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This is not progress

"A validation of progress."

That's how a Department of Children and Families spokesman described the recent state report detailing child-abuse deaths in Florida.

We understand the tendency in Tallahassee toward bureaucratic spin, but since when did an increase in child-abuse deaths become progress?

It's hard to put a cheery face on the latest findings of Florida's Child Abuse Death Review Team, and DCF should not even be trying. For five years, the team of agency representatives and outside professionals has performed the grim task of analyzing the deaths of children in families previously reported to the abuse hotline. Some Floridians may have missed news of this year's report, coming as it did on Christmas Eve. Others may have wrongly assumed that it contained mostly encouraging news, given DCF's overly optimistic assessment.

State leaders need to face facts, not spin them. Judging from the team's findings, Florida has a lot more work to do before it can boast of a child-protection system that sufficiently protects children.

Consider the team's more sobering findings:

More children died from abuse or neglect last year than in either of the two previous years. The death toll climbed to 95 children in 2003, from 81 in 2002 and 84 in 2001.

More children died on DCF's watch. At least 35 children died last year even after DCF had been notified of possible abuse or neglect in the home. That's four more than in 2002.

Most of those children could have been saved. Of children "known to the system," one of every three deaths could have been prevented by a caseworker _ and nearly all of last year's abuse or neglect deaths could have been thwarted had another parent or caregiver, or caring adult, stepped in.

While many of our children face the danger of abuse, the rest of us have to guard against becoming inured to it. Constantly bombarded by true-life horror stories, some may be tempted to give in to the presumption that a certain measure of fatal abuse is inevitable or acceptable.

Neither is the case.

It is possible to reduce deaths from abuse and neglect, while building stronger families at the same time. As the team made clear, doing so would require a renewed focus on proper training, so that investigators are better able to recognize the signs of abuse and make the right judgment calls on removing children from unsafe homes. It would also take additional funding for services, so that families get the real help they need to address problems. While most of the families involved in the team's review had received some agency assistance, the team said the services were too often "inadequate."

Better training and more services. Now that would be progress.