In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: DCF failed kids who died

The death toll of South Florida children at the hands of abusive, drug-addicted and negligent adults is stunning.

But just as outrageous is that at some point along the road to the fatal outcomes, the deaths might have been prevented had the state agency in charge of protecting Florida’s children — the Department of Children and Families — had not so miserably failed them.

Jayden Villegas, two years old, died Sunday from brain injuries — and his father, a man with a record of aggression, was charged with his murder.

He told police he threw the toddler across the bed and against the wall because he would not stop vomiting.

Why was this child in this monster’s care?

Jayden was taken away from his mother, a substance abuser who is pregnant again and has an older child as well. She lost custody of Jayden after she blamed the child’s earlier injury, a broken thigh bone, on his “hyperactive” older sibling. DCF, suspicious of the explanation, gave Jayden’s custody to the even less adept father.

And so Jayden became the fifth child to die, since May, whose parents were under scrutiny by DCF.

Bryan Osceola, 11 months, was left to die in a hot car by his alcohol- and drug-addicted mother. She had been investigated and cleared by a child abuse investigator of passing out drunk behind the wheel of the car with the baby in her lap.

Ezra Raphael, age 2, was beaten to death with a belt after his mother left him alone with her boyfriend. DCF closed its investigation despite finding that the child was at “high” risk with his mother.

Antwan Hope, age 4, died after being left alone, against a judge’s order, with his mentally ill mother. And Fernando Barahona, only one year old, stopped breathing in his crib two weeks after the Department of Children and families returned him to his mother.

In all those horrific cases, there’s one constant: DCF failed to act on, not just warning signs, but brilliant red lights flashing at everyone that these children were being harmed. Attentive and caring child welfare workers could have easily been clued in to these children’s hellish worlds — and in some cases they were — but these alleged professionals, the investigators and their supervisors, were not listening, not heeding the signs, not acting as if these were life-or-death scenarios.

In the aftermath of the latest deaths, DCF’s chief resigned. That may be an appropriate political move, but it doesn’t solve the chronic issues that have led to a legacy of failures.

It’s clear there’s much that ails this agency. But one of the basic problems is the radical operating philosophy that only under the most extreme circumstances should children be removed from the birth parents, and if they are, the philosophy is to return them as soon as you can.

That has proven too deadly for Florida’s at-risk children.

Keeping children safe should trump everything else.

It’s time for the highest authorities in the state to step in, investigate and substantially change the modus operandi of the agency charged with protecting the most vulnerable among us.

Listen to the children. Their deaths speak volumes.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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