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As studies of child abuse pile up, so do abuses

Corey Greer.

Bradley McGee.

Lucas Ciambrone.

All three Tampa Bay boys died at the hands of a caregiver.

They had something else in common: Their senseless and brutal deaths shamed a governor or lawmakers into creating a commission to study Florida's chronically troubled child protection system.

Last week, six other Florida youngsters were added to the list when Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed yet another task force to study a recent plague of child abuse in Florida. The panel, headed by Attorney General Bob Butterworth and Edward Feaver, chief of Florida's social services agency, is the seventh group to study child welfare in 12 years.

Now some child advocates are asking whether it makes sense to further investigate child welfare in Florida when the recommendations of the last task force, only a year old, have not been put into place.

"My shelves are groaning with the weight of the evidence that Florida is a place that is fertile ground for child maltreatment," Jack Levine, head of the non-profit Florida Center for Children and Youth, said in reference to previous commissions. "Maybe what this state needs is a commission that admits that we've been there, done that."

How the state should solve its current child protection crisis has spawned impassioned rhetoric from lawmakers and others, culminating with a highly publicized news conference Friday by gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush.

But Levine and others say Florida lawmakers must begin to deploy dollars _ not rhetoric _ before any significant improvements can be made in the lives of the state's children.

And, Levine says, taxpayers may finally be ready to do what their elected officials haven't: pay for the programs that can save kids.

"Dollars are not the sole response," Levine said. "But, I tell you, it's about time we tried it."

Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach Democrat who chaired a committee on child abuse for three years, said there is little left to study.

"Anyone who's already studied the issue knows what we need to do," Frankel said. "We know what to do. The question is do we have the commitment to do it."

Even Feaver, who is hoping the task force will help fine-tune the coordination among different agencies, concedes that officials already know how to protect the state's children.

"I don't think this new task force will tell us anything we don't already know," he said.

Four-month-old Corey Greer was the first child whose death provoked enough outcry to form a commission. It was July 21, 1985.

Corey was one of 12 children in a Treasure Island foster home licensed for only four. He was supposed to be on a heart monitor, but it was not being used.

A special task force within the then-Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services recommended sweeping changes to the state's foster care, child placement and child abuse investigation systems. Most of the recommendations were put in place by the agency, records show.

But in 1989, another youngster died. Bradley McGee, a 2-year-old Lakeland boy whose stepfather plunged him head-first into the toilet for soiling his pants, became the poster child for all the state's child protection failures.

Horrific as it was, Bradley's death provoked two commissions.

In 1990, the Child Welfare League of America, a national child welfare group, was assigned by legislators to study primarily the salaries of child protection workers. A year later, the state Legislature established the Study Commission on Child Welfare, called the Barkett Commission after its leader, former Supreme Court Justice Rosemary Barkett.

The outcry over Bradley's short, tragic life resulted in profound changes.

The first changes came in a special legislative session, four months after Bradley died. Lawmakers passed the Bradley McGee Act, which financed 628 new child welfare workers. With another 93 positions added during the regular legislative session, HRS' child welfare staff grew 26 percent in a year.

Bradley's death also led to changes in the way child abuse investigations proceeded, swinging the pendulum decisively toward putting the safety of children first.

For example, the Legislature gave judges the authority, in egregious cases, to bypass an agreement between child protection workers and an abusive family _ and immediately put children up for adoption. In the past, children could languish for years in foster care while families all but ignored "performance agreements" that were a precondition for unification.

The early 1990s saw the creation of two more task forces, the 1992 Florida Bar Commission for Children and the 1993 Commission on Family Courts. Once again, child welfare administrators and lawmakers fine-tuned the system.

The most significant change during the period involved a philosophical shift away from aggressive investigative practices that were often blamed for tearing apart families already in crisis.

Riding a wave of frustration over shattered families, the state moved toward a "family-centered" approach to child protection about four years ago. While child welfare administrators insist children's safety still comes first, the new policy emphasized keeping troubled families together when possible.

But, once again, the death of a toddler cast a spotlight on the state's child protection system _ once again resulting in the formation of a task force.

This time it was 7-year-old Lucas Ciambrone, who died May 13, 1995, at his Bradenton home from a severe blow to the head. He weighed only 27 pounds, about half normal, and had cracked ribs and more than 200 bruises.

A subsequent report contained 44 recommendations for revamping the state's child welfare system. These included increasing training, reducing work loads and dramatically increasing salaries for caseworkers. The changes were aimed at reducing the turnover that robs the child protection system of critical continuity, allowing youngsters like Lucas to fall through the cracks.

"Florida deserves better than this," Gov. Lawton Chiles said when accepting the commission's report last year. "We all have to be ashamed."

But lawmakers were not ashamed enough to heed the commission's most urgent warning:

Lawmakers, the commission said, had to stop passing ambitious new children's programs for which it was not willing to pay.

Four months after the report was issued, lawmakers cut 33 child protective investigator positions from the state budget.

Dr. Charles Mahan, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Public Health, served on the Ciambrone Commission and has been asked to serve on Chiles' latest task force. He's still grumpy about the fact lawmakers largely ignored his last panel's recommendations.

"Florida tries to do everything on the cheap," said Mahan, who likens the recent wave of child abuse deaths to a public health "outbreak."

"In this case, we can either pay for these programs, or we can watch kids die," Mahan said. "Which do we want to do?"

Patsy Buker knows the consequences of inaction.

As head of the Suncoast Child Protection Team, she has seen the broken legs, bruised bottoms, the cracked ribs and the shattered skulls. She sees little value in yet another study.

"It seems to me we have task forces year after year after year and their recommendations are not being paid attention to," Buker said. "As a matter of fact, sometimes, the Legislature has gone directly against the recommendations.

"It's extremely frustrating."

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