Editorial: Another child dead, another state failure

A 2-year-old's death in Pinellas County reflects failures the state's child welfare system has repeated for decades. Can it be fixed?
Juliet Warren with her foster child, Jordan Belliveau. The 2-year-old toddler went missing for more than two days and was then found dead in September. His 21-year-old mother, Charisse Stinson,faces a charge of first-degree murder in the death of her child.
Juliet Warren with her foster child, Jordan Belliveau. The 2-year-old toddler went missing for more than two days and was then found dead in September. His 21-year-old mother, Charisse Stinson,faces a charge of first-degree murder in the death of her child.
Published Jan. 18, 2019

Jordan Belliveau was his name, a human being in his own right. But the 2-year-old's death under state supervision puts is another new face on the same old story. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who took office this month, may not be responsible for this tragedy, but his administration has the obligation now to put the child welfare system on an entirely new track. That begins with holding those involved accountable, putting new resources into child protective services and rethinking the approach for dealing with children in dangerous family environments.

A report released Wednesday by the Department of Children and Families details the abuse, missteps and indifference in Jordan's case that have become all too familiar in the decades of avoidable deaths of Florida's most vulnerable children. As the Tampa Bay Times' Christopher O'Donnell reported, child welfare agencies missed warning signs, failed to make home visits and said nothing when a mother lied in court about completing mandatory counseling classes to get her child back from foster care, according to the review. Child protective investigators "failed to identify the active danger threats occurring within the household that were significant, immediate and clearly observable," the review found, noting that the latest investigation into unsafe family conditions was still open when police say Charisse Stinson killed her son, whose body was found in September in a wooded area in Largo.

At the time of Jordan's death, the family was under court-ordered protective supervision, the review noted. In addition to that case, there was also an active abuse investigation because of ongoing domestic violence issues between Stinson and Jordan's father, Jordan Belliveau Sr. The parents were granted visits with Jordan, and case workers urged the couple to enter counseling programs and move to a new home free of violence and gang influences. But Stinson and Belliveau Sr. were often uncooperative, authorities said. Reports of domestic violence and other incidents continued to raise concerns.

There were plenty of red flags for the safety net to catch. But because of poor communication and follow-up, decisions were made without welfare workers knowing that Stinson had been thrown out of her counseling program for nonattendance. Officials involved in the case traded inaccurate information, and front-line investigators and case managers didn't collaborate, leading to "an absence of shared ownership" in Jordan's fate. "On the surface, the local system of care appears to be cohesive," the report found. Below the surface, it found "a siloed approach to decision-making," as the many partners in the system - law enforcement, social workers, lawyers and judges - "fail to work together to ensure the best decisions are being made."

"This case highlights the fractured system of care in Circuit 6, Pinellas County, with each of the various parts of the system operating independently of one another," the review found, "without regard or respect as to the role their parts play in the overall child welfare system."

In response to the report, the new DCF Secretary Chad Poppell ordered a comprehensive review of the foster care system in Pinellas. "This report should be a call to action for the entire child welfare system," Poppell said in a statement, "and I intend to treat is as one." DeSantis, in a statement, also vowed that "those responsible will be held accountable." But any broad review cannot be limited to this case. As the DCF report found, there is a systemic problem with having so many moving parts, as members of child protection teams answer to different bosses at different agencies, public and private alike. And adding to the difficulty of ensuring a child's safety is the over-emphasis in Florida on reuniting families.

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The child welfare system faces many challenges in getting it right, from dealing with dysfunctional families to inadequate funding to a public-private sharing of responsibility that makes it too hard to establish accountability. But the circumstances leading to Jordan's death are far too common, and many are fixable. The governor is right to pay attention to this case, for the lessons learned could spare another tragedy if they forge a stronger system in Florida.