Monday, May 21, 2018
Politics

Abused children deserve help from Florida law enforcement

On her own, the little girl never had a chance.

Not when she was homeless. Not when a doctor discovered injuries consistent with abuse. Not when she was nearly suffocated and had her eye swollen shut.

She was just 2 years old when, according to the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, her mother killed her by smashing her head against a wall.

Aliyah Marie Branum was among the victims highlighted in a Miami Herald investigation that discovered at least 20 children on the radar of the state's Department of Children and Families who have died this summer.

The numbers, understandably, have led to outrage. They led to a town hall meeting Tuesday in South Florida. They've led to a lot of finger-pointing and shouting. But will they lead to a solution?

The current problems at DCF are familiar to anyone who has paid attention to children's issues. These problems have transcended governors, legislators, political parties and the passage of time.

There is a treacherous balance between a desire to keep children out of foster care and the need to protect them from unfit parents and caregivers.

Roy Miller, the president of the Children's Campaign, has devoted much of his life to serving as a watchdog for children's services and says there is no doubt that progress has been made and lives have been saved.

Still, much more needs to be done. And Miller, as a circuit judge in Miami recently suggested, says one of the answers is removing investigative responsibilities from DCF and handing them over to local law enforcement.

"Child abuse is a crime, and we need to treat it that way,'' Miller said. "The problem is we have been unwilling to invest the money we need to get the sheriff's offices engaged in child abuse investigations. We have yet to have a governor or a Legislature willing to provide the money necessary to protect these children.''

There are local models for this concept. Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco are among six counties in Florida that have contracts with DCF to provide investigative services.

Miller says the presence of law enforcement holds more sway with abusive or neglectful parents, but Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says the benefits go beyond that.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office employs about 140 people in its child protection division, and the bulk of the investigators have social services and child welfare degrees, including some former DCF employees. Those employees are then buttressed by deputies and supervisors with more traditional law enforcement backgrounds.

"There is a checks and balances to the way it's set up,'' Gualtieri said. "The difference is not so much a badge or uniform, but the law enforcement mind-set that is part of the investigation. It also brings a local level of accountability.''

So why isn't this the norm throughout the state?

Getting the Legislature to provide funds is one problem, and sometimes fighting by DCF officials to control their turf is another. Gualtieri says he gets about $10 million annually from the state and has to supplement that by borrowing from elsewhere in his organization.

"It's a good idea, as long as it's adequately funded,'' Gualtieri said. "If not, we're setting it up for failure.''

Neglected children deserve better. They deserve our protection. They deserve our best effort. They deserve a chance.

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