Since April, 20 children who had already been on the Department of Children and Family’s radar, died from child abuse or neglect. It’s a number state officials said must shrink and, even though it’s months before the start of the next legislative session, lawmakers are already working with experts and community leaders to find solutions.
During a town hall meeting Tuesday evening on what changes should be made to the state's child protection system, Pat McCabe, a foster parent and Guardian ad Litem, said it’s time to get angry.
“Unfortunately, the people that would be outraged and angered are dead. And their families that were part of the problem are negligent in their duties or those kids wouldn’t have been in those situation. So I’m here to represent Rilya Wilson’s ghost. And say, you guys need to get some anger and outrage in you to change the existing conditions!”
McCabe said he got involved in the issue after then-4-year-old Rilya Wilson disappeared from her foster home back in 2000. Hollywood Democratic Senator Eleanor Sobel called the meeting.
“We’re all outraged, but we’re trying to keep calm about it and we’re trying to do what we can. These are complex issues,” Sobel said.
More than a dozen lawmakers, along with community leaders and officials from the justice system and DCF attended the meeting where the group discussed everything from needing more transparency in the department to searching for more funding. And Alan Abramowitz, the executive director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem program, said if the state does find funding to devote to the issue he’s got an idea for where it needs to go—toward getting the department’s case workers on a career track.
“We need our investigators to stay. The longer they’re there, the safer our children will be, because they have that experience,” Abramowitz said.
Although Abramowitz does admit that no matter what the state does, it’s probably not possible to completely zero out child death.
“As long as there is someone out there who has the ability to harm a child, children will be harmed,” Abramowitz said.
Abramowitz said some of that can also be reduced through education. He said a practice as simple as co-sleeping could lead to a child’s death if a sleeping mother were to roll over on and suffocate her small child. Family law lawyer and Stetson University College of Law Professor, Kate Bohl, agrees education is a good start, but said it needs to go beyond parenting. If that happens, she says there could be a way to stop child deaths from abuse or neglect.
“ I think there probably is and I think it involves a number of factors. It involves no unwanted children. That’s a big deal Women have to be able to control their reproduction. It involves those wanted children being raised with sufficient resources, both them and their parents,” Bohl said.
Bohl said those resources would include good schools and good after-school or child care programs.
Meanwhile, Interim Department of Children and Families chief Esther Jacobo said her department is compiling a report on every child with department priors who has died this year of verified abuse. Once that’s completed, DCF will ask Casey Family Programs to review what went wrong.