Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

It’s time to act

 

OUR OPINION: After 477 child deaths, lawmakers, DCF must say: Enough!

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

What a difference a day makes.

Especially when on that day a newspaper publishes a mosaic of beautiful children. Scores and scores of them with dimpled, smiling, laughing, heartbreakingly happy faces. All of them dead, from brutality, neglect — and even a python. All of them known to the Department of Children & Families, charged with being their salvation.

The agency was anything but.

But after just one day, the lawmakers who for years have, with the blessing of governors past and present, siphoned life-saving funding and oversight from the agency, now declared fixing DCF Job No. 1.

We’ll see.

Absolutely nothing will bring back Ashton-Lynette and Kaleb, Ulysses or Tariji, or the rest of the almost 500 children and youths whose tragic deaths were chronicled last week in the Miami Herald.

And if DCF continues to deny, as Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo has, that DCF is “broken,” then there is no chance that there won’t be hundreds of other children who will be slaughtered one way or another while DCF remains derelict.

Ms. Jacobo, as a temporary chief, has no reason to pull her punches — and she shouldn’t. She knows better, because she is far better — more capable and compassionate — than her predecessor, who didn’t seem to “get it.”

So when she says that DCF is merely “challenged,” she undercuts the devastating seriousness of the agency’s problems — so many of which preceded her tenure. Of course, this is not her responsibility alone.

Solutions, if not easy, are obvious:

• Family preservation must no longer be the one and only priority. How many children were bludgeoned, starved smothered and tortured to death by drug-addled mothers, enraged boyfriends and alcoholic dads who signed a piece of paper DCF handed them and swore they’d morph into Ward and June Cleaver? Children are not property; their safety trumps parental rights.

• Compel troubled parents to get the services they need, and then make sure those services are provided — but first and foremost, get the children who are at risk of being harmed the most out. Child-abuse investigators should be required to file a court petition to order a parent into drug treatment or anger management. Court orders get even a meth head’s attention.

• Training, deep and comprehensive. One egregiously consistent thread that connected so many of these tragedies are the child-protection workers who would accept an addicted parent’s vow to improve. Yes, there are caseworkers who are saving lives because they’re experienced, think critically — and skeptically — to make informed decisions. This needs to be the rule, not the exception.

• Independent oversight has been written out of the picture. The results are clear — there are at least 477 of them. In fact, the Herald unearthed an undercount of reported child deaths, which the agency’s lack of transparency aided and abetted.

• And yes, more money — for caseworkers, better tracking and monitoring technology and services. Money is the one element that has been steadily drained from the child-welfare system. Again, the results were on the Miami Herald’s front page last week.

Republican Senate President Don Gaetz conceded that it will take “tens of millions of dollars” to make DCF whole. But will lawmakers, Gov. Rick Scott and Ms. Jacobo step up and insist on it? Or will more innocents be lost?

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