The state’s child welfare agency launched a website this week that coincides with a newly signed law that will take effect Tuesday. The rollout of the Florida Department of Children and Families’ new way to track child deaths comes at the same time a scathing grand jury report came out and some are renewing their call to investigate the agency’s integrity.
Child Welfare Reform
Just as he did when he signed the so-called Immigrant Tuition bill into law, Governor Rick Scott toured the state as part of his re-election campaign to tout some of the other bills he’s approved lately. The “Caring for Families” tour highlights early learning program funding as well as help for children with disabilities and foster kids…
“…whether it’s making sure we have all the child protective investigators at DCF that we need, we’re going to make sure we do the right thing for our children,” said Scott, at one of his stops.
Scott is talking about one of the many provision contained in a sweeping bill overhauling Florida’s child welfare agency, which includes funding for the Florida Department of Children and Families to hire 270 more child protective investigators.
It’s all part of a comprehensive reform effort to address a troubled child welfare system, after a series of investigations by the Miami Herald found a spate of child abuse-related deaths that occurred under DCF’s watch.
Last fall, that probe found that child welfare authorities had overlooked dangerous signs and most of the 40 reviewed children who died were younger than five.
“So, from the get go, we were interested in the child, especially children who were under four, who cannot speak for themselves, cannot defend themselves in these awful situations, where parents were drug abusers, had mental health issues, were basically dysfunctional,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel.
The Hollywood Democrat was charged with working on the Senate’s effort to reform Florida’s child welfare agency.
That effort includes encouraging child protective investigators to have a social worker background and making sure an Assistant Secretary of Child Welfare is appointed to manage child protection and welfare services.
“Some of the things we’ve put into place was more accountability and transparency measures. We had a Critical Incident Response Team. If there is an unfortunate death, a team would come together—not from the district—we would have a sort of an outside team to look at it. There’s also a website that we report all deaths,” added Sobel.
Child Fatality Prevention website
And, ahead of the new law taking effect Tuesday, DCF has just launched that website called the Child Fatality Prevention website to track all child deaths in the state. And, the person now in charge of implementing that is new Interim Secretary Mike Carroll.
“We’re dealing right now with some issues that I inherited, one of them around transparency. But, I am trying to move the agency to a place where never again will the agency be questioned in terms of trying to hide or shelter data or information from folks. And, so, I think we need to be very open and upfront with folks,” said Carroll.
Carroll has been on the job for almost two months, after taking over for Esther Jacobo. Jacobo was the interim head of the agency until the end of the 2014 Legislative Session. Scott’s first DCF Chief, David Wilkins, resigned about a year ago amid the initial reports of the child deaths under DCF’s watch.
Speaking recently on Florida Channel’s Face To Face Program, Carroll says he believes the website will become the leading website in the nation in posting and notifying communities about state child deaths.
“But, it will go far beyond that because we’re going to put everything in that database that would let local communities know what the cause of death was, what the circumstances around that death were, and on every single death, we do a report around that death that outlines what the department’s prior contact was with that family if we had some, and all of that will be released,” added Carroll. “The beauty of it, I think, is it’s really an interactive web site where it will provide statewide data, but it’s also going to be county by county. So, you can click on the state of Florida if you live in Hillsborough, you can just see Hillsborough’s data.”
Carroll says his ultimate goal is to eliminate preventable child deaths, including unsafe sleep and drowning—part of several ongoing DCF campaigns.
DCF Still Under Fire
Meanwhile, Senator Sobel says even with these efforts, it’s important to note that the department was obligated to put together the website.
“That is the step in the right direction by the department, but they’re mandated to do it now, and there are lots of mandates in this bill that will make the department more accountable. And, the spirit of the law is basically in the best interest of the child,” said Sobel.
Sobel has since renewed her call, asking the Governor for an independent investigation into claims DCF employees were intentionally told to cover up deaths involving children under state care. Carroll has rejected those allegations, calling them “misperceptions” that he’s already taken action to address.
“Our work is complex. It is often misunderstood, sometimes misrepresented. And, so when we shoot ourselves in the foot and create those misperceptions ourselves, it’s kind of infuriating,” said Carroll. “I did take action against the administrator down there—not because I thought he was unethical or not that I thought he was destroying records, because the fact of the matter was he wasn’t—but he did make a decision I thought that put the department in a light where now we are having to defend ourselves against the perception that’s not accurate and it doesn’t help our cause.”
In one of the Herald’s child death investigations, a Southeast Region child welfare administrator emailed an employee to delete an incident report stating that she would “advise why later.” Carroll says he suspended the manager for that region for two days.
Meanwhile, a grand jury has also accused DCF administrators of “intentionally and deliberately” manipulating investigations into child abuse related deaths, but did find the department has been making strides.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.