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Carlton: From Bradley to Phoebe — how many kids have to die?

Published Feb. 9, 2015

Twenty-six years ago, it was a blond 2-year-old named Bradley McGee grinning at you from the picture in the newspaper, right under the horrific headlines about what happened to him.

In state care for most of his short life, he was returned to a mother and stepfather who had no business with a child and punished by being brutally dunked headfirst into a toilet. His death, and his name, became synonymous with Florida's inadequate, underfunded and overwhelmed child welfare system, then the notorious HRS.

He was to be the poster child for change.

And there was some of that, some funding and positions and philosophical shift in how we did things. But the faces of failed children kept coming, along with the postmortem hand-wringing and the heartfelt vows for reform.

Now it's Tampa's Phoebe Jonchuck in the news, 5 years old and smiling sunnily from a family photo next to the jail mug shot of her vacant-eyed father, the man police say inexplicably threw her to her death from a tall bridge into the waters of Tampa Bay.

After she died, we learned about one way that the state's safety net for kids like her had failed: A lawyer called a state abuse hotline after Phoebe's father showed up at her office with the little girl in tow. He was wearing pajamas and raving and clearly not right. But he was deemed okay anyway, and that night, she died.

What we didn't know until this week was how someone else tried to save her, how there was another call to that same hotline the week before she died. But apparently not even that weight, the preponderance of two separate calls, was enough to hit pause, to shelter a child while the authorities figured out what was happening here.

This week, Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll fell on his sword like so many before him, telling a House subcommittee that the coming report on what did and did not happen for Phoebe — including the agency's extensive dealings with her fractured family before her death — won't reflect well on the DCF.

We've heard that before, too.

"Florida deserves better than this," the late Gov. Lawton Chiles said in 1996. "We all have to be ashamed."

Later it was then-Gov. Jeb Bush, appointing another commission: "What it says is in an imperfect world with an imperfect system dealing with children that have come from imperfect families, we got problems. That's what it says, and that's what we are going to look at."

And so it goes.

Bush was right about imperfect families, though that doesn't change our responsibility to the kids who are the most vulnerable — it makes it that much more important. And no, not every tragedy can be prevented by the state.

But two separate times, people used that hotline that was literally meant to be a lifeline — twice — and a little girl died anyway.

Task force after task force, study after study, postmortem after postmortem, and we are here again. We're all for fixing this, as long as it doesn't entail a whole lot of funding to adequately staff and pay people to do the incredibly difficult work at hand, as long as it doesn't mean focusing on mental health and substance abuse as prevention.

Even if all that could mean fewer headlines, fewer children smiling in the newspaper and gone.

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