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Ex-child abuse investigator charged with forging documents in death of baby left in hot car

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MIAMI — A former child abuse investigator surrendered Wednesday on charges that she falsified a substance abuse screening for a mother who authorities say was drinking months later when she left her 11-month-old baby to die in a hot car.

Shani Smith, 35, was supposed to determine in her 2012 investigation whether Catalina Bruno's children were safe to remain in her care and whether Bruno need drug or alcohol treatment after the mother was charged with drinking and driving. Bruno was accused of driving recklessly, and hitting several walls before she passed out with the engine still running with the baby lying in her lap. The car reeked of alcohol, according to documents released by the Department of Children and Families. The child, Bryan Osceola, was not injured.

Smith wrote in her report that Bruno posed no threat to Bryan and his siblings and didn't think any substance abuse services were needed. But child welfare officials say Smith never referred the mother for evaluation and didn't complete a risk assessment.

The investigation was launched in November 2012. Several months after the agency closed its investigation, Bryan was found dead in a sweltering car. Authorities said Bruno's purse and a can of beer were also in the car outside the family's home. The boy had a 109-degree temperature when discovered, according to documents released by DCF. His mother pleaded guilty to manslaughter and child neglect.

The Department of Children and Families fired Smith in 2013. She was arrested Wednesday on six counts of misconduct.

Smith has denied any wrongdoing, saying she was a scapegoat for the agency. A telephone listing could not be found for her Wednesday.

Bryan's death comes nearly a decade after DCF came under intense scrutiny when a caseworker lied about visiting foster child Rilya Wilson for more than a year, even though she was filing reports and telling judges the girl was fine. The girl is presumed dead. Following Rilya's case, state lawmakers made it illegal to falsify records of visits between child welfare workers and children in the agency's care.

DCF has come under intense criticism in recent years for missing warnings signs before several horrific child abuse deaths.

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