Government agencies should not waste time and money trying to prevent access to public records. Under new leadership, the Florida Department of Children and Families has finally embraced that message and later this month will unveil a promising new website that will give the public unprecedented access to information so they can assess suspicious child deaths and how the agency investigated them. That is the openness Floridians expect from Tallahassee, and it should allow the agency to focus more energy on its mission to protect the state's most vulnerable residents.
A grim series of articles in the Miami Herald this spring, titled "Innocents Lost," detailed that despite prior contact with child welfare authorities, some 477 children in Florida had suffered preventable deaths since 2008. The series prompted legislators to adopt significant changes to the state's child welfare laws and funnel much-needed resources to help reduce workers' caseloads. But a subplot to the stories was the challenge the newspaper faced in actually obtaining access to the records. While DCF turned over some willingly, others were obtained only after the newspaper sued. And just earlier this month, the Herald detailed how for several months starting in November, the Southeast DCF office had failed to accurately record child death cases.
Now new interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, the former Suncoast regional director for the agency, said his goal is to set a new national standard for public information. "We need to be more transparent and just move on to doing our jobs," Carroll told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board last week.
Carroll's plan: a new website, that will be accessible at myflfamilies.com, that fulfills the Legislature's new requirements to provide more timely information to the public, but goes even further and may well lay the groundwork for community discussion about how to prevent child deaths locally.
The site will detail every child death reported to the state's abuse hotline. Within 72 hours of a child's death, the public can view the deceased's name, age, date of death and, if it's been determined, the cause of death and a brief narrative of how the child died. After the cases are closed, a death report will be added. The site also will note whether the deceased's family was previously known to DCF. And users will be able to search by county, a tool Carroll anticipates will help DCF tailor education and safety campaigns. Carroll expects the website to debut in about two weeks and feature six years of data by September and 10 years worth of information by the end of the year.
This is good public policy and a necessary step in shifting the agency from defense to offense. Carroll is welcoming public scrutiny but also displaying faith in his workers. He's honoring Florida's open record laws and simultaneously making a statement that child welfare is far bigger than one state agency. By opening up the books, he's inviting citizens to engage. And most importantly, the move should help shift the conversation from the agency's past mistakes to its current strategies for protecting the vulnerable. That's progress.