Grand jury rips Florida’s DCF for ‘deliberately’ undercounting child deaths

 

cmarbin @MiamiHerald.com

A Miami-Dade grand jury accused state child welfare administrators Tuesday of “intentionally and deliberately” manipulating the investigation of child deaths because of abuse and neglect — making it appear that fewer children were dying across the state.

In a 30-page report that explores whether the Department of Children & Families has improved since the shocking 2011 death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona, grand jurors found much that pleased them. But they also scolded the agency for what they described as a systematic attempt to conceal the true number of children whose lives are cut short by abuse or neglect.

“I thank the members of the grand jury for their comprehensive look at Florida’s child welfare system,” said Mike Carroll, the agency’s interim secretary. “It is clear from their thoughtful recommendations that they understand the challenges in the work we do, and it’s also clear they recognize our commitment to continuing to improve so we can better protect Florida’s children.”

The grand jury presentment, handed up to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Gisela Cardonne Ely Tuesday afternoon, comes on the heels of a series of stories in the Miami Herald, called Innocents Lost. Details of the series are discussed in the report. In particular, grand jurors confirmed the Herald’s findings that DCF had revised its definition of “neglect,” resulting in an artificial reduction in the number of children reported to have died the past four years.

The report highlighted a several-paragraph excerpt from the series that detailed the deaths of four children in 2011and 2013 that DCF declined to verify as resulting from neglect. In one case, a 1-year-old boy drowned in a community pool during Memorial Day weekend three years ago while his mother texted friends away from the poolside. DCF said the mother wasn’t negligent because other adults at the pool were likewise failing to supervise their small children.

SOME CHANGES

Every person on the grand jury, the report said, “concluded that each of these preventable deaths occurred due to the neglect of each child’s parent(s),” the report said. “We are at an utter loss to understand how those who labor in the field of child protection and child welfare could intentionally and deliberately find that these deaths were not verified as acts of neglect.”

Changes in the way DCF investigates and discloses child death information, grand jurors wrote, left a cloud hanging over the agency, even as administrators tout reforms. “The public does not have confidence in the accuracy of the number of child deaths reported,” the report said, adding: “Aside from being misleading, reported reductions in the total number of deaths may only be a consequence of changing the definitions of abuse and neglect.”

At the center of the unusual report — grand juries seldom issue such presentments, opting instead to indict alleged offenders without comment — is Nubia Barahona. The tow-headed twin from West Miami was found soaked in toxic chemicals on Feb. 11, 2011, stuffed in a black garbage bag in the flatbed of her adoptive father’s pest control truck. In the passenger seat in front of her, Victor Barahona fought for his life after being doused in the same chemical stew. He survived.

The twins’ adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, remain in jail, awaiting trial on murder charges that potentially carry the death penalty. On July 25, 2011, an earlier Miami-Dade grand jury released a scathing report on DCF’s failure to protect Nubia. “The testimony we heard will stay with us forever, as a bad dream will sometimes stay, only this was not a dream but a reality too painful to fathom,” grand jurors wrote then.

That report criticized DCF for its “utter failure to have the full picture” of parents accused of wrongdoing, and suggested the agency was beset by “a persistent, insidious bias of trust. Here, these two factors combined to exponentially raise the risk of disaster,” the report concluded. “Murder was the result.”

In its report Tuesday, the new grand jury concluded that DCF is implementing improvements at the the agency’s abuse hotline, among child abuse investigators, and in the use of a tool that helps investigators assess risk.

“There is a marked difference between the practices and procedures child protective investigators employed pre-Barahona and the manner in which they conduct [child protective services] investigations now,” the report says.

Some professionals in the child welfare system expressed skepticism that much had changed, however, and suggested prosecutors might have focused on witnesses sympathetic to DCF. Esther Jacobo, who is chief of staff for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, had been DCF’s interim secretary until two months ago. She was among the grand jury’s witnesses.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rosa Figarola, who presides over child welfare cases, chairs the county’s Community Based Care Alliance and has been a persistent agency critic, was not asked to testify. “It is arrogant,” she said, “to have a grand jury investigation and not bring in people whom they are concerned might disagree with their point of view. You have to bring everyone involved to the table.”

Child abuse investigations, and the court petitions that sometimes follow, have “improved a little bit” since 2011, Figarola said. “But any attempt to portray the problems that have plagued the child welfare system as fixed should cause us all alarm and concern for the safety and welfare of our children,” she added.

Another judge, Jeri B. Cohen, who oversees the Miami Circuit’s child welfare drug court, said “any self-congratulation is premature.” Though Cohen had testified before the 2011 Nubia grand jury, she was not invited back this year.

Cohen said few of the initiatives grand jurors cited as improvements have been fully implemented, many are applied inconsistently, and virtually all are long overdue. “None of this stuff is working” yet, said Cohen, who also is a member of the child welfare alliance. “The judges are complaining like hell” that the system remains broken.

Though grand jurors commended DCF on the progress made since 2011, they also declared themselves “deeply troubled” by the Herald’s Innocents Lost series, which contained details on the deaths of 477 children — mostly infants, toddlers and children age 5 and below — whose parents had been the subject of at least one report to the state’s abuse hotline within the previous five years. Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Monday an overhaul of DCF designed to stanch such deaths and create better agency oversight.

Grand jurors seemed particularly troubled by “discrepancies” between the number of child deaths DCF reported to the governor and Legislature, and the number identified by both the Herald and an independent consultant. “In all instances,” the report said, “the numbers given by the Herald, based on its review of DCF’s own records, were higher. Reportedly, numbers tallied by an independent source were also higher than those reported by DCF.”

Indeed, Nubia’s death never entered into an official DCF tally until more than three years after her killing created a firestorm statewide. Nubia’s death was “verified” as resulting from abuse on April 22, 2014 — a week after the first installment of Innocents Lost was published. Her formal death review was dated six days later; it was six pages long.

DISCOVERY

As recently as last month, the Herald discovered administrators in DCF’s Southeast Region — which includes Broward and Palm Beach counties, and which recorded the highest tally of child deaths in recent years — had failed to file required “critical incident reports” for 30 child deaths linked to abuse or neglect. At first, the agency attributed the withheld reports to a “misunderstanding.”

But earlier this month, DCF’s deputy secretary, Pete Digre, completed an internal investigation into the missing records without generating a single record. Carroll, the agency’s administrator, called the withheld reports “an attempt to address insufficiencies in data security.” He denied agency heads were seeking to conceal public records from the Herald.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who helped draft the legislation Scott signed the day before, called on the governor to launch an independent investigation into what she has repeatedly called “a cover-up.”

“It appears these were employees directing other employees to conceal child death reports, not simply a system or technical error,” Sobel wrote in a news release. “An independent investigation by a non-DCF related entity is the best way to clear the air and get an unobstructed view.”

“Sweeping child deaths under the rug will only serve to perpetuate a culture of cover-up and corruption; hiding the deaths should never be a solution.”

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