Fred Grimm

We all share blame in kids’ deaths

This was a mass killing. A massacre of babies.

They were beaten, burned, choked, drowned, smothered, tortured, shot, hurled against bedroom walls. They were starved to death. Left to die alone inside sun-baked cars. Left to wander into traffic. Tossed from a moving car onto the freeway. Squeezed into oblivion in the tightening coils of a zonked-out mother’s pet python. So many died from ingesting pills left about by their oblivious, drug-addled parents.

Each individual killing could be blamed on the cruel or negligent or raging act of a particular parent or a parent’s lover. But in the aggregate, 477 child deaths over the last five years implicate other culprits. You and I, in our detached indifference, became accomplices in this carnage, along with the government agency we’ve so half-heartedly tasked with protecting Florida’s neglected kids.

Daunting reporting by the Miami Herald’s investigative team, led by Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, counted 477 gut-wrenching child fatalities that occurred  <span class="italic">after</span> investigators from the Florida Department of Children & Families had looked into the children’s domestic circumstances. Miller and Burch discovered cases in which DCF kept kids in precarious situations despite 10, even 20 abuse or negligence reports. Kept them in deadly danger despite warnings from school teachers. Despite relatives begging DCF to get those poor kids the hell away from their circumstances.

Again and again, 477 times over, DCF decided against removing children in slavish adherence to an official priority of keeping families — even violent, criminal, drugged-out families — intact. The effect amounted to a massacre. It was a policy that abetted 445 more deaths than the mass killing perpetrated by Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech, 450 more than Adam Lanza killed at Newtown, 309 more deaths than even Timothy McVeigh managed with the Oklahoma City bombing. Our policies have killed 214 more children than men Custer lost at Little Big Horn.

Except those other, infamous massacres preoccupied the nation. Nobody paid much attention to deaths attributable to government intransigence with a body count spread over five years, with the little victims (70 percent of these lost children were under the age of 2) perceived as coming from the no-account, low-down dregs of Florida society. We hardly noticed.

In part, this was because DCF’s first priority has been to cover its bureaucratic ass. The ghastly extent of the agency’s failures were disguised by under-reporting the number of agency cases that ended with a fatality. Somehow, even the death of Nubia Barahona, the outrageous Miami-Dade case that left DCF awash in scandal, has yet to make the agency’s official death list, Marbin Miller and Burch reported. Three years have passed since the 10-year-old was bound, starved, beaten and caged like an animal before her corpse was discovered doused in chemicals, crammed into a trash bag, tossed in the back of a pest control truck. Yet this tortuous bureaucracy has not yet assumed official responsibility for its most infamous failure.

The agency had refused to remove Nubia and her twin brother from the home of their adoptive parents, despite repeated urgent warnings about possible abuse from school authorities, her guardian ad litem and other members of the family. Of course, keeping kids in their families, even suspect families, has been official DCF policy over the past decade. Not without a certain logic, given the scandals associated with the state foster care system, particularly in the group homes.

In a perverse way, this mess was partly the Miami Herald’s doing. Led by Carol Marbin Miller, we reported on so many awful foster home iniquities, about sexual abuse and neglect and foster kids doped up with adult psychotropic drugs for no other purpose than to render them into easily managed, nicely warehoused zombies. In 2000, Florida prescribed antipsychotic drugs never meant for kids to 5,722 foster children under the age of 10.

The foster care program had become like some medical horror story dreamed up by Robin Cook. So over the last decade, DCF decided its first priority would be to avoid foster care and keep families intact. Except the state was simultaneously gutting the DCF budget, leaving too little money to provide the kind of in-home investigations and follow-up visits and family social services needed to keep kids in suspect homes safe.

It’s reminiscent of the move a few decades back to de-institutionalize the mentally ill, who until the 1970s had been warehoused in appalling asylums. The idea was that mental patients would instead be released into a humane system of community care and social services. Except adequate care was never funded. Instead, the mentally ill have been consigned to county jails, or left to wander city streets. So now the state has adopted the same model for at-risk children, with the noble goal of keeping kids out of foster homes but not bothering to fund services that would keep them from harm. For instance, DCF refrains from separating children from their drug-addicted parents even as the state Legislature cuts state programs designed to help parents deal with substance abuse.

Apparently, DCF’s favorite tool for dealing with abusive, drug-addled or neglectful parents has been to persuade them to sign “safety plans,” promising to do better. It’s a cheap fix, far less expensive than rigorous investigations and the legal action necessary to remove a kid from a dangerous home.

Except that Marbin Miller and Burch reported that 83 children were killed after their parents signed those worthless pledges. Might as well have been death warrants.