Lawmaker vows to bolster child protections in wake of Herald’s Innocents Lost investigation

Twenty-four hours after the Miami Herald published the first part of a series detailing the deaths of almost 500 children, the Florida Senate’s top child-welfare legislator said she would overhaul a bill designed to reform the Department of Children & Families.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel said the bill her committee drafted — which passed unanimously through its first committee last week — would have to be rewritten in light of the “Innocents Lost” series, which chronicles the deaths of 477 children whose families had a history with DCF.

“When I started reading it, I had to put it down. It’s death in your face, said the Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs. “We will not sleep or rest until every vulnerable child is rescued from dysfunctional families and guardians. The stories are tear-jerkers. It’s unacceptable this has happened to Florida’s children.”

The number the children who died of abuse or neglect during the past six years increased dramatically as Florida child welfare administrators implemented an intensive family-preservation program that reduced the number of children in state care while slashing services and oversight for children who remained with troubled families.

DCF officials have maintained that family preservation does not trump safety, but conceded that communities may not have enough resources — yet — to assist families struggling with issues such as drug addiction, mental illness and domestic violence. In a statement released late Monday, a spokeswoman said initiatives are underway to improve the agency’s work.

Among them: implementing the recommendations of Casey Family Programs, a child welfare foundation DCF asked to review 40 child deaths in 2013, as well as agency practices that led to the tragedies. DCF hired another consultant to analyze trends in child deaths.

To combat drug addiction, which was linked to about two-thirds of the child deaths reviewed by the Herald, DCF says it is refining its program for treating parents who have drug or alcohol problems that hinder their ability to care responsibly for children. Going forward, administrators say, investigators will not be allowed to complete investigations before ensuring that the parents have begun necessary treatment.

The agency is also expanding a program, as part of Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget, that pairs investigators in high-risk cases, particularly those involving children younger than 4.

At a roundtable discussion on college affordability during which Scott was questioned by reporters Monday, the governor defended his embattled agency, insisting DCF had made great strides during his administration. Scott, at a Miami Lakes high school, said agency investigators’ hands are tied by state and federal laws that protect the rights of parents.

“We have to work within those laws,” he said, adding, “We don’t want anything to happen to any child. We’re working with the Legislature to make sure we have the best children and families program in the country.”

Interim DCF secretary Esther Jacobo will testify at 9 a.m. Tuesday before the House Healthy Families subcommittee about the challenges facing the troubled agency.

A longtime DCF administrator, Alan Abramowitz, who now heads the Statewide Guardian-ad-Litem Program, said in an email Monday that the Herald series would prompt reforms that could help children, such as revisions to DCF’s tool for assessing the risk of abuse and neglect, or the use of “safety plans,” which have sometimes been used in lieu of meaningful measures to protect kids.

“The Innocents Lost series will help guide child welfare legislation this legislative session,” said Abramowitz, who headed the agency’s Miami district and child protection statewide. “We are already seeing positive changes being proposed in the child welfare arena.”

After reading the Herald series, Sobel said she returned to the proposed Senate bill that rewrites the laws relating to child welfare and got out her pen to reflect the improvements she now believes are needed.

The bill will get its next hearing at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services.

Sobel said she wants every reference to “adequate care” changed to read: “comprehensive and wraparound services.” Where the current law mentions preserving the family, she wants it to read “the best interest of the child shall be the first priority, and then keeping the family intact.”

The cost of providing comprehensive services will require much more money, and she will push to make that happen, she said. In January, Scott committed nearly $40 million to child-protection services in his budget proposal.

“We need to bring it back to the highest funding level we had before, and we now have a grip on how many kids are really affected by this system,” she said. “Everyone who touches these vulnerable kids as well as these dysfunctional families needs to have a comprehensive approach with comprehensive funding, not just adequate funding to address these horrific problems.”