a case file in December 2009 that the staff thought he would be a “good placement.” Also, Gonzales-Mugaburu had told them that none of the child’s special needs “scare me.”
(The children’s names, as well as confidential information, were redacted from files given to The Times.)
Soon after, on Feb. 3, 2010, another social worker, Veronica Mo, wrote something similar and said he had also asked about another child. Gonzales-Mugaburu traveled to Washington to meet one of the boys, according to the records. He soon took another child.
Gonzales-Mugaburu was a one-man operation used by several different agencies that considered his home a safe haven for boys who were developmentally or physically disabled or had severe behavioral problems.
That dependency proved blinding for those agencies, law enforcement officials have said.
Mates said that nothing was overlooked and that his client was innocent. During the past 20 years, Gonzales-Mugaburu was the subject of 30 to 40 complaints about abuse or other mistreatment of children, and the police or social services investigated them all, Mates said. “Each and every time that an investigation was done, no charges were brought,” he said.
Each and every time that an investigation was done, no charges were brought.
Donald Mates Jr., lawyer for Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu
And records suggested that the authorities at Washington’s child welfare agency were more directly involved in monitoring Gonzales-Mugaburu than New York City’s child welfare agency. Although New York’s agency sent more than 90 boys to him, it had outsourced oversight of Gonzales-Mugaburu to the nonprofit SCO Family of Services.
Through the years, there were several different agencies involved, like the boys’ schools, hospitals where they went for care and a residential treatment center called Little Flower in Suffolk County.
A developmentally disabled boy from Washington whom Gonzales-Mugaburu adopted left his direct supervision to live at Little Flower. There, in 2014, he told a psychotherapist about horrific abuses inside Gonzales-Mugaburu’s home on a quiet cul-de-sac. The therapist, Amy D’Antonio, alerted the authorities about the allegations, prompting an investigation by Suffolk County Child Protective Services.
D’Antonio helped the young man, who was 18 years old at the time, reconnect with his biological family in Washington. She said Gonzales-Mugaburu objected, once approaching her in the parking lot of the treatment center and telling her that the teenager did not have the mental capacity to make such a decision.
Gonzales-Mugaburu told her that the boy was a “compulsive and pathological liar,” said D’Antonio, who in March sued Little Flower, her former employer, saying the agency should have acted more quickly to prevent further abuse of children in his care. Little Flower has disputed the claims in her lawsuit and says it “fully supported” her efforts to contact the authorities.
Yet, while that investigation was under way, social workers in Washington were trying to place a third child with Gonzales-Mugaburu.
At the same time, Washington officials began to question why the state was paying Gonzales-Mugaburu for a child who was no longer in his direct care. Questioned, Gonzales-Mugaburu became indignant, according to entries that social workers placed in his case file. He told Herring that he resented being treated “like a crook and it hurts him.”
“He reported that it also angers him deeply. They make him feel ‘dirty and undervalued,’ ” the entries read.
Washington later found that Gonzales-Mugaburu had, in fact, been overpaid. But Gonzales-Mugaburu continued to complain. On Jan. 12 this year, Gonzales-Mugaburu told Herring that he felt “once again insulted” over the disputed payments, according to records.
But two days later, Gonzales-Mugaburu shifted the conversation.
He told Herring that he was under investigation. “He reported that two ‘troubled boys’ are causing problems for him, and he wanted to make sure that the SW was aware of what is going on,” she wrote, using shorthand for social worker.
At that point, one young man after another, including the 18-year-old adopted son from Washington, were coming forward with allegations of abuse.
Two boys, 11 and 13, told the authorities about sexual misconduct in the home. Unlike allegations by boys in the past, theirs were believed, mostly because the boys did not have severe disabilities or emotional problems, said Detective Lt. Robert Donohue, commander of Suffolk County’s special victims unit.
Looking for answers
Much of the blame for the failure to alert other agencies has been placed on SCO Family of Services in New York, which coordinated the placement of boys in Gonzales-Mugaburu home, with most coming from Long Island and the surrounding area. It has acknowledged that it could have taken more aggressive action after previous complaints.
“Internal and external reviews have concluded that SCO had no knowledge of sexual abuse or misconduct in this home,” the agency said. “Our review of this former foster parent, however, suggests that there were other issues with the home, and in retrospect and knowing what we know now, a decision to close the home should have been made earlier.”
I can’t believe they put him with someone like that. Look what I did to my son.
Mother of 18-year-old Washington boy
It was child welfare officials in Washington who were most dependent on getting straight answers and accurate updates from SCO about conditions at Gonzales-Mugaburu’s home and the status of investigations. Norah West, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, said, “We rely on information from the agency that is contracted to ensure the well-being of the child in that receiving state.”
The mother of the 18-year-old boy, whom The Times is not naming to protect her son’s identity, grew up in the foster care system herself. She said that she had struggled with mental illness and substance abuse, and that she found it unthinkable that her son had suffered in a system she thought would help him.
“I can’t believe they put him with someone like that,” she said. “Look what I did to my son.”