How many children must die before we have a real conversation about our child-welfare system? How many headlines must be written before the people charged with investigating child abuse accept responsibility for the children who have died in the custody of abusive parents over the past six months after the Department of Children & Families intervened? Ezra Raphael, Antwan Hope, Fernando Barahona, Bryan Osceola, Dontrell Melvin and Emma Morrison are gone forever.
DCF investigators could have saved all six children before they were abused, neglected and allegedly killed by their caregivers. How did this happen in the wake of Nubia Barahona’s murder? DCF Secretary David Wilkins assured us that in the two years since Nubia’s murder he has fixed the system. The Legislature indulged him. Millions in state funds were appropriated to help Wilkins attack what he believed was wrong with the agency. A public panel was convened and a grand jury issued a report. The Florida Legislature funded all of the changes that the secretary requested.
Two years later, we have not just one more tragedy like Nubia’s, but many.
How could the secretary be so wrong? He operates an agency whose trained investigators seem blind or indifferent to the obvious signs of abuse and danger. Look no further than the fact that they returned these children to abusive caregivers. That’s because it is exactly what happened to Nubia. If only the secretary had learned a lesson from her untimely death.
The secretary used millions to redesign the Child Abuse Hotline and yet, the new and improved hotline did not protect these children. Now, DCF says the yet-to-be-launched Transformation Project will ensure that the mistakes that led to these children’s deaths will not happen again. Is that a gamble we’re willing to take? How many more children must die before DCF learns the art of protecting children?
I invite Secretary Wilkins to South Florida so we can finally address some important issues. Why are his protective investigators leaving children in the custody of neglectful and abusive adults? Is he so proud of the reduced number of children in foster care as to allow his staff to do whatever it takes to keep that number down? Is keeping that number down more important than keeping kids out of harm’s way?
We have more questions for the secretary about the training and qualifications of his front line staff. After decades of the same failed response to tragedies, maybe it’s time for DCF to fully accept the challenges of its social-work role and leave the investigatory work to those who are properly trained to help our children. Maybe it is time to let professional law enforcement officers handle all child abuse investigations in Florida. In the event of an emergency, would you trust your child’s life to DCF?
Kionne L. McGhee,
state representative, District 117, Miami