In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Criminal probe of DCF is in order after new revelations

 

fsantiago@MiamiHerald.com

Given the agency’s track record, the obstructionist behavior of the Florida Department of Children & Families is outrageous.

Faced with the undeniable results of a Miami Herald investigation that uncovered the deaths of 477 children who had come under DCF scrutiny – with more deplorable cases coming to light now – what does the state agency charged with protecting children do?

They hide evidence.

They come up with new, stiff disclosure policies to delay and restrict the access to information in official child death reports, a move that can only serve the purpose of hiding the children’s deaths – and DCF’s missteps in the cases.

Just take a look at the front-page photos in Friday’s Herald of the same child death report – one requested by the Miami Herald before the investigation was published; the other following DCF’s new deletion policy, being exercised when agency leaders were publicly pledging “transparency.”

The blacked out report is the illustration of a sham.

It was through requests of those child death reports from 2008 to the present, under public records law, that Herald staff writers Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch were able start unearthing the horrible details of the deaths chronicled in the year-long investigation “ Innocents Lost.”

Since then, they have learned that more than 20 death reports of children were kept from the reporters by a child death review administrator overseeing Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties. The reports, which are supposed to be filed within one business day of the deaths, were not filed, and thus kept from becoming public records at a time when DCF administrators knew The Herald investigation was in the making. And because administrator Frank Perry simply refused to provide information on how many of those dead children were in families under DCF watch, it’s impossible to discern that vital fact.

Other records the Herald reporters brought to light show deliberate attempts by DCF employees to clamp down on information and to keep records vague and devoid of, as one supervisor put it, the “gory details” that call public attention to the cases.

DCF wouldn’t be able to get away with operating in the dark if their bosses – state leaders, from legislators to the governor – held them accountable with substantial actions and penalties. But some of these lawmakers, who govern through backroom deal-making based on ideological alliances, have a track record themselves of trying to close public records.

Lawmakers with a $1.2 billion surplus in state coffers were in the position to radically change DCF operations, and although the Legislature approved Friday a surprisingly good child protection bill that makes sorely needed improvements in response to The Herald series, they haven’t gone far enough.

The bill, which obligates DCF to report deaths on its website and requires that investigators with expertise handle calls to the abuse hotline, is now in Gov. Rick Scott’s hands. DCF reports to him – and the governor should not delay its signing and the implementation of these life-saving measures.

From the highest office in DCF to the lowest ranked employees, the culture needs to change from one of saving face to one of fostering meaningful understanding that they’re in jobs that are at the service of Florida’s children, the most defenseless among us.

Children who were first victimized by neglectful and often addicted parents – people who shouldn’t be having children in the first place – were then further victimized by the agency who was supposed to be protecting them from the murderous people who gave them life.

In light of these new revelations that DCF was masking children’s deaths and hiding information from the public, an independent and perhaps criminal investigation of the agency is in order.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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