Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

Romano: Florida needs to do more to stop child deaths

Some of the children were beaten to death.

Others died of malnutrition. Suffocation. Neglect.

Each story is heartbreaking.

A Miami Herald report identified 477 children from troubled homes who have died since 2008 despite being on Florida's Department of Children and Families' radar.

Their deaths are horrible enough. What's worse is the suspicion that we may have failed them. That too many of these tragedies and atrocities might have been prevented.

"It's the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,'' said attorney Christina Spudeas, executive director of the nonprofit Florida's Children First organization. "It's the babies, the toddlers, the ones who can't speak for themselves.

"It's sad, and it's hard to read about, but it's important that we know about every one of these cases. We cannot afford to turn our heads and look the other way.''

It is, in many ways, a thankless and impossible mission for the people who run DCF. They are forever dealing with high-risk cases, and their failures will always draw outsized attention compared to their successes.

Even so, the Herald series raised some issues that cannot be forgiven or ignored. Issues that should have leaders in Tallahassee demanding answers and details.

For instance:

• DCF was underreporting the number of children who died after being brought to the organization's attention. The implication is DCF was worried more about bad publicity than campaigning for more help.

• The state budget has grown 13 percent in the last eight years, but DCF's budget has decreased nearly 3 percent. Had the DCF budget grown at the same rate as the state, it would have been $374 million larger today. Instead it is $80 million smaller.

• DCF's policy to have parents sign "safety plans'' pledging to do better would be comical if it wasn't so deadly. Those pledges are meaningless without court-ordered mandates or oversight.

• About 10 years ago, the state adopted a policy of avoiding foster care and keeping children with their families if possible. The result is the number of out-of-care cases has dropped more than 30 percent. At the same time, deaths have gone up.

That, more than anything, has to be addressed. The philosophy of keeping families intact is sound, but not at the expense of a child's life.

"We support efforts for reunification of families but that, in itself, cannot be the primary goal,'' said Roy Miller, president of the Children's Campaign. "We believe children are being returned to homes that are unfit to care for them. In cases of prior parental termination rights or death or near-death experiences, that can't happen.

"What was supposed to be an aspirational goal in Tallahassee is getting communicated as a mandate at the local level.''

Gov. Rick Scott has pledged to restore some of the funding, and DCF has undergone changes after an independent review last year, but it won't be enough.

This is not a problem that can be corrected with tweaks and memos. DCF needs more oversight. More case managers. And parents who are neglectful or substance abusers need court supervision instead of safety pledges.

Our leaders need to be angrier. And more resolute.

These are tragedies in more ways than one.

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