A report released this week into the death of a 2-year-old Largo boy who police said was killed by his mother while under state supervision offered Gov. Ron DeSantis the first opportunity to show how he will address Florida's troubled foster care system — and make good on a campaign pledge to hold public officials accountable.
Largo police say Jordan Belliveau was murdered by his mother just four months after he was returned to her from foster care. The report by the Florida Department of Children and Families highlighted missteps by child welfare agencies, child protective investigators and others before the child was killed. It led Department Secretary Chad Poppell to order a comprehensive review of foster care in Pinellas County while DeSantis promised to hold those responsible accountable.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Foster care failures uncovered in death of 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau
But state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, is accusing Poppell's agency of trying to pass the buck. She warned in a statement sent out Wednesday that more children will die under the state's watch if systemic problems with the foster care system are not addressed.
"Until the department accepts responsibility for what went wrong, I do not have any confidence that other vulnerable individuals across the state can be kept safe by DCF," Book said in the statement. "To be clear: a child died, and everyone involved in this colossal and preventable failure should be held accountable.
"However, when I read the DCF report, I see a passing of blame."
Jordan's mother, Charisse Stinson, awaits trial on a charge of first-degree murder. Police say she reported her son missing on Sept. 2. His body was found two days later, and police said the mother then confessed to striking her son, hiding his body and fabricating a story about a stranger taking him.
In the months leading up to Jordan's death, the review found that child welfare agencies missed warning signs, failed to make home visits and said nothing when the mother lied in court about completing mandatory counseling classes to get her son back. Child protective investigators also failed to identify the threats Jordan faced as the risk of domestic violence involving his parents increased.
The report concluded that foster care in the Circuit 6 region — comprised of Pinellas and Pasco counties — is a "fractured system" and that investigators, case managers, clinical providers, Guardian ad Litems and the county's judicial system were not working well together.
Book, who serves as chair of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, said every county in the state faces those same foster care issues.
"I was outraged by the last line of the department's report, which simply places blame primarily on the local agencies of Circuit 6 in Pinellas," her statement said. "It is a systemic problem, and until DCF changes its philosophy of case management, we will continue to see preventable child deaths occur in communities across Florida."
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Police: Mother faces murder charge in death of 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau
Book struck a more moderate tone when she spoke to the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday, saying she is encouraged by Poppell's commitment to turn the system on its head. She is scheduled to meet with him next week and said she will impress upon him the need for more case managers and better pay to reduce turnover.
She said a foster parent she met last week had dealt with eight different case managers in two months. She also wants to discuss whether the state's mostly privatized system provides the best care.
Under former Gov. Jeb Bush, the state contracted local non-profit groups as lead agencies. In six Florida counties including Hillsborough and Pinellas, investigations into abuse and neglect were also contracted out to the local sheriff.
That left the department's role as mainly oversight. That became far tougher about five years ago when administrators eliminated around 70 percent of staff whose job was to review how well agencies were performing.
"The fact is DCF is the state agency that is ultimately responsible for all child welfare in the state of Florida," said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida's Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children's rights. "They cannot be exonerated from that because they contract with others."
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri disputed that foster care in his county is as fractured as the report depicted it. He noted that previous department reviews have praised foster care in Pinellas.
"I think that is an overstatement," he said. "If there's a fractured system of care, it is the system in Florida. Circuit 6 didn't establish the system."
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Thursday the report highlighted poor decision-making by some of the agencies involved in Jordan's case. But he wondered if it got to the root of the problem.
"The child welfare system is underfunded, the turnover is outrageous. You lose institutional knowledge when people keep leaving and you're hiring new people," said McCabe, who has served as the elected prosecutor in Pinellas and Pasco counties since 1992. "I'm not going to say that that's the sole cause of what happened here, but I think it underlies what happened here."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times