While election-year politics played a role at the Dec. 19 press conference during which three Democratic state lawmakers called on Gov. Rick Scott to increase, not cut, spending for the state Department of Children & Families, the politicians made a good point: One of the agency’s mandates is child protection, and it’s called that for a reason. The DCF is supposed to keep Florida’s at-risk kids, all of them, out of harm.
In 2013, the agency’s record on safeguarding children has been abysmal. Dozens of children whose perilous situations were known to the DCF died as the agency stood by. The crisis came to a head during the summer, as the Miami Herald and other media outlets published accounts of the increasing number of deaths from neglect and abuse of children within the DCF’s purview. Facing growing criticism, DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned. His interim replacement, Esther Jacobo of the Miami DCF district, promised reforms.
But even as he decried the deaths then, Gov. Scott is pursuing further cuts from state agencies, including DCF, for his 2014 budget. Taking direct aim at the governor, state Rep. Perry Thurston, a Broward Democrat and leader of the Democratic Caucus in the state House, challenged the governor’s quest for more DCF cuts. Reading from a letter to Mr. Scott, Mr. Thurston said, “It would be abhorrent to ask the agency you have tasked with [children’s] protection to make budget cuts.”
Mr. Thurston, who is vying to be his party’s candidate for attorney general next year against, ironically, former DCF Secretary George Shelton, joined Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, and Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, to highlight the deaths of three children that DCF was supposed to be minding. In particular, they cited the case of Tamiyah Audain, a severely handicapped 12-year-old who was starved or neglected to death while in the care of a privately run foster-care agency under DCF contract.
Secretary Jacobo hired the Casey Family Programs to review 40 child deaths. Casey’s recommendations were outlined during recent legislative hearings. They include making abuse and neglect investigations seamless through computer monitoring, with no chance for an investigator or case worker to drop the ball, either during the investigation or during follow-up to ensure that steps actually are being taken to remedy at-risk children’s situations.
Improvements to the DCF’s ability to protect children’s welfare are nothing new. This summer’s crisis, after all, is just the latest such scandal to rock the agency. So some skepticism is due regarding the latest reform efforts. The proof will be in the uniform implementation of each reform and with adequate state funding to make those reforms permanent and effective. Meaning all at-risk kids on DCF’s radar stay alive and do well.
In response to the Democrats’ challenge, the governor’s office issued a statement that child protective services won’t be cut in 2014. Ms. Jacobo chimed in with assurances that she is working with the governor’s office on the agency’s budget and that she won’t propose cuts to child welfare.
All good, if true. Kudos to the three Democratic lawmakers, mixed motives aside, for forcing Gov. Scott to promise publicly not to cut child-protection services funding. Somebody had to stand up and do it. Now Florida voters must hold Gov. Scott to his promise during the 2014 legislative session.