1. Opinion

Editorial: Another child's death, another cry for help

Published Mar. 13, 2017

The Riverview foster mother charged in the death of a 17-month-old wasn't the first one to fail the toddler. Case records show that the boy, who had complex health and developmental problems, was handed to an inexperienced foster mother instead of medically trained caregivers and that his repeated medical emergencies did not trigger intervention by child welfare workers. Aedyn Agminalis' death is the inescapable outcome when the system charged with looking out for Florida's most vulnerable kids is chronically overburdened and underfunded.

Aedyn was taken from his parents after investigators determined they often left him alone in a filthy bedroom. Latamara Stackhouse Flythe, who took him in September, seemed in many ways an ideal foster mother. College-educated with a $70,000 income, she lived in a nice Riverview neighborhood with her two teenage children. Her job: marketing manager for an agency that recruits foster parents. But Flythe had only been licensed since June, and in the five months Aedyn lived with her she took him to the hospital three times. The Department of Children and Families, which investigated Aedyn's death, said that level of medical attention meant he should have been considered for placement with a medical foster family. Worse, his hospital visits were logged but not recorded in a way that alerted caseworkers that a child was having repeated medical incidents, an inexplicable lapse. Eckerd Kids, the agency that runs Hillsborough County's child welfare system, says it has since changed its system to raise those flags.

Aedyn was rushed to the hospital on Dec. 7, minutes after a caseworker left Flythe's house. Flythe said she was changing his diaper when his body went limp. Doctors found that he was suffering from hemorrhaging in his brain and spinal cord, likely the result of blunt force trauma. The toddler was resuscitated but had no brain activity and was removed from life support days later.

Flythe, charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, will be appropriately punished if convicted. But the system also must be accountable to taxpayers and Florida's abused and neglected kids. A federal report released in January found the state is lagging in meeting the educational, physical and behavioral needs of children in the foster care system. In more than half of 80 cases reviewed, child welfare workers removed children from homes without providing appropriate services, failed to make concerted efforts to deliver care or did not monitor safety plans or engage families in safety services. It cited an array of systemic problems, such as gaps in services, long waiting lists and a failure to tailor aid to a culturally diverse population. Many of those problems were raised by the same federal agency eight years ago.

Funding is a key issue. The nonpartisan Florida TaxWatch recently said that the state should be investing millions more in child welfare services. Meanwhile, more kids are entering the system, further stressing caseworkers, facilities and foster parents. More money could add staff, reduce turnover, ease caseloads, provide better training and improve services for families whose needs are complex and ingrained. The head of the Florida Coalition for Children is asking for a $49 million increase in state funding — still not enough to adequately fund the system but a boost big enough to make a difference.