In 2009, 197 Florida children died as a result of abuse or neglect.
The following year, the number fell to 136 — a remarkable drop of 30 percent.
Among kids whose family had a prior history of intervention by child-welfare workers, the improvement was even more dramatic: The death toll fell 40 percent.
Did Florida, a state with a long-troubled child-protection system, dramatically improve its efforts on behalf of at-risk children?
In fact, the Department of Children & Families unilaterally changed the way it tallied child deaths involving neglect.
The new policy, approved in the summer of 2010, significantly narrowed the parameters for what is considered abuse and neglect. The steep decline followed immediately — the first significant reduction in a decade.
However, the new calculation didn’t sit well with several members of the Statewide Child Abuse Death Review Committee. Headed by the state Department of Health, its job is to study child deaths each year in an effort to prevent them in the future. To those critics, the supposed reduction was simply a matter of manipulating data.
A Jacksonville doctor who heads a local death review team blasted the new guidelines in a detailed, six-page 2010 memo, calling them “fatally flawed.”
“These [child-death] investigations are not intended to stigmatize families, but to identify families who may need services to prevent future tragedies involving other children,” wrote Bruce McIntosh, a pediatrician who heads the Department of Health’s Child Protection Team in Jacksonville and serves on a local death-review committee. “They are also essential for identifying epidemiologic risk factors that can be used for education and the prevention of other unintended deaths in the future.”
DCF Secretary David Wilkins, in an interview with The Miami Herald Friday, defended the changes, declaring “We have nothing to hide.”
He said the agency is seeking to be more transparent with state death reviewers this year, partly as a result of ongoing discussions he has had with other members of Gov. Rick Scott’s Children’s Cabinet.
Cabinet members, for instance, have recommended changing state law so that only one state agency evaluates child deaths each year, and stipulating that that group has the authority to investigate every fatality — regardless of whether DCF verifies the death as being the result of parental maltreatment.
Regardless, Wilkins said, he expects DCF to provide statewide death reviewers with records involving all child deaths this year, as members of the team have recommended for several years.“We will make sure that they are looking at a complete set” of death cases, Wilkins said.
So what is a child death involving abuse or neglect?
Two of the most common ways children die in Florida are by drowning in a swimming pool or smothering when they are sleeping in bed with a parent and the parent rolls over. Prior to 2010, those deaths were routinely categorized as abuse or neglect. In many cases, the deaths involved parents who were impaired by alcohol or drugs.
The June 2010 rewrite of DCF procedures dramatically narrowed the definition, essentially saying “a willful act by the caregiver” was required in these instances to constitute neglect.
By way of further explanation, DCF’s top death review coordinator, Keith Perlman, wrote in September 2010 that a child’s drowning should only be considered the result of neglect if the caregiver understood the child was “at risk and, with intent, allowed the child to be placed at risk.”