1. Opinion

Editorial: When in doubt, take the kid from abusive home

Liz Rutenbeck, 24, holds son William Hendrickson IV in a Facebook photo.
Liz Rutenbeck, 24, holds son William Hendrickson IV in a Facebook photo.
Published Sep. 29, 2017

Take the kid. That is once again the lesson from another death in Florida that could have been avoided if child welfare workers would have erred on the side of caution rather than on keeping a dysfunctional family together. Instead, 8-month-old William Hendrickson IV is dead, his father is charged with his death and still another state investigation finds the system failed. Maybe this time the Florida Legislature will listen.

These horror stories of children being abused and killed in Florida after the state knew they were at risk have been repeated for decades. Nearly 30 years have passed since 2-year-old Bradley McGee died after his stepfather dunked Bradley head-first into a toilet after he soiled himself. Previous abuse was reported, but the state did not remove the child from the home. The parents were sent to prison, and the Legislature passed a law named after Bradley and hired hundreds of additional child welfare workers. But that high-profile case has been followed for years by other avoidable deaths of kids whose abuse had been reported — and by more reforms and more money for a child welfare system that still remains woefully understaffed and underfunded.

Now comes another state report listing the system breakdowns that contributed to the death of William Hendrickson IV in a Largo mobile home. Among the depressing findings: A child welfare caseworker who visited in July left the child in a room with no air-conditioning and under the care of his disturbed father, who had been refusing to take his medication or give milk to his 2-year-old daughter. When a call was made to the Florida Abuse Hotline later that day, the hotline operator mistakenly marked the call as a nonpriority. And a case manager and her supervisor had previously failed to involve the State Attorney's Office after it was clear their safety plan had not been followed.

What does it take to get child out of such an obviously abusive, unsafe environment? Over William's eight months of life, his mother was jailed on a domestic violence call, both parents failed drug tests and 911 was called 14 times from his home. The Florida Department of Children and Families was called multiple times about his welfare. His grandparents did the best they could, but they could not control William's father.

Who is ultimately responsible? The child's case manager worked for Directions for Living, a Pinellas nonprofit. That nonprofit was working on a contract with Eckerd Kids, the nonprofit that is the county's lead child welfare agency. Eckerd Kids has a contract with DCF. And DCF runs the abuse hotline. That state department reports to Gov. Rick Scott. And the Legislature controls the purse strings. One of the casualties of the privatization of child welfare services is a lack of direct accountability.

There are more than 500 cases of children who have died while on DCF's radar since 2008, according to a Miami Herald investigation. The state spends too little on child services, caseloads are too high and salaries for front-line workers are too low. There always will be human errors, but the state still leans too far toward keeping families together rather than toward protecting the child by removing them from the home.

William Hendrickson IV was abused by his father, who is charged in his son's death. But the system also failed again to protect a child, much as it has for three decades. Florida must do better.


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