The killings of six children in the Gilchrist County town of Bell is the first major test for a retooled Department of Children and Families that has pledged to be open and transparent about child fatalities. Bolstered by new state money and stronger laws to protect children, DCF now has the opportunity to make good on its promises. The agency should fully disclose the details of what happened with this troubled family. The goal is to ensure that child welfare workers and the public learn from such tragedies and work to make sure they don't happen again.
Located about 40 miles west of Gainesville, Bell was thrust into the national spotlight this month when 51-year-old Don Spirit shot his six grandchildren and his adult daughter before turning the gun on himself. The children ranged in age from two months to 11 years old. In keeping with one of its new policies, DCF sent a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to investigate the deaths and try to determine how the family fell apart. The Spirit family was no stranger to child welfare officials. The adults were the subjects of an open DCF investigation after a Sept. 1 call to the state's child abuse hotline indicated that the children were in danger, primarily due to poverty and drug abuse by the parents. There also were allegations of physical abuse by Spirit of his grandchildren.
DCF came under intense scrutiny in the spring after the Miami Herald published its "Innocents Lost" series, which detailed the preventable deaths of 477 children who were known to child welfare workers. In response, lawmakers passed a child welfare bill that tightened rules regarding child custody, parenting plans, caseworker qualifications and paramours. They also dedicated money to hire new caseworkers and investigators. And in April, former Suncoast region managing director Mike Carroll was tapped as DCF's interim leader. He promised to make the beleaguered agency more accountable and transparent. Now, with the tragedy in Bell, Carroll has to prove himself.
It seems inexplicable that the Spirits were allowed to retain custody of the children. Both Spirit and his daughter were known drug users. Both had run afoul of the law, and Spirit shot and killed his 8-year-old son in 2001 hunting accident. And both adults also had a lengthy history with DCF, where signs of inept parenting surfaced multiple times over many years.
DCF has kept its promise to put information about child fatalities on a public website within 72 hours of a death. Now it needs to honor the rest of the deal it made with taxpayers. The agency should provide a full accounting of what happened with the Spirit family, when caseworkers got involved and how DCF fell short of saving these children's lives. All parties, including those assigned with keeping children safe, can learn from full disclosure.