By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) is in hot water, again. A grand jury scolded the agency this week for under-reporting child deaths in the state related to abuse or neglect.
Earlier this year, The Miami Herald published its “Innocents Lost” series, an exhaustive investigation into the state’s troubled child welfare system. The project chronicled 477 deaths that happened under DCF’s watch since 2008.
Among other revelations included in the series, reporters later found their investigation spurred some changes at a particular branch of the state agency. According to the Herald, “records show, child abuse investigators in the Southeast Region’s five counties ceased filing child death incident reports, which are required by DCF policies.” The agency branch began hiding a paper trial of 30 children’s deaths when the Herald started reporting on the agency’s failures to prevent hundreds of deaths of children it was monitoring.
Following this recent revelation—as well as the investigation published earlier this year– a grand jury blasted the agency.
A Miami-Dade grand jury accused state child welfare administrators Tuesday of “intentionally and deliberately” manipulating the investigation of child deaths because of abuse and neglect — making it appear that fewer children were dying across the state.
In a 30-page report that explores whether the Department of Children & Families has improved since the shocking 2011 death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona, grand jurors found much that pleased them. But they also scolded the agency for what they described as a systematic attempt to conceal the true number of children whose lives are cut short by abuse or neglect.
“I thank the members of the grand jury for their comprehensive look at Florida’s child welfare system,” said Mike Carroll, the agency’s interim secretary. “It is clear from their thoughtful recommendations that they understand the challenges in the work we do, and it’s also clear they recognize our commitment to continuing to improve so we can better protect Florida’s children.”
Besides a grand jury investigation, the Herald’s reporting also spurred a website tracking child abuse deaths in the state.
State child welfare officials have launched a website aimed at improving transparency around child abuse deaths. The site was mandated by the Legislature.
The Department of Children and Families said Wednesday the public site contains information on child fatalities reported to the Florida Abuse Hotline alleged to be a result of abuse or neglect.
The agency says the website exceeds the new data requirement to publish basic information set by the Legislature. The website sorts data by county, child’s age and prior history.
The site features 2014 data but DCF is working to include the past five years by this fall.
Gov. Rick Scott also signed a bill this week reforming the state’s child welfare program. The new law reforms old state policies that used to favor parental-rights over the general welfare of neglected and abused children, among other things.