Miami Herald town hall focuses on protecting children

A town hall meeting sparked by the Miami Herald’s Innocents Lost series sparked both discussion and hope for the future.

04/17/2014 5:57 PM

12/04/2014 4:34 PM

Through pure happenstance, the publication of the Miami Herald’s Innocents Lost series came at a time of plenty in Tallahassee, with state budget revenues at their highest level in seven years.

That extra money, combined with public outrage over the Miami Herald’s findings, has created strong momentum to overhaul how Florida protects its most vulnerable children.

Is this the time that Florida finally gets it right?

On Thursday, a collection of state lawmakers, child advocates and Department of Children & Families administrators gathered at the Miami Herald’s Doral headquarters to talk about persistent problems, possible solution and the all-important issue of funding. On the minds of all were the 477 children profiled in Innocents Lost — children who perished after falling through the state’s safety net.

The meeting was co-hosted by Miami Herald news partner WLRN and was open to the public. Some 300 people were in attendance.

“We like to not just spotlight the problem, but to help guide the conversation about what’s the solution, moving forward,” Miami Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez told the crowd as the forum began.

The first speakers included some high-level DCF administrators who, rather than dispute the newspaper’s findings, praised the investigation as an important public service.

“What you’ve done is you’ve put names and faces out to the public,” said DCF’s deputy secretary, Peter Digre. “I’m really hopeful that this will lead to very, very concrete action this year.”

Said Grainne O’Sullivan, DCF’s director of children’s legal services: “This article has done a world of good.”

Gov. Rick Scott has called on lawmakers to boost child-protection funding by about $39 million — money that would go to hiring more staff and lowering individual caseloads. It’s possible the Legislature will choose to boost funding for DCF and related agencies by even more than $39 million.

Digre said additional funding would be an important step in reducing current caseloads, in which some DCF workers are charged with monitoring the well-being of as many as 60 children. Digre called it “humanly impossible” for one investigator to handle so many cases.

Digre also said the unveiling of a new DCF computer system is helping the agency update the methods it uses to monitor families – methods that hadn’t been updated since the late 1980s.

But Digre was challenged by Miami Herald reporter Carol Marbin Miller when he made the case that the number of Florida child deaths has been steadily decreasing in recent years.

Marbin Miller told Digre “I respect you immensely, but I don’t respect your data on this point.”

Marbin Miller then noted one of the key findings of the newspaper’s investigation: DCF had been systemically undercounting the number of child deaths that were due to neglect or abuse.

Aside from DCF funding issues — which the Legislature will sort out in the next two weeks — there are number of other large questions marks surrounding Florida’s efforts to better protect children. Will Florida boost funding for social services such as drug treatment?

Drug and alcohol abuse were linked to 323 of the child deaths investigated by the Miami Herald, yet the state has been cutting drug treatment funding.

There is also newfound scrutiny of DCF’s policy of keeping families together whenever possible. That philosphy has reduced the number of children sent to foster care, but it also lead to children being left in dangerous (and sometimes deadly) homes.

State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, told the town hall crowd that there will need to be a “robust converstion” about whether keeping families intact has become over-emphasized.

“Addiction is an inherent danger,” Fresen said. “Parenting is a right, but it also brings an incredible responsibility.”

The town hall did not, and could not, solve all those issues. But Mike Rozos, a guardian ad litem from Plantation, still left feeling hopeful and optimistic.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of a town hall meeting regarding DCF and the children and the whole community getting involved to see how they can all work together,” Rozos said. “I mean, there are people here from every walk of life.”

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