Florida's most vulnerable children deserve to have an empowered, enlightened public that can hold state officials accountable for their safety. Just days into his new role as the Department of Children and Families' interim secretary, Mike Carroll is taking steps to reverse recent policies that would have shielded much of the agency's work from the public record. This is a sound move that puts children's safety first.
The Miami Herald sparked an intense debate about child welfare issues in Florida this spring after it published its Innocents Lost series. The yearlong investigation detailed the deaths of 477 children who perished in Florida since 2008 after having some contact with DCF. The series revealed systemic problems in the agency, including overworked caseworkers who did little followup with at-risk families and toothless safety plans that provided little protection for children.
In the wake of the series, legislators created sweeping child protection reforms. Gov. Rick Scott called for the hiring of 400 new child protection investigators. And DCF pledged its continued commitment to Florida's children and to transparency. But behind the scenes, the agency did just the opposite. According to a Herald report earlier this month, the DCF adopted a policy that allows it to delete what it calls confidential information from the public record. This essentially scrubs its files of most of the information surrounding a child's death, including the child's age, details of the investigation and record of any prior DCF involvement. In response to the Herald's article, DCF said it had simply taken steps to protect the privacy of others who might be involved in a child's case, such as a surviving sibling. In reality, it would make it impossible to investigate their performance again like the newspaper did.
On Monday, Carroll ordered the creation of a position in the state office of Child Welfare to oversee reporting, data gathering and response to child deaths. He also called for the streamlining of incident reporting and vowed that once the new system is deployed, it will be shared with the public in ways that do not violate traditional confidentiality. This is what the agency should be doing: opening its records rather than cloaking portions of investigations even if the law allows it.
The Herald's series was scathing in its analysis of DCF's shortcomings. The comprehensive look at an agency in trouble resulted in sweeping legislative reforms and more than $59 million in new money proposed for child protection issues. Government agencies should embrace openness, especially when it involves efforts to protect children and youth. Children benefit when the entire community looks out for their safety.