With less than a year to go before voters choose the state’s next governor, Florida Democrats are tipping their hand on an issue they think could move the needle in the election: the failures of the state’s child welfare system.
“The sad state of affairs in Florida is that we have a crisis, and it's a crisis of children dying under the custody of the state of Florida and under the radar of the state of Florida,”' Rep. Perry Thurston, leader of the Democratic Caucus in the state House of Representatives, said Thursday afternoon at a news conference.
Hours earlier, Thurston delivered a letter to Gov. Rick Scott blasting the governor for proposing cuts to the budget of the agency that has failed to prevent the deaths of scores of children whose families had come to the state’s attention because of prior complaints. Scott is seeking re-election, but faces unfavorable poll numbers.
“In view of your abject failure to protect these vulnerable children, I plead with you to avoid in your forthcoming budget recommendations any additional spending cuts to your Department of Children & Families,” Thurston wrote. “When you have failed to protect Florida’s most innocent residents, it would be abhorrent to ask the agency you have tasked with their protection to make budget cuts.”
The latest shortcomings at DCF first came to light this past summer, when the Miami Herald reported on the deaths of four children DCF had previously investigated. Amid a loud outcry from children’s advocates and community leaders, then-DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned.
But the deaths continued. At the urging of interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, who had headed the agency’s Miami outpost before being tapped for the statewide job, a team of consultants from Seattle-based Casey Family Programs reviewed 40 child death cases from this year.
Thurston is running for the Democratic nomination for Florida attorney general against George Sheldon, a former DCF secretary. Thurston said he held the Fort Lauderdale news conference to reiterate the need to “fully fund” DCF along with related domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health programs. He was joined by Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, and Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens.
Standing outside in front of a large Christmas tree at a plaza on Sistrunk Boulevard, the three Democrats talked about three children who had died by abuse or neglect this year and had been on the radar of DCF: Ezra Raphael, 1; Michael McMullen, 3 and Tamiyah Audain, 12, a severely disabled girl who was starved or neglected to death while under the care of a privately run foster care agency under contract with the state. She died in September as at least two agencies quarreled about her care.
“The bureaucracy killed this young girl,”' said Schwartz. The cases of all three of the children — and DCF's handling of the cases — had been detailed in the Herald.
The Casey report, which studied the agency's child death cases, was released in November, and said investigators often failed to assess and understand the dangers children faced with violent, drug-abusing parents, often left children in troubled homes without developing a meaningful plan to protect them, and often relied on nothing more than a parent’s promise to alter dangerous behavior.
Even with the continued scandals, DCF's proposed spending plan for the next budget year contains cuts to several child protection programs.
“Funding does matter, and under your administration, hundreds of employees charged with protecting and caring for abused and neglected kids have been laid off,” Thurston wrote. “This year, I urge you to listen to the child-advocacy community and to take the necessary steps to stop children from dying.”
At the news conference, Thurston added, “all of what we are hearing as the governor goes on his tour is about cuts, is about incentives for corporations, is about givebacks, and we want to make sure that the governor understands that the agency that is the most critical for the most vulnerable children needs to be fully funded.”
Scott's office responded to the funding demands.
“We are prioritizing spending on critical services as we craft the budget, and vital child protective services will not be reduced,'' John Tupps, Scott's deputy press secretary, said in a statement.
Interim Secretary Jacobo agreed that child welfare is a priority.
“We, in partnership with the governor’s office, have been working tirelessly to address gaps in our processes, increase resources and improve services to vulnerable children and families across the state,” Jacobo said in a statement. “I can assure you that we will not be proposing any budget cuts to child welfare. On the contrary, we are working closely with the governor’s office and the Legislature to prioritize funding for child protection services."
Jacobo also pointed out that two years ago, DCF along with Scott supported a bill that provided “salary increases and a career path for all child protective investigators,” and other reforms.
Among 13 specific recommendations, the Casey report suggested the state restore lost dollars, set aside more money for drug treatment, mental health and other programs that can help unfit parents improve, and develop a system for “flagging” children who return to the state’s abuse hotline again and again in need of intervention.
Referring to the Casey Families’ report, Thurston wrote: “I caution you and my colleagues in the Florida Legislature that, in light of these recommendations, it would be patently reckless to consider further budget cuts to DCF — and it is time to invest in the needs and priorities of our most vulnerable residents.”