State lawmakers vow to respond to child welfare problems reported in Miami Herald series. (Photo via Jimmy Emerson)

State lawmakers vow to respond to child welfare problems reported in Miami Herald series. (Photo via Jimmy Emerson)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

The Miami Herald recently published its “Innocents Lost” series—a heartbreaking and thorough look at the state’s troubled child welfare system. In the wake of this reporting, state lawmakers have vowed to make a serious effort to rectify the situation.

Besides some policy changes, Florida legislators have said they will allocate more money to the state Department of Children and Families (DCF)—the agency in charge of keeping tabs on some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

“Innocents Lost” is a massive public records project chronicling the nearly 500 deaths that happened under DCF’s watch since 2008.

According to a description of the project:

Reporters from the Herald’s Investigative Reporting Team began by requesting death reviews — written reports detailing both the circumstances of the child’s death and the Department of Children & Families’ prior history with the deceased child’s family — for all child deaths beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

The newspaper negotiated the details of what information would be provided from the reports, and filed three lawsuits, two of them successful, in an effort to obtain some records quickly or to seek the restoration of details that had been redacted.

All of the children whose histories are included in this series died as a result of abuse or neglect, according to DCF’s findings, except for a handful of cases that are either technically still pending or were otherwise unavailable. Among the cases that are pending, all are expected to be eventually verified as resulting from abuse or neglect, as one or more DCF administrators have discussed them openly with the Herald.

Besides analysis and multimedia presentations, the project also explains what happened to each one of the 477 children that died, as well as the circumstances of their deaths.

According to The Herald, the project has already spurred some action:

Twenty-four hours after the Miami Herald published the first part of a series detailing the deaths of almost 500 children, the Florida Senate’s top child-welfare legislator said she would overhaul a bill designed to reform the Department of Children & Families.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel said the bill her committee drafted — which passed unanimously through its first committee last week — would have to be rewritten in light of the “Innocents Lost” series, which chronicles the deaths of 477 children whose families had a history with DCF.

“When I started reading it, I had to put it down. It’s death in your face, said the Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs. “We will not sleep or rest until every vulnerable child is rescued from dysfunctional families and guardians. The stories are tear-jerkers. It’s unacceptable this has happened to Florida’s children.”

The number the children who died of abuse or neglect during the past six years increased dramatically as Florida child welfare administrators implemented an intensive family-preservation program that reduced the number of children in state care while slashing services and oversight for children who remained with troubled families.

DCF officials have maintained that family preservation does not trump safety, but conceded that communities may not have enough resources — yet — to assist families struggling with issues such as drug addiction, mental illness and domestic violence. In a statement released late Monday, a spokeswoman said initiatives are underway to improve the agency’s work.

According to the Herald/ Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau, there is now also talk about spending more money:

The head of the state’s child welfare agency told a House committee Tuesday that the child deaths documented by the Miami Herald exposed a gap in the state’s safety net and, for the first time, she acknowledged it will take more services, and money, to fix it.

However, Esther Jacobo, interim secretary of the Department of Children & Families, maintained that the agency does not need to change its policies related to removing high-risk children from unsafe homes in the wake of the Miami Herald’s “Innocents Lost” series.

“We need to identify what those additional services are and what additional resources we may need,’’ she said, noting that the resource levels may vary from region to region.

…A Herald review of the Florida budget found that as overall state spending grew by $10 billion between 2005 and 2013, the resources devoted to child welfare dropped by $80 million.

Gov. Rick Scott has recommended spending nearly $40 million in the coming fiscal year to hire 400 new child protective investigators, but his plan does not include additional money to serve children and families once they’re in the system.

This is one of the first years in a while where the state is expected to have a budget surplus. However, there aren’t talks of beefing up funding for state agencies in post-recession times. Instead, Scott and the GOP-led Legislature are considering sizeable tax cuts.