New DCF chief promises to keep agency’s child death reports “as open as can be’’

Mike Carroll pledges a greater emphasis on preventing child deaths and backs off agency’s recent clamp down on information.

05/05/2014 7:55 PM

06/06/2014 6:29 PM

Hours into his first day as top administrator of the Department of Children & Families, Mike Carroll on Monday began a far-reaching reform of his agency’s response to child deaths — and promised to make the troubled agency more open to public scrutiny.

In his first move as interim secretary, Carroll created a high-level administrative post supervising child death investigations and reporting. He also directed his top deputy to oversee efforts to make the department more transparent.

“Child deaths, for me, are a priority going forward, and they should have been a priority for the department a long time ago,” Carroll told the Miami Herald in an interview Monday afternoon. “We need to get out in front. We need to be loud, and crying from the tree tops. We need to draw communities in.”

Carroll’s announcement came three days after the Herald reported DCF had clamped down on the release of information about child deaths, despite promises of greater transparency. About six weeks earlier, the newspaper had published Innocents Lost, a series of stories detailing the deaths of 477 children whose families had been known to the agency.

On Friday, the state House of Representatives passed a sweeping overhaul of child welfare laws that addressed the host of issues identified in the series. The problems include inadequate abuse and neglect investigations, poor decision-making by investigators and lawyers and an over-emphasis on keeping families together based on flawed “safety plans” that amounted to little more than promises from parents to do better.

House lawmakers openly criticized the department Friday in reaction to a Herald report about the DCF’s internal effort to clamp down on public access to details of child death investigations. The agency had blotted out virtually every detail from new child death incident reports requested by the Herald after the series, and had delayed — sometimes for five months — required notifications of a child death.

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, who shepherded passage of an agency reform bill in the Senate, called the agency’s crackdown on information “just outrageous,” adding that she had considered the launch of a Senate investigation of possible public records violations.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, said of Carroll’s new policy. “Keeping information from the public or from newspapers doesn’t help us solve our problems, and doesn’t prevent these unfortunate deaths.”

In a prepared statement last week, DCF had initially defended its recently imposed redaction policy, inviting the public to sue the agency for more information.

“We don’t want more litigation,” Sobel said. “We want solutions.”

In a memo titled “Vision for Transparency and Reporting of Child Deaths,” Carroll backed off the black-out of information.

He directed his staff to streamline the filing of incident reports. “This plan must ensure that leadership is informed immediately following the report of a child death to the hotline, as well as bring consistency and accuracy to these reports,” Carroll wrote.

Carroll said he expects his deputy, Pete Digre, to appoint a child death administrator — a “key staff member within our organization” — within the month. When the position is filled, he added, he expects the department to begin making the details of child deaths available to the public.

“Reviews of cases with children who had prior contact with the department and/or service providers will be used to improve and strengthen child welfare practice and services provided to at-risk families through partners statewide,” Carroll’s memo said. “These reviews must be documented in a way that can be shared with the public without violating confidentiality.”

Transparency, Carroll wrote, can help local child protection leaders identify what resources they need to improve.

“I can tell you that we are going be more open. As open as can be,” Carroll told the Herald. “It’s my promise.”

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