Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Last chance to get it right


OUR OPINION: Florida legislators must strengthen DCF’s mandate to keep kids safe, eliminate dysfunction

With a little luck — and a lot of legislative backbone — the children in care of the Department of Children & Families will be better shielded from harm by the time state lawmakers turn out the lights on their two-month session in Tallahassee on Friday.

And if that’s the case, it’s because most lawmakers were likely shamed, embarrassed or dragged into doing something because of the Miami Herald’s eye-opening, stomach-churning series Innocents Lost. That was the intent.

But Innocents Lost has shaken loose an unintended consequence, too: DCF is, basically, hiding the true number of children who have died at the hands of abusive or neglectful caretakers. It’s an insidious — and, incredibly, official — policy that should end immediately. Lawmakers must make sure that it does on this final day of the session by inserting a mandate for transparency, accuracy and urgency in reporting child deaths.

Again, DCF’s leaders are talking the talk about keeping children safe. But they are furiously backpedaling from that stance — and last week were working overtime to weaken the more-stringent rules of operation that Senate lawmakers rightly imposed.

DCF, showing that it has learned little from the comprehensively reported deaths of 477 children — it’s more now — sought to strip the child-safety language from the Senate bill aiming to force the agency to more carefully monitor children it leaves in at-risk homes. It also sought to get rid of a layer of oversight of the department relating to child deaths, eliminate language that would have tightened child-safety protections and deep-six a requirement that members of DCF’s Rapid Response Teams travel to the site of a child’s death to conduct a case review.

During a year in which lawmakers are drooling over the state’s $1.2-billion surplus, DCF — and Gov. Rick Scott — insist that too many of these provisions to keep children alive are just too expensive. The irony is rich, isn’t it?

Commend state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, the bill’s sponsor, heavy-lifter Sen. Denise Grimsley and their colleagues for swatting down DCF’s foolish attempt and unanimously approving the stronger bill. Miami-Dade Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, however, warrants a swat himself for filing that 140-page amendment to water down the bill.

DCF’s clampdown on transparency and disclosure is simply, and sadly, more of the same. In advance of the stories of the 477 children who died on DCF’s watch being published, the agency curtailed the scope and the detail of child deaths by delaying the release of official incident reports and making sure that they were as terse as possible.

As reported by Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, last fall, an administrator for South Florida and the Treasure Coast stopped filing the required “critical incident reports” to DCF headquarters. After the stories were published, he belatedly submitted the files — some months old — of more than 20 children who died.

Administrators now delete what they deem confidential information from public records — including most details of a child’s death. They harm themselves by failing to include critical details. Overly exuberant redactions make it impossible for the public to gauge DCF’s performance.

DCF’s newly appointed leader, Mike Carroll, clearly has his work cut out for him. So does the Legislature. House lawmakers failed to vote on the Senate bill Thursday. They must not squander their last opportunity to get it right and save children’s lives.

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