Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: If only someone had put the children first

They were somebody – and their lives mattered.

No matter how government officials or those who should have loved and cared for them – and didn’t – want to couch or categorize their tragic endings, the 477 children who died of neglect or abuse after falling through the crevices of Florida’s child protective services now have a public face and a public story.

Look at them.

Read about every single child – a database of sorrow – and weep at the cruel truth unveiled: The children in “ Innocents Lost,” the wrenching Miami Herald series investigated during the last year by my colleagues Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, could’ve been saved at some point.

If only someone had thought them important enough to put them first and foremost.

In too many cases, the person who failed these vulnerable children in the care of inept, drug-addicted and murderous parents was an investigator or a caseworker from the Department of Children & Families, the mammoth state agency responsible for protecting Florida’s children. One unfortunately troubled and long-suspected of operating in crisis given the high-profile cases DCF has botched.

But now we know the scope of the neglect, the ineptitude, the denial of lawyers, and the failures of the agency, the legislative initiatives to improve it, and a justice system charged with rendering wiser decisions.

The Herald’s examination of the past six years of records, for example, found far more deaths than the state reported in 2008, 2009 and 2010 of children whose family had come under DCF scrutiny. The under-reporting continues.

The investigation also found a tremendous lapse when it comes to kids being raised by drug-addicted parents. The state won’t force the parents to get clean – and stay clean – before abused children are returned. Taking parents at their word has proven deadly.

Will the evidence amassed by The Herald make a difference?

It’s troubling when Gov. Rick Scott responds to the investigation on campaign mode and cites how many children and grandchildren he has and compares his level of DCF funding to that of his challenger in his re-election bid.

It’s troubling when Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo says, despite evidence to the contrary, that she doesn’t think the system is “broken” but only “challenged.”

Or, when both Scott and Jacobo are asked if policies should be revisited and they pass the buck to federal and state laws and family court judges.

If one too many dead children is the result of our laws and policies, then we need leaders who will challenge them, not leaders content to explain them and enforce the status quo.

Appropriate funding for DCF is an issue, but does an investigator develop critical thinking and common sense only when he or she is paid more? Does better pay make one able to see that a cocaine-addicted mother who has suffocated one twin shouldn’t be returned the other?

It’s time to give up the public relations gig and the politics, admit the failures, and come up with real solutions that save lives.

A good starting point is the disastrous philosophy that gives greater priority to keeping families together than to insuring a child’s safety.

Children should come first – always.