Innocents Lost: Preserving Families But Losing Children in Florida

Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, Preserving Families But Losing Children. Miami Herald, 16 March 2014. 12-part series. “After Florida cut down on protections for children in troubled homes, deaths soared. The children died in ways cruel, outlandish, predictable and preventable…. A year-long Miami Herald investigation found that, in the last six years [2008-2013], 477 Florida children have died of abuse or neglect after their families had come to the attention of the Department of Children & Families…. To understand the magnitude of the problem — and possible solutions — the Herald studied every death over a six-year period involving families with child welfare histories. This series is the result of a year’s worth of reporting by the Herald’s Investigation Team, and multiple lawsuits to obtain state death records.” In February 2015 USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism announced that this series won the 2014 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, and in April 2015 the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University announced that this series won the 2014 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism.

Excerpts from story:

[The children] tumbled into canals and drowned, baked in furnace-like cars, were soaked in corrosive chemicals, incinerated, beaten mercilessly, and bounced off walls and concrete pavement. One was jammed into a cooler posthumously; others were wrapped like a mummy to silence their cries, flattened by a truck, overdosed and starved. An infant boy was flung from a moving car on an interstate. A 2-year-old girl was killed by her mom’s pet python.

The children were not just casualties of bad parenting, but of a deliberate shift in Florida child welfare policy. DCF [Department of Children & Families] leaders made a decision, nearly 10 years ago, to reduce by as much as half the number of children taken into state care, adopting a philosophy known as family preservation. They also, simultaneously, slashed services, monitoring and protections for the increased number of children left with their violent, neglectful, mentally ill or drug-addicted parents. The result: Many more children died.”…

Prompted by a series of high-profile deaths — cases that have brought scorn and periodic leadership changes to DCF — a Miami Herald investigative team dug through six years of DCF deaths “verified” by the state as abuse or neglect, starting with Jan. 1, 2008. The Herald focused on those deaths in which the family had at least one encounter with child welfare over the previous five years.

Among the newspaper’s findings:

The number of deaths with prior contacts totaled at least 477, far more than child welfare administrators reported to the governor and the Legislature. The agency under-reported by as many as 39 children in a given year. Lawmakers could have committed more money to address the problem had they known its full scope. Instead, they cut funding.

The overwhelming majority of the children were 5 or younger, and slightly over 70 percent were 2 or younger–in many instances, too young to walk, talk, cry out for help, run away or defend themselves.

Drugs or alcohol were linked to 323 of the deaths, and yet the state cut dollars for drug treatment. Children snatched their parents’ pain pills off nightstands, gobbled them and died. They were smothered by moms who passed out while breastfeeding under the influence. One Hillsborough County couple concealed a loaded semiautomatic handgun under their sleeping baby’s pillow during a drug raid. Ulysses Franklin, 6 months old at the time of the raid, survived, was removed by the state and returned only to be crushed by a car months later while left unattended in a parking lot.

Rather than go to court to force parents to get treatment or counseling, the state often relied on “safety plans”–written promises by parents to sin no more. Many of the pledges carried no meaningful oversight. Children died–more than 80 of them–after their parents signed one or, in some cases, multiple safety plans.

Parents were given repeated chances to shape up, and failed, and failed and failed again, and still kept their children. In at least 34 cases, children died after DCF had logged 10 or more reports to the agency’s abuse and neglect hotline. Six families had been the subject of at least 20 reports….

For more than a year, Herald reporters examined thousands of pages of case histories…. They pored over death reviews, police and court records, internal emails, autopsy reports, criminal histories and health department reports. The Herald interviewed people across the state, including a woman imprisoned for aiding in the death of her child. It sued three times over some records, obtained others from confidential sources, and still others through negotiations with the agency.

Those records, collectively, show that child welfare administrators consistently under-reported the number of verified deaths by abuse and neglect. For example, in 2009, the state reported 69 child deaths “with priors” to the governor and Legislature. The Herald, using records provided by DCF, tallied 107.

In 2010, DCF reported 41 deaths among families with a prior history to the state Department of Health, which collects child death analyses and issues the yearly report on child fatalities. The Herald, relying on records DCF provided, counted 75. Months later, a DCF consultant, hired in response to the Herald’s still-unpublished investigation, came up with 73….

From 1999 to 2003, the number of deaths with priors never exceeded 35. After the state outlined its goal of reduced out-of-home care, child deaths spiked, peaking at 107 in 2009, by the Herald’s count….

The death toll rose as DCF left children with dangerous felons; took at face value the stories of parents and step-parents who claimed their bruised, bloodied offspring were klutzes, not victims; and ignored the warnings of teachers, who are the agency’s eyes and ears in the school system. At times, DCF failed or was slow to perform mandatory criminal background checks on caregivers with violent histories, and took little or no action when pill-popping mothers and fathers declined drug screenings or treatment.

The agency left small children with career criminals, caregivers who had cracked a child’s skull and a grandmother who had kept a 3-year-old in a cage. It once ordered a father to install a “panic button” in his son’s bedroom closet after the child was returned to his custody.

After a series of critical Herald stories about child deaths last year, DCF asked national child welfare consultant Casey Family Programs to study its operations, including 40 deaths during 2013.

Among Casey’s recommendations: Develop an array of services — including free child-care, in-home parenting instruction and respite care — to help struggling families, and do away with “promissory note” safety plans.

The report said investigations preceding a child’s death were often incomplete, and that investigators failed to grasp, and act on, the troubled dynamics connected to substance abuse and domestic violence. DCF fixates on isolated events and ignores both the underlying cause of dysfunction and the broader picture, the report added….

Under state and federal law, removing children from their parents is always a last resort and must be ordered by a judge; indeed, the permanent loss of custody is called “the parental death penalty.” Investigators have other options, however, including parenting classes, mental health counseling, drug treatment, and free daycare — which a judge can order parents to accept.

Ensuring the safety of Florida’s most vulnerable children is the work of investigators, caseworkers, supervisors, lawyers and service providers. Their mission can be difficult, complex and financially unrewarding. Investigators, on the front line of child protection, start at a salary of $39,600 a year.

Starting in the middle of the last decade [2005], the state began a deliberate reduction in the number of children in out-of-home care. It also slashed in-home services for children left with their parents…. The agency’s revamped child protection framework served two important masters: parents’ rights groups and some children’s advocates, who wanted the state to stop meddling in the lives of families — and lawmakers, who have cut funding for human services for decades. The two forces found common ground.

Nieman Foundation News, The Miami Herald’s “Innocents Lost” series wins Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism. 1 April 2015.

“The series was the result of a year’s worth of reporting and multiple lawsuits to obtain state death records. The Herald documented how the state repeatedly left children with violent or drug-addicted caregivers, who were asked to sign unenforceable “safety plans.” The newspaper also reported on the efforts by Florida’s Department of Children & Families and the Department of Health to manipulate child fatality data and to block the state’s release of the details of child deaths.

“After the publication of the series, the reporters continued to update their online database, which now includes the stories of about 535 young victims. The Herald also hosted a town hall meeting to allow stakeholders, including judges, social workers, parents and teachers, to discuss their concerns.

“The Herald’s reports have led to a number of important reforms to state law and policy: The Florida Legislature allocated nearly $50 million to improve child protection services and began the most comprehensive revision of child welfare statutes in its history. Lawmakers also required the child welfare agency to build and maintain a transparency website that lists all child deaths in the state. Additionally, a law established a child welfare institute at Florida State University’s social work department to offer guidance on policy and practice, and created a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to quickly investigate child deaths….

“Bingham judge Deborah Nelson said: ‘This series is powerful. Powerful statistics, powerful examples, powerful writing. And that’s what it takes to move government to protect its most vulnerable citizens — and move they did with significant changes in law and policy.'”