The dozens of photos of doe-eyed babies, gap-tooth toddlers and smiling teenagers belie their tragic stories. They are the faces of Florida’s failure to protect our most vulnerable children.
From a newborn who had yet to be named to a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, these children died in often horrifying ways — brutally beaten to death, smothered by a drug-addled mother, thrown out of a speeding car.
The collection of photographs is a rainbow of children from nearly every corner of the state. Their common bond is a premature death, often at the hands of those who should have been their fiercest protectors: their parents and guardians. Then Florida’s child welfare system, their protector of last resort, failed to safeguard them, as well.
It is difficult to look at their photographs, which today dominate the front of the Miami Herald and MiamiHerald.com. Yet we made a decision to put their faces front and center because we can no longer afford to look the other way.
Today, we launch a Miami Herald series, Innocents Lost, the result of a year-long investigation by veteran reporters Audra D.S. Burch and Carol Marbin Miller. Their reporting involved scores of interviews, dozens of public records requests and three lawsuits to obtain the thousands of documents that are the basis of this project. In the process, the fees mounted.
Their findings reveal that, during a six-year span, 477 children died of abuse or neglect after coming to the attention of the Florida Department of Children & Families. That number far exceeds what was reported to the governor and lawmakers.
“We need to be sad,” Burch said. “We need to be outraged. Then we need to do something.”
The records of their deaths began as a reporting tool but became an online database that chronicles the brief life of every child.
It is searchable by county or by name and includes any available reports by police and DCF investigators. There is a photo when we were able to find one. Though we spent months searching for pictures of every child, in the end we succeeded in obtaining only half.
“We wanted some testament to the lives of these kids, a testament to what they endured,” Marbin Miller said. “We just felt that someone owed them that.”
Marbin Miller, whose tenacious reporting on child deaths resulted in the resignation last year of then-DCF chief David Wilkins, proposed the Innocents Lost project after the death of Nubia Barahona in 2011. The 10-year old’s body was found in the back of a pickup truck owned by her adoptive father. Days earlier, a DCF investigator who visited their home reported that Nubia and her twin brother were safe — without seeing the child.
It is the kind of reporting that continues to be central to the mission of the Miami Herald.
As you read today's package and the stories that follow this week, we hope you will think about what Florida should do to safeguard the future of our most vulnerable children. It’s clear there is much work to do.