Tuesday, December 12, 2017

DCF clamps down on child death information — despite promises to be more open

In the wake of one of the deadliest eras in the history of Florida child welfare, administrators pledged to be more transparent, even suggesting that added scrutiny could help the agency keep more youngsters safe.

"The answer is to keep this in the public eye," DCF's interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, said in January while discussing ways to reform the troubled agency.

But even as lawmakers debated measures to require the Department of Children & Families to be more open, the agency has instead worked to close down the flow of information about a string of child deaths. The agency is pushing to weaken transparency legislation and has already quietly adopted internal policies making it harder for the public to track the agency's actions.

DCF's new disclosure policies delay and sharply restrict information provided in official child death reports, a move critics argue could help mask mounting child deaths. The policies are far more rigid than in past years, when the grim details in those reports led to a yearlong Miami Herald investigation called Innocents Lost.

The series, which documented the deaths of 477 children since 2008, exposed systematic flaws in child abuse investigations and the agency's inadequate response to troubled families.

A new Herald review of nearly 180 child death incident reports since last November found:

• In the midst of the Herald probe, agency administrators implemented a new policy for deleting what they call confidential information from public records — which covers almost every detail of a child's death. It amounts to a virtual erasure of key information, including the agency's history with the family.

The effect is vividly illustrated in a single page of one case. A record of one child death DCF released to the Herald last year blacked out only a few passages. When the Herald requested the same record earlier this week, DCF blotted out almost every word.

• In the fall of 2013, as administrators anticipated the series, a child death review coordinator overseeing Broward, Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties ceased filing required "critical incident reports" to the agency's headquarters in Tallahassee. Then, a week after the Herald series was published, coordinator Frank Perry filed nearly 20 child deaths reports — some of them incidents that occurred months earlier. DCF's procedures require such reports to be submitted within "one business day."

• In records obtained by the newspaper this week, the agency redacted all information about DCF's prior history with troubled families — key details that allow supervisors, and the public, to study whether the agency could have acted differently in the months or years leading up to a child's death. There was only one exception: a case in which DCF apparently blamed the death on a Miami judge, who overruled an agency recommendation about where an abused child should live.

A DCF spokeswoman, Alexis Lambert, said the case involving the Miami judge was different from the others because it was "an accounting of what occurred in the child's case but not a word-for-word copy" of confidential records.

"The department remains unwavering in our commitment to transparency,'' Lambert wrote in an email to the Herald Thursday.

Mixed message from DCF

But last week, when a Citrus County man smothered his 16-month-old son so he could continue playing an online Xbox game, a DCF spokeswoman initially told the Herald that the agency had no prior history with the toddler's parents. In fact, DCF had been told about four months earlier that California social workers had flown the troubled family to Florida amid allegations of drug abuse and homelessness, both red flags.

DCF's deputy secretary later acknowledged DCF had visited the family, and the investigation that followed was inadequate.

Lawmakers and children's advocates insist more openness is critical for DCF to improve and to ensure more accurate reporting on child protection cases. The Herald's series revealed that the agency had systematically under-counted the deaths of children whose families were known to the agency,

"Transparency keeps the public informed and holds people responsible — whether it's the department, the (private foster care agencies), or others," said Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican. "Transparency is the antiseptic to keep children safe. The more transparency the better."

Lawmakers in recent weeks have debated provisions of an agency overhaul bill that would have written greater transparency into state law.

But last week, before the Senate reform bill was passed unanimously, DCF staff proposed an amendment to gut the transparency requirements. The House adjourned late Thursday without bringing up the Senate's DCF reform bill. For it to pass, the House must take it up Friday.

Among the amendments the agency sought: changing the time frame the agency is required to investigate a child death from within two business days to "prompt"; eliminating an advisory committee that would provide oversight to the agency's critical injury responses; and deleting a requirement that DCF post on its website whether a victim was under 5 years of age at the time of his or her death. Such youngsters are the overwhelming majority of children who die of abuse or neglect.

An internal report detailing proposed changes to the Senate bill shows DCF also resisted a proposed provision requiring the agency to post child death incident reports on its website. "The public posting is designed to find fault, and potentially further traumatize families while in crisis," the agency reasoned.

But child welfare administrators in other states have concluded that transparency is primarily about preventing future deaths.

"Florida is now at risk of not playing its role as a public agency being accountable to the public," said John Mattingly, the commissioner for New York's Administration for Children' Services from 2004 until 2011, and now a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation child welfare think tank.

A lack of candor also can hamstring a child welfare agency's ability to justify adequate funding, Mattingly said. "If you are not being open and honest with yourself about your failings, it's hard to see how you could expect a public legislature to provide you with what you need to go forward."

A need to know

Said Ryan Duffy, a spokesman for Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford: "The whole point of the (House reform) bill is to reduce child deaths, and if we don't know about them, we can't do anything about them."

Questions about DCF's openness with child death records arose as early as the winter of 2013, though records suggested the effort to clamp down on public information did not gain steam until several months later.

In February 2013, during the investigation of the death of Matthew Condatore, a Lake County infant, a DCF supervisor named Stephanie Weis announced "new rules" for the reporting of child deaths to agency administrators.

Matthew's death was particularly troubling. Only months before he died, workers had been told in two separate investigation that the 11-month-old's mother left the children for "days at a time" while she consumed a host of drugs, rendering her an unfit caregiver. The Condatore home, a report said, was "disgusting, filthy and dirty," with bugs and roaches crawling everywhere. The first investigation was completed without DCF taking any action; the second remained open when the child died.

Matthew's mother passed out while bathing him on Feb. 15, 2013. The boy's 8-year-old sister found him floating in an overflowing bathtub. His mother, whom a report said was "messed up" at the time, lay unconscious near her dead infant.

"No gory details go to (headquarters) regarding the deaths unless they ask for them," wrote Weis, a community services director, in an internal DCF email. Referring to Matthew's death, she wrote: "I think this got everyone excited and we are where we are now — hair's on fire.

"Our incident reports need to be factual, clear, and to the point — no dramatization of the events. We need to look like we know what we are talking about, and we've got it under control."

Beginning last year, the Herald reviewed hundreds of critical incident reports that detailed child deaths. This week, the newspaper reviewed 177 new reports. The cases include a child who drowned in an open septic tank, and a teenager who hanged himself in the woods — after DCF had declined to investigate two prior reports concerning his family, and was looking into a third at the time the boy died.

Until about wintertime, virtually every report was filed within days of the death, as DCF procedures require.

Delayed reports

Sometime around November, records show, DCF Southeast Region death coordinator Frank Perry stopped filing formal death reports for the counties he oversees. Those counties are home to two of the most powerful lawmakers in the state for child protection, Harrell, the Stuart Republican who chairs the House's Healthy Families Subcommittee, and Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs that chamber's Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

Lambert, DCF's spokeswoman, said the agency had reviewed its incident reporting system in recent months, after the Herald requested hundreds of the reports, and uncovered "inconsistencies" in their filing.

"These discussions led to a misunderstanding in the Southeast Region that resulted in the gap in reporting you noticed. However, incidents from that region were still being reported timely via email," she added.

On April 3, Perry submitted four death reports. The next day — exactly one week after the Herald completed its series — he turned in 15 reports, ranging from an infant found dead in his Palm Beach County home on Nov. 22 to a boy who shot himself at his stepfather's house on March 25.

Even after Perry submitted the reports, they provided virtually no information. All but two of the incident reports contained four sentences or fewer; 13 of the reports contained one or two sentences.

"Today on 12/26/2013 (redacted) passed away. (Redacted) was found not breathing," was the extent of an incident report concerning a child death in Broward, which was submitted to the state more than four months after the child died.

An incident report concerning the deaths of two Broward children on March 10 — submitted three weeks later — said only: "On Thursday, 03/06/14, the children drowned and they are currently on life support in pediatric intensive care at Plantation General Hospital. The baby-sitter went to the bathroom (redacted) died on 3/10/14."

Incident reports submitted by other investigators also lack details about the family's past involvement with DCF.

In January, the mother of toddler Kayne Williams left him in the care of her boyfriend while she went to work. Bryan Blalock is accused of beating Kayne so severely that he suffered brain trauma, bruising across his face and body, swelling to his genitals and black eyes. The 2-year-old died 12 days later.

On Jan. 15, a child abuse investigator submitted a report to Tallahassee with details of the death and prior agency involvement. That entire portion — about a third of a page of information helpful to put the family's history in context — was redacted from public view.

Confidentiality questions

Lambert said the agency recently changed its redaction of death records when administrators discovered DCF was inadvertently releasing confidential information, contrary to state law. "The department redacts records in compliance with the law," Lambert said.

The hundreds of incident reports obtained by the Herald last year which were considerably more expansive all were redacted by Assistant General Counsel John Jackson, a DCF attorney who is the agency's public records expert.

In her email to the Herald, Lambert suggested members of the public had recourse if they felt DCF was withholding information concerning the deaths of children: they can sue the agency.

"There is an avenue through the courts for the public or the Herald to obtain the redacted information," she said.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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