1. Florida Politics

Series of child deaths in Florida prompts emotional town hall meeting

Interim Florida Department of Children and Families secretary Esther Jacobo speaks Tuesday at a Pembroke Pines town hall meeting regarding the department and the number of recent child deaths.
Interim Florida Department of Children and Families secretary Esther Jacobo speaks Tuesday at a Pembroke Pines town hall meeting regarding the department and the number of recent child deaths.
Published Aug. 21, 2013

One by one, Florida Sen. Eleanor Sobel read the names or initials of 20 children — children who died this summer while on the radar of the state's embattled child welfare agency.

Some were beaten savagely. Others suffocated or drowned. One was strangled, and another run over by a car.

The listing of the dead was a dramatic way to launch a town hall meeting designed to bring reforms and save lives.

The Tuesday night meeting, at Broward College's South Campus, drew a crowd of hundreds of judges, city officials, police officers, children's advocates and foster parents. At least 15 lawmakers sat shoulder to shoulder on the dais, listening.

"We have a moral imperative to save lives," said Sobel, who organized the event.

The Miami Herald reported Sunday that, since mid-April, at least 20 children known to the Department of Children & Families have died, mostly from abuse or neglect, some of them in particularly brutal ways. Faced with the rising toll, Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate's Children, Families & Elder Affairs, convened a town hall to ask hard questions about DCF's ability to meet its mandate of protecting children from danger.

The nearly three-hour discussion — extended twice to accommodate the number of speakers — offered a variety of suggestions, ranging from better state funding to better treatment of caseworkers and investigators. Legislators walked away with specific changes they can make to child welfare laws in the upcoming Legislative season.

Looking straight at the panel of lawmakers — and raising his voice with emotion — Walter Lambert, the top doctor with Miami's Child Protection Team, which evaluates children for abuse or neglect, told the legislators they bore some culpability for the cluster of recent deaths.

"The Legislature is responsible to fund the system appropriately," said Lambert to loud applause. "It is on the Legislature to give the appropriate funding to do the job.''

The CPT, which includes doctors, nurses and social workers trained to detect child abuse and neglect, sustained deep budget cuts, Lambert said, at the very time that a nationwide economic downturn was resulting in increased — and increasingly more severe —abuse and neglect.

A Broward County judge who said she has seen the grim consequence of an under-funded social service system echoed Lambert's concerns.

"We have to fund social services in this state, and we have the courage to transform it," said Judge Ginger Lerner Wren, who presides over mental health cases. Lerner Wren congratulated the state of Texas for improving its spending on human services spending when it was ranked dead last in the nation. Of Florida, she added: "We were 49th. Guess where we are now?''

In what has become a deadly summer, nearly two dozen children have died at the hands of their caregivers in cases where DCF had been alerted at least once that the children were in danger.

After four children died over a stretch of six weeks — all but one from South Florida — DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned and was replaced by interim secretary Esther Jacobo. The number of known child deaths dramatically increased to at least 20 over the next several months, including an infant who died last week.

The speakers did not talk only about funding. Several criticized what some view as DCF's lack of openness about child deaths — and policies that may contribute to them. Some accused agency administrators and lawmakers of a lack of urgency.

Pat McCabe, a foster parent, took off work early from his job to attend to the hearing. In an emotional speech, he challenged the legislators to feel as angry as he did. "I am here to represent the outrage,'' said McCabe, who along with his wife foster three children. "There is no excuse as to what has happened. There is a lack of funding and a lack of accountability.''

Jeannette Miley, who has spent more than 30 years treating disabled children at the Children's Diagnostic and Treatment Center, which serves disabled children, said her program has been frustrated by DCF lawyers who insist they lack the authority to remove children from abusive or neglectful parents — including children who became disabled due to their mother's drug addiction.

"We've got a criminal history for the father; we've got a criminal history for the mother; and the baby is born addicted," Miley said. "Should we protect the child, or give the parents another chance?" she asked.

Investigators should give parents another chance, Miley said, but only "when the child has been safely removed."

As the number of deaths escalated, Jacobo ordered a review of all child fatalities caused by abuse or neglect and invited a national organization to scrutinize those findings.

"We are getting help with examining what may have gone wrong,'' she said. "The more eyes on a child, the better the decisions are, the better decisions we can make."