TALLAHASSEE -- Under fierce criticism for withholding information on child deaths, the Department of Children & Families on Friday asked a judge for approval to release new details on 177 children who have died since November.
Ruling from the bench, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers granted the agency’s request to release information to the Miami Herald from incident reports received by the agency that the department had previously redacted.
But DCF Deputy General Counsel John Jackson said the agency will continue to withhold similar information in the future. He said the agency had erroneously turned over hundreds of documents to the Herald in the past year and it was now seeking the court’s permission to release the redacted information to help improve public confidence in the agency.
“This is not only a matter of satisfying media interests. It is an acknowledgment by the department that getting this information out there will ultimately improve the process and improve the department,” Jackson told the court during the 20-minute hearing.
The Herald’s year-long investigation of Florida’s child welfare system led to the Innocents Lost series, which chronicled the deaths of 477 children over the past six years from abuse and neglect whose families had been known to DCF.
The Herald reported last week that after the series was published, DCF changed its policy and heavily redacted information provided in incident reports that it had previously released — including details of the child’s death and the family’s prior history with DCF. To illustrate, the Herald published side-by-side snapshots of the same report, one just released and showing nearly every word censored; the other, from last year, with modest redactions.
“The article raised questions about the department’s handling of the incident reports and created a concern that the department was not being forthcoming with information on these children or on these children’s families,” Jackson said.
The article also sparked immediate criticism from legislators, who were in the midst of rewriting the state’s child welfare laws to overhaul the way DCF handles and investigates child deaths.
Jackson said the news reports “dinged the agency,” and interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, who is in his second week on the job, has since announced he is looking at “revamping the entire death review process.”
“All this put together, we think, that it is [imperative] that we have the trust of the public that we can do this and we can do it right,” Jackson said. “We can do what the Legislature intends and we can do right by Florida’s kids. And so we do not want hanging over our head the fact that there is information that we are holding back because it brings suspicion over the department that we are not being transparent.”
The department asked the court to release of 277 pages, relating to 110 of the 177 cases sought by the Herald, to help the department show that it is willing to “fix problems, ” improve public awareness and restore public confidence in its ability to protect children, Jackson said.
Unlike death review reports, which provide details on the conclusions of the agency’s investigations into the deaths, the incident reports are part of the investigative record used to help the agency determine whether a death occurred from abuse or neglect, Jackson said. The incident reports often include information about the mental health and sexual abuse of siblings and parents, which the agency believes should remain confidential.
“Some of them [incident reports] did have more information released than we believe we should have released at the time,” Jackson told the court.
He said the agency continues to exclude from the public anything regarding the mental health or sexual abuse of siblings and specific information about parents when they were children.
“We’re asking more permission, not approval,” Jackson told Gievers.
Gievers said she reviewed all the documents, had read the Innocents Lost series, and immediately ordered the documents released.
“I did not see anything in my review that should not be released,” she said, suggesting the agency immediately provide the Herald with the documents. At first Jackson said he did not have a duplicate, but later he provided one.
According to a preliminary Herald review of the previously redacted records, the agency initially excluded information that revealed that several of the families whose children died in the past six months had a prior case record with DCF.
The Innocents Lost series found that the department repeatedly ignored warning signs that parents of at-risk children were incapable of keeping their children safe, prompting the Legislature to increase staff and training of abuse investigators, crack down on so-called “safety plans,” — written promises by parents to discontinue behavior that endangers their kids — and strengthen oversight of the agency.
“The parents have two prior reports as alleged perpetrators,’’ wrote one report on a child who died in December. It referred to domestic abuse incidents in 2013 and 2010 involving the children and noted that the 2010 “case was closed with no services offered.”
Gievers made it clear that she was not ruling on whether the information the department continues to shield is appropriate, but was only deciding whether what it was proposing to release violated state confidentiality laws.
After the hearing, Jackson said his agency is attempting to balance the public’s right to know and the privacy rights of children and families.
“The scrutiny on the department and the individuals at the department — we can take that in exchange for us being able to do our job better,” he said. “At the same time, we need to protect the rights of our clients.”