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As Fla. Looks To Curb Child Deaths, Should Child Welfare System ‘Hybrid’ Model End?

Florida Channel
Florida Channel
Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo talking to a group of lawmakers Tuesday about the steps the child welfare agency is hoping to take, after a recent spate of child deaths.

An independent review of the Florida Department of Children and Families says the state’s child welfare agency falls short when it comes to its child protective investigative services. The report comes as the state looks to curb a spate of child abuse deaths.

Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo calls the review by the Casey Families Program, a private non-profit group, thorough—even though it didn’t start until her predecessor David Wilkins was ousted in the wake of several children dying while on DCF’s watch. Jacobo says the report found most of the deaths were caused by asphyxia due to unsafe sleep environments, and there were other deaths of concern.

“Several died from drowning or physical abuse. A few children died in unusual ways, such as gunshot wounds inflicted by a sibling, or from being placed overnight in restraints by residential care staff, or from a drug overdose,” said Jacobo.

She says the report also identified in her words, “many shortcomings,” including the safety procedures of Child Protective Investigators, or CPI’s.

“In some cases, the CPI did not adequately assess or address the safety of other children in the household, following a suspicious child death. Assessment and decision making processes regarding sibling safety appeared highly variable and unstructured,” added Jacobo.

Speaking to the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee Tuesday, Jacobo said she wasn’t surprised by the report, adding she’d like to create a database allowing investigators to flag families with risk factors. The database would also allow multiple investigators to more quickly read into a case file and communicate about potential problems.

Still, Venice Republican Senator Nancy Detert says she’s skeptical as to the changes. Detert adds given the spate of child deaths, she’s concerned the current “hybrid” model of the state’s child welfare system is not working. It’s a combined effort of DCF and local agencies called community-based care organizations which also provides child-welfare services.

“To have 285 child death allegations reported in a seven month period is outrageous frankly.  Maybe, we just need to drill down into what can we do to fix it and do we want to continue with a hybrid," she asked.

Other suggestions floated before the panel include making funding available to hire social workers who can better assess children's living situations. Hollywood Democrat Eleanor Sobel, the panel’s chair, says the goal is to sponsor legislation after hearing more recommendations from child welfare experts.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.