A 4-year-old beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend. An unsupervised, disabled 7-year-old killed after running into the path of a car. A 1-year-old dead of an overdose of methadone. • No Florida child should die from abuse or neglect. But these are just three of the stories from the last six years of how at least 477 of Florida's children died — even after the state checked on their well-being at least once. This must be our wakeup call. Florida should reconsider its overwhelming bias toward reuniting families even in the face of horrible dysfunction. It has become an unconscionable gamble with the lives of Florida's children.
This is not just the governor's problem or the Legislature's problem or the state bureaucracy's problem. It is our problem. We have all allowed this to happen by going along with Tallahassee's wishful and contradictory policy of striving to preserve families while simultaneously undercutting the resources needed to bolster those full of dysfunction. We have tried to have child protection on the cheap, and the result has been deadly and devastating. Florida is better than this.
In a sweeping project that examined thousands of state records, the Miami Herald "Innocents Lost" investigation found that 477 children perished despite being in families contacted at least once by the Department of Children and Families after being alerted the child might be in danger. Many died at the hands of their own parents who beat them, smothered them to death or were on drugs while their children drowned, started fires or committed suicide.
The agency's multiple failings suggest that a policy of eschewing foster care has become so ingrained in its frontline workers as to blind them to the consequences of a child left in danger. The Herald found again and again that DCF workers made a note of issues, set up toothless safety plans and then walked away. They left behind babies like Emanuel Murray Jr., a 3-month-old Tampa boy who was tossed from a moving car on Interstate 275 by his mother's boyfriend. Like many other cases on the Herald's list of 477, DCF had a safety plan that required the mother to stay away from her boyfriend. But the mother didn't abide by it. Still, investigators closed the family's case, and a week later, Emanuel was dead.
In Tallahassee, there seems to be little recognition of systemic problems. Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo said she believes the additional money the Legislature is expected to provide in 2014-15 should help the agency do a better job. Yes, money is needed. But the broader issues elected leaders and state bureaucrats must address are flawed policies and the agency's failure to follow its own rules. Among the reforms needed:
Revise DCF's stance on family preservation. What was intended as a goal has become a mandate. Unfit parents who do not take care of their child should not have a greater right than that child's right to survive. That will undoubtedly require more state resources for more foster families. But we must make sure that all children are in safe environments. And when they are not, we must be willing to take the child.
Require drug treatment programs for addicted parents. It is not enough to take parents' word that they will stay sober. Lawmakers must give DCF the authority to compel drug-addicted parents to participate in substance abuse programs, and investigators must track their progress. The state must also commit to help pay for it. As drug-related child deaths climbed, DCF's budget for substance abuse programs fell by 6 percent. Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget for next year slashes $9.8 million from drug treatment programs. If they fail to complete substance abuse programs, drug-addicted parents should expect authorities to take the child.
Acknowledge the role of paramours in children's lives. Time and again, the state has substituted parents' poor judgment about their partner for the commonsense protection of our children. The Herald found boyfriends with no biological connection to the child were responsible for many of the 477 deaths. When DCF suspects abuse in the home and biological parents are too weak to demand better for their offspring, we must err on the side of safety and take the child.
Hold parents accountable. Now caseworkers have parents sign safety plans, basically toothless promises often written by the parents themselves to engage in better parenting. There is little room for enforcement, scant oversight and no apparent consequences — such as removing the child — when violations occur. More than 80 children in the Herald's study died after their parents signed a safety plan, including one drug-addicted mother who vowed sobriety but kept using drugs, eventually smothering her 2-month-old to death after sleeping with family members in a twin bed.
Listen. By law, any person who suspects child abuse is required to notify authorities and may do so anonymously. But Florida requires that teachers, medical professionals and law enforcement also leave their name — giving far more credibility to those reports. Yet, the Herald investigation found DCF often ignored repeated reports from such sources, to children's detriment.
Keep accurate records. The Herald investigation uncovered hundreds of deaths across more than one administration that DCF had not acknowledged — a gross negligence that inaccurately represented the agency's performance and only emboldened budget-cutting. Might injuries and lesser abuse also be unreported? Even now, legislators and the governor are writing next year's budget without all the facts.
Such fundamental changes could go a long way toward protecting Florida's most vulnerable children, but the job will not be finished. Floridians will need to continue to speak up when we spot a child in trouble, educate our older children about the demands of parenting and encourage them to delay parenthood until they are up to the task. And we must demand that our elected leaders and state workers who act on our behalf consider a child's protection paramount. Florida has failed to convey that notion 477 times in the past six years. We failed those children, and we have an obligation to our state and to future generations to do better.