Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Politics

Lawmaker calls DCF inquiry into child deaths a "whitewash''

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TALLAHASSEE —A Department of Children & Families investigation into the withholding and possible destruction of child death records was completed this week without generating a single record.

The top administrator of DCF's Southeast Region was suspended for two days without pay as a result of the high-level inquiry into a Miami Herald story showing that the region had deliberately withheld at least 30 reports of child deaths — even after the region's director had been ordered to produce them.

But all details of DCF Deputy Secretary Pete Digre's inquiry remain hidden, as DCF insists the investigation did not produce a single report, memo, email or notation. Digre, the agency said, also did not take hand-written notes, which likewise are subject to disclosure under the state's public records law.

And though the inquiry was designed to quell criticism that DCF was hiding details — and entire records — regarding the deaths of children the agency is tasked with protecting, agency watchdogs and children's advocates now have no means of scrutinizing the work product.

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the chamber's Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, called the inquiry "a cover-up and a whitewash."

"I just think this is a huge cover-up that is going on to save their jobs and protect their public image at the expense of these kids," Sobel said. She added: "They are obstructing information, they are obstructing justice, and they are obstructing transparency."

During the state's recent lawmaking session, Sobel teamed with Republican Sen. Denise Grimsley, a Sebring nurse whose district includes much of the Southeast Region, to overhaul DCF's child welfare policy. Over the past six years, 477 Florida children whose families were previously known to the agency died. The deaths were detailed in a Herald series called Innocents Lost.

The measure awaits Gov. Rick Scott's signature.

"I don't believe the department can, in good conscience, say they conducted an investigation if no paperwork was produced," said Grimsley, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services.

In an interview Friday, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll declined to specify why the inquiry yielded no written record that lawmakers or children's advocates could scrutinize. Carroll insisted his agency never deliberately withheld details of agency missteps leading to child deaths.

"This did create the perception in the community that information was destroyed," said Carroll, who has been secretary for less than two months. "I can assure you that no information was destroyed, and no child deaths were unaccounted for."

Though the 30 reports were not written until the Herald submitted a request for them — in some cases five months after the fact — no agency or public records were deleted, Carroll said. Destroying such records could have been construed as a criminal act, he added.

Earlier this month, the Herald reported that, starting at least as early as last November, as the Herald was questioning DCF on its problems protecting children under its watch, one region of the agency deliberately kept as many as 30 deaths off the books — ensuring they would not be included in the published tally.

The 30 child deaths occurred in DCF's Southeast Region, encompassing Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Okeechobee and Broward — the county cited by the Herald as having the most reported deaths by abuse or neglect.

Even before Carroll dispatched Digre, his top subordinate, to South Florida to investigate the missing reports, Carroll repeatedly described the omission as inadvertent.

Digre's inquiry, which appears to have been wrapped up within days, arrived at precisely that conclusion.

"I appreciate the courage and leadership it takes to admit to a mistake and take responsibility" for it," Carroll wrote in a two-page disciplinary letter to Southeast Region Director Dennis Miles. "Even the best leaders make mistakes…I continue to both support and admire your leadership."

Digre's investigation concluded that while the Southeast Region violated "the letter" — though not "the spirit" — of a DCF policy requiring that all child deaths be recorded in incident reports within one business day, there was no intent on Miles' part to "shield information from anyone."

The crackdown on incident reports occurred just after the death of 12-year-old Tamiyah Audain, a severely disabled Lauderhill girl whose mortally malnourished and bedsore-ridden body was found in the home of her DCF-approved caregiver at the end of September. Her plight was reported in the Herald from incident reports obtained by the newspaper through the state's public records law.

In an interview Friday, Carroll said Digre's inquiry, as well as a less-comprehensive probe he conducted himself, concluded that regional managers acted ethically and forthrightly when they ceased filing the required child death reports. In his letter to Miles, Carroll said the information was withheld as "an attempt to address insufficiencies in data security."

Carroll acknowledged that the "insufficiencies" he referred to led to the details of child death reports being accessible to department workers without the authority to read them. He denied, however, that the crackdown on such reports was explicitly designed to keep the information from members of the media or public.

Miles' biggest mistake, Carroll said, was refusing to submit the required incident reports even after he was ordered to do so in February, a full two months before the Herald's public records request resulted in their belated production. At a Feb. 5 statewide leadership meeting, the region was told "to immediately correct" the withholding of child death reports — but did not, Carroll's letter says.

"The timing of it looks terrible," Carroll acknowledged. But, he added: "There was no attempt to hide deaths from anyone…. It was a bad decision that went south in a hurry."

Jack Moss, who oversaw DCF's Broward County district from 2001 through 2008, and was a Broward County commissioner from 1972 to 1980, said the perception is so troubling that only an independent criminal investigation can sort out the questions.

"You can't do an investigation without taking notes," Moss said, referring to Digre's inquiry into the missing death records.

"The purpose of a grand jury is to seek the truth," said Moss. "I think this is serious enough that, if the facts don't come out, the grand jury should investigate and use its powers to obtain the truth."

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