By law, the Department of Children and Families' mission is to support Florida's families — even those full of dysfunction. The system strives to restore children to their parents whenever possible. But that bias should never trump a child's basic welfare when a parent has failed time and time again. Such is the case for a two-year-old Pasco County girl born McKenzie Martin. DCF needs to exercise its discretion to keep her safe and not restore her mother's parental rights.
The tale of McKenzie's short life came to light after her infant sister died in Port Richey, allegedly shaken to death by her mother's boyfriend. The December death of two-month-old Diella sparked a new round of condemnations of DCF, which had placed the baby and her twin sister Shyloh with their father, Thomas Ludwig, at the insistence of their mother, prison inmate Nicholle West.
But that was just the latest of West's parental failings. The 30-year-old drug addict and occasional thief has a dismal track record. Her oldest children, two sons aged 10 and 6, have been in the custody of her parents for years. She apparently kept it together for a while after McKenzie's birth in New Port Richey in March 2007. But then she tested positive for cocaine while seven months pregnant with the twins. DCF took custody of McKenzie and eventually placed her with West's brother and his wife, Josh and Lisa Martin. St. Petersburg Times reporter Molly Moorhead learned that the little girl, then 17 months old, arrived riddled with bedbug bites, a scalp caked with crusty, dead skin and delayed motor skills. Two months later her baby sisters were born in prison. Two months after that, one of them was dead.
Meanwhile, the Martins gave McKenzie a new name, Georgia, and an instant family of siblings, three cousins aged 10 to 3. In their modest, blue-collar home they have laid the foundation for a lasting, loving and stable family for her.
But DCF has already signaled that when West is released from prison in September, it will attempt to reunite mother and daughter. Standard practice at DCF means West would likely be under a court-ordered plan requiring such things as a stable job, home, counseling and routine drug tests. That means she could start getting reacquainted with her daughter in supervised weekly visits just 13 months after so clearly neglecting her.
Child protective services is a subjective occupation. Caseworkers must weigh circumstances individually to determine when to remove a child from a parent and when to return a child — something many have argued the department failed to do for this toddler's twin sisters. The agency should learn from that mistake. If the agency has no choice in this situation because the law in Florida tips the scales so far toward reunifying families, the Legislature needs to rebalance the scales. Too many children have already suffered by the failure of this parent. This child deserves a chance.