When will cries of Florida's children's be heard?

Published Feb. 11, 2014

Of all the little boy's companions, fear had to be the most devoted.

He had been removed from his home in the wake of disturbing accusations directed at his mother's boyfriend. The boyfriend kicked a child in the head. He beat the boy's mother. Drugs were abused, and the home was rancid with animal feces.

Placed with his grandmother, the little boy's life and fears somehow grew worse. He and his three siblings were beaten and made to sleep in animal crates, according to a Miami Herald report. There is a suspicion the children were medicated to keep them asleep most of the day in their Fort Myers-area home.

Finally, one afternoon last month, the boy was wrapped and trussed tightly in a blanket with the ends tied down. He was thrown facedown on a bed and left screaming and crying for four hours until his breath finally ran out.

Michael McMullen was 3 years old when he died.

I wonder, did he cry loud enough for Tallahassee to finally hear?

• • •

The number of children who have died in Florida this year because of abuse or neglect is both horrifying and shockingly routine.

The head of the Department of Children and Families was forced out this summer after one tragedy too many hit the headlines, but his interim replacement points out that the 365 reported deaths through Oct. 31 is actually lower than in recent years.

And when an independent agency issued a critical review of DCF and its partners this week, interim director Ester Jacobo told a Senate committee that the findings were not terribly surprising.

All of which begs the question: Why?

If we know children are dying, and we know DCF has inherent flaws in policy and personnel, why hasn't more been done? What other issues could possibly be more important than the welfare of a defenseless child?

And when is stopping child abuse going to be talked about in Tallahassee with as much gusto and bravado as luring businesses or searching for voter fraud?

It has been a little more than a decade since the state began outsourcing child welfare services to community-based care groups with the hope a grass roots approach would be more effective.

"Twelve years later, we have the same problems,'' Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said during Tuesday's committee meeting. "And all we did was relocate the problem and rename a few things.''

The state does not seem ready to give up on the joint effort between the DCF and these community-based agencies, and that might be the right decision. Many of these deaths could neither have been predicted, nor prevented, and it's probably unfair to point the blame at any one factor.

But it's also true that in the first six months of the year more than 40 children died while supposedly under DCF's blanket of protection.

An expert panel of witnesses offered the Senate committee a variety of reasons, but Jacobo had no suggestions for lawmakers when they asked what the Legislature could do.

"She did not have an answer, and I was totally taken aback by that,'' said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. "It was suggested by someone else that maybe she needed to talk to the governor before she could say anything.''

Gov. Rick Scott recently declared he wanted to trim another $100 million in "inefficiencies'' from state agencies, and Jacobo said the DCF was expected to pitch in. She seemed to indicate the money could be cut from other DCF departments, and child welfare budgets would be spared.

That could be critical because the committee experts agreed one of the biggest problems is turnover and lack of education and experience among caseworkers. In some urban areas, turnover runs as high as 35 percent annually.

By increasing caseworker pay above the current $35,000 range, the hope is that social workers with college degrees might be persuaded to pursue and remain in these jobs.

It was also noted that DCF cut its quality assurance staff by more than 70 percent, virtually eliminating oversight.

Without that supervisory backup, it can go completely unnoticed if a caseworker fails to do background checks or if a guardian ad litem is not assigned to a case. Both of those reasons were cited in the death of 3-year-old Michael McMullen.

"What I'm looking for is a quality workforce. People who have the education to do these jobs,'' said Sobel. "When I heard (caseworkers) were just looking at a specific incident and not considering the family history, it blew my mind.''

This isn't simply about budgets, and it isn't about blame.

In the end, this is about priorities.

Someone in Tallahassee — someone of authority and stature — needs to make this issue their own. They need to talk about it daily. They need to see that proper changes are proposed, and then make sure everyone follows through.

For as heartbreaking as it is to think about a 3-year-old child screaming until he can breathe no more, it is even worse to imagine there are others like him still crying today.