By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Despite reform efforts aimed at creating more transparency surrounding the death of children the state is monitoring, those deaths are still being undercounted, according to The Miami Herald.
Earlier this year, the Herald published a heartbreaking investigative series looking into almost 500 child deaths that happened under the nose of the state from 2008 to November 2013. According to the Herald, Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) was alerted to the fact that certain children were in harm’s way in their own homes, and yet were not taken away from their parents.
As a result, hundreds of children died tragic and preventable deaths.
The Herald’s reporting inspired a reform effort during this year’s Legislative session. State lawmakers enacted a slew of changes, which included an effort to create more transparency.
However, that’s not happening.
“Nothing has changed,” said former Broward Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. James Harn, who supervised child abuse investigations before retiring when a new sheriff was elected last year. “Some day, somebody will say ‘let’s just stop the political wrangling.’ Here’s what you’ve got to do: Just tell the truth.”
For several years, BSO, which has investigated child deaths under contract with DCF, has recorded significantly more fatalities due to neglect or abuse than other counties, where DCF does its own investigations. One important reason for the disparity is that the sheriff’s office long has insisted that drownings and accidental suffocations — among the leading causes of child fatality — be counted, while DCF has, in recent years, declined to include the majority of those in its abuse and neglect tally.
As a result, said Harn, the statewide numbers “are cooked.”
“It’s not going to get fixed as long as they want to hide things,” Harn added.
A DCF spokeswoman in Tallahassee, Alexis Lambert, said the agency studies all child fatalities — not just the ones it verifies as resulting from abuse or neglect — to “improve and strengthen child welfare practice and services provided to vulnerable children and at-risk families statewide.”
She added: “The safety and well-being of Florida’s vulnerable children is DCF’s top priority. Understanding and assessing child fatalities is one way the department analyzes the issues facing families and develops strategies to meet the needs of struggling families and protect vulnerable children.”
The Associated Press pointed out last week that one of the possible reasons the statistics have been unreliable, is that they have been mired in politics.
Right now, Gov. Rick Scott, who is running against his predecessor, Charlie Crist, is trying to make the case that children have been better protected under his administration.
His campaign has been using stats, which the Herald pointed out don’t really tell the whole story. In short, the stats are juked and Scott is propping them up to prove there have been improvements where there are hardly any.
Scott said deaths among children who have come to the Department of Children and Families’ attention have plummeted from 97 in 2009 to 36 last year, but child welfare experts said any drop is attributed to the way DCF responds to abuse reports and changes to what is considered a death caused by neglect or abuse. The result artificially reduces the number of child deaths compared to Crist’s 2007-11 term.
“It’s amazing how this works, isn’t it? You just change how you do things and you can make it appear … like things have improved,” said Pam Graham, who was on the state’s child abuse death review team until December and who is a professor at Florida State University’s College of Social Work.
Three times during a debate Friday, Scott said 97 children with a DCF history died of abuse in 2009. But the state’s Child Abuse Death Review Team, which is independent of DCF and often highly critical of the agency, said only 69 children fell into that category that year. Scott’s staff said the 97 figure came from a private company hired by DCF and the Scott administration that examined child deaths between 2007 and 2013. The administration said the company’s analysis is based on updated data.
But the Herald reports that this “updated data” does not count children who die from drowning, or infants and toddlers who die because a sleeping parent rolls onto them.
According to the Herald:
A careful study of thousands of pages of state documents makes clear that the number Scott cited and the one on the DCF website are both distortions of reality. They are contorted by years-long delays in completing investigations — thus keeping deaths off the books — by a decision to narrow the definition of what constitutes neglect, and by a determination to “unverify” some child deaths that had previously been “verified” as abuse or neglect.
Said Pamela Graham, a Florida State University social work professor who served on a Department of Health statewide death review committee for five years: “Numbers lie if you aren’t counting them.”
For many years, state child protection systems have been evaluated in large part by a standard measure: “verified” child deaths “with priors” — that is, the number of youngsters whose families had prior contact with the state. That is the number that Gov. Scott says is declining. But the decline in deaths with priors can be traced to the factors cited above.
Drownings and accidental suffocations differ from, say, beating or shooting deaths in an important way: “There are human decisions in how you categorize them,” said Richard Gelles, who is dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice. There is simply no wiggle room as to whether a beating is a child abuse death. In contrast, a drowning can be a neglect death, or, as many more of them are now called, merely tragic accidents.
Lastly, the state also isn’t verifying the cause of death in a lot of these cases—and that changes the stats, the newspaper reports.
In the process of tracking child deaths, DCF investigators collect information to verify whether a child has died as a direct result of abuse or neglect. Once the cause is agreed upon at the agency, the number is added to the state’s database. Cases that aren’t verified, don’t make it to the state’s count.
The percentage of deaths that are verified by DCF has been dropping precipitously through the years. In 2009, the state verified 43 percent of total deaths. In 2010, 35 percent of total deaths were verified. However, last year, a mere 10 percent were verified—and according to the Herald, so far this year, about 13 percent have been verified.