Florida Sen. Eleanor Sobel is half-right. Properly outraged, she called the Department of Children & Families’ half-hearted investigation into the possible destruction of child-death records a “cover-up.”
Actually, it looks for all the world like a cover-up of a cover-up. And the public is no closer to officially finding out why administrators in the agency’s Southeast Region withheld reports of the deaths of at least 30 children who were in DCF’s active case files.
In a nutshell, the department’s investigation into why there were originally no records of these children’s deaths, itself yielded no reports, memos, notes, emails or smoke signals. There is no paper trail as to the investigation’s findings, nothing that would be subject to scrutiny under Florida’s public-records laws.
This is to all appearances an arrogant denial of the public’s right to know what DCF is up to. The taxpayers’ trust — probably eroded long ago — is being further abused in order to keep them in the dark. And no Floridian of good conscience — and we hope this includes Gov. Scott — should accept this slap in the face.
Most troubling? The agency’s newest chief, Mike Carroll, on the job for less than two months, already seems a willing participant in withholding information about just what happened. After all, those child-death records were deep-sixed before he even became secretary of DCF.
But rather than being as outraged as Ms. Sobel, rather than affirming that DCF is committed to operating with transparency and accountability, rather than insisting that child-death records should never go missing and that internal investigations should never be “paperless,” rather than getting to the bottom of a Herald source’s contention that a Southeast Region administrator gloated that without any child-death records, the media would never find out, Mr. Carroll seems too eager for this whole smelly thing to go away.
In responding to the Herald’s queries, Mr. Carroll declared the missing-records mess inadvertent — basically, an “Oops!” — and this was before he launched the so-called investigation.
All this comes on the heels of the most recent session of the state Legislature, during which Ms. Sobel, D-Hollywood, and colleague Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, teamed up in response to the Herald’s series Innocents Lost. It forced lawmakers to confront just how derelict DCF has been in keeping the at-risk children in its care safe from abuse and neglect.
Better yet, it forced lawmakers, led by the two senators, to pass a reform bill mandating that the safety of the child is paramount, meaning that children must be removed from dangerous environments sooner, not later — which is how so many of the 477 children features in Innocents Lost died.
Transparency, accuracy and urgency in reporting child deaths are among the mandates. Already, Mr. Carroll doesn’t seem to have signed on.
Here’s what should happen:
• DCF’s internal investigation should not be the end of this story. The affair of the missing records demands an independent investigation from outside the agency. It would be most heartening for FDLE to step in. After all, there is evidence that someone wanted to subvert the public-records law.
• Second, the public needs solid proof that Mr. Carroll understands the depth and complexity of DCF’s mission and is prepared to accept the mandate to prevent children from being abused, neglected and killed. Otherwise, it’s too early to declare it a new day at DCF.