Noemi Ramos / Lee County Sheriff's Office
Three months ago, a terrified 15-year-old fled the home where, she told investigators, she was beaten, molested and forced into prostitution to earn drug money for her mother.
When her stepfather David Contreras found the girl the day after she fled, he said the 15-year-old begged him to take her to his home and not send her back to her mother.
Also, her worried 20-year-old sister called the Department of Children and Families to report the alleged abuse inflicted on the teen and her three younger sisters by the mother, Noemi Ramos.
DCF moved the girls out of their mother’s Pine Manor home and into the care of Contreras, the biological father of the two youngest girls.
But the weekend before Lee County sheriff’s deputies arrested Ramos, 40, on charges of human trafficking and child abuse — for which she remains in Lee County Jail on $200,000 bond — she chatted and cuddled with her daughters at Contreras’ Lehigh Acres home, putting together gift bags for the youngest’s birthday party. The month before, the girls stayed overnight with their mother while on a visit.
“She’s their mother, I can’t deny her the right to see them,” said Contreras’ roommate, Zarifa Sabah, who also cares for the girls.
Cookie Coleman, who leads DCF in this region, wouldn’t speak specifically about whether the agency would have allowed Ramos to be near the girls while they stayed with their father during the investigation. The agency can seek up to no contact through the court or take no action, depending on what’s best for the child, Coleman said.
“If everything has been arranged before we receive the call and it is appropriate, we stay out of people’s lives,” Coleman said.
DCF stands by its handling of Ramos’ case. Investigators say she forced her daughters, ages 9 to 15, to buy prescription drugs and beat them with cords and hangers. The agency may have been involved with the family since 1999, and the investigation it began in July closed Monday.
Coleman would not respond specifically to the question of how the agency could not have spotted signs of danger if it was involved on-and-off with the family for years.
“There are many, many allegations that create our involvement without rising to a level of physical abuse,” she said.
Since July, Contreras said DCF never required him to get custody of the girls in court. To obtain temporary custody of the two girls who aren’t his biological children, he said he went to a check-cashing store where a notary watched him sign a letter.
Contreras said DCF also never questioned him about his criminal background, which includes a 2008 drug arrest and two arrests in which Ramos alleged that Contreras beat her. Contreras said he was set up by police in the 2008 bust, and claimed Ramos roughed herself up to indicate abuse for the domestic violence arrests. Both charges were dropped.
Coleman said the agency checks caregivers’ backgrounds and household members during an investigation, though the agency may not share what it finds.
Missed the signs
Child protection officials at the Children’s Advocacy Center of Southwest Florida interviewed the four girls in August, sheriff’s records show.
Afterward, Contreras and Sabah questioned the girls about the abuse allegations.
The two younger girls told them about buying their mother roxycodone and Xanax. The 15-year-old divulged that she’d been molested by men who slipped cash into her mother’s hands. She told them she cut herself to ease the pain she felt inside.
Contreras and Sabah are still absorbing what happened. Some of it seems unbelievable, Contreras said, but he trusts his daughters.
He knew Ramos had a prescription drug addiction for the past three years. It had intensified in the past six months. He offered to take the girls so Ramos could get help, but she never had enough money for rehabilitation, he said.
What puzzles Contreras is how he could have missed signs of abuse. He said he’d seen Ramos hit the children before, but never thought she was beating them. After the 15-year-old revealed she had been prostituted, he questioned Ramos’ neighbors, but found no evidence.
Ramos’ arrest warrant paints a different picture. One girl told investigators everyone in the neighborhood knew her mother prostituted her sister.
The girls visited the neighborhood drug dealers so frequently they had friendly relationships with them, Ramos’ arrest warrant says. And one of the girls described how her mother instructed her to solicit men in the park so she could get drug money.
“People don’t like busybodies and don’t want to be busybodies so they may hesitate to report something,” said Nola Theiss, executive director of Lee-based Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships.
“You don’t want to get parents in trouble for normal discipline, but on the other hand, ignoring overt abuse and signs of human trafficking makes you complicit in that crime.”