DCF consultant rips agency for fatally bungled child safety efforts

Two years ago, Destene Simmons grabbed a pillow and held it over the face of her son in an apparent attempt to smother him. Antwan Hope screamed. Simmons’ mother barged in the room. Tragedy was averted.

The Department of Children & Families took no action — despite a police report on the incident — explaining later that Antwan never bothered to tell them what his mother tried to do .

Antwan was 2.

That story, and others, emerged Tuesday in a scathing report on DCF’s systemic failure to protect children in dangerously dysfunctional households. The child welfare agency commissioned the report, by the respected Casey Family Programs, after the Herald catalogued the stories of children from families with DCF histories who had died over the spring and summer.

The report, released to committees of the Florida Senate and House in Tallahassee, paints a particularly bleak picture of DCF’s child protection system. Among its findings:

•  Though the leading cause of death among the 40 children in the review was smothering in bed by parents or family members — many of them drug addicts — DCF seldom intervened in a meaningful way, other than requiring parents from troubled families to promise to stop sleeping in the same bed as their infants. Those promises were quickly forgotten in a drug- or booze-addled haze.

“Giving information regarding co-sleeping to drug-addicted parents, or to substance-abusing parents not established in a recovery process, and having these parents sign agreements to refrain from co-sleeping with infants, is a highly risky and questionable basis for safety planning,” the report said.

•  Investigators often failed miserably to assess and understand the dangers children faced with violent, drug-abusing parents. “Domestic violence and substance abuse dynamics were woefully underexplored,” the report said of one case, adding: “The overall thoroughness of the investigations leading up to the child’s death is highly questionable.”

•  Investigators left children in troubled homes without developing a plan to protect them, and often relied on nothing more than a parent’s pledge to protect their children. With few exceptions, the report said, investigators failed to ensure that troubled parents received state services designed to protect the children — such as free child care, which would have guaranteed that objective caregivers kept an eye on them, or home visits by specially trained nurses.

In general, the report said, investigators were often beset by tunnel vision, considering only the narrow allegations of an abuse report, rather than the overall functioning of a family.

DCF’s interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, wrote in a memo Tuesday that she initiated and released the review because “we must be open about our failures in order to improve.”

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that each individual case represents a young life that was tragically cut short,” Jacobo wrote. “These innocent victims should serve as our inspiration.”

In comments before the Senate’s Children & Families Committee Tuesday morning, Jacobo acknowledged that few of the report’s findings or recommendations were new.“We’ve seen these for many years,” she told the lawmakers, in a sentiment that was echoed by the head of the state’s private foster care coalition.

“What we just heard about the findings was not surprising to us,” said Kurt Kelley, CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children.

The committee also heard from a panel of experts about what changes should be made to prevent future child deaths. The recommendations ranged from hiring skilled social workers, dramatically reducing worker caseloads, restoring budget cuts and providing more resources for mental health and substance abuse programs to keep families safe.

Christina Spudeas, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Florida Children’s First, chastised DCF for reducing its quality assurance staff by 72 percent and allowing agencies to contract with each other to provide the required third party review.

Jacobo acknowledged that Gov. Rick Scott has asked her agency to cut its budget next year, but said she is confident critical services will be protected.

Scott spokesman John Tupps said the cuts are because the governor is “prioritizing spending on critical services” and he emphasized that “vital child protective services will not be reduced.”

Among 13 specific recommendations, the Casey staff said: The state should develop an array of services, including free child care, in-home parenting instruction and respite care, to help struggling families take better care of their kids. Investigators should avoid pledges by parents, or “promissory plans,” as a method for protecting kids, and instead rely on concrete measures, including more frequent home visits. DCF should create a computer-based system for “flagging” cases where parents are reported to the state’s abuse hotline again and again.

Among the child deaths examined by the Casey organization: Antwan Hope.

Although it took no action at the time of the would-be smothering, DCF removed the child from his mother months later after she was repeatedly committed for psychiatric treatment and had made threats that she would hurt Antwan.

This past summer, DCF’s private child welfare group in Broward, ChildNet, made a disastrous decision. They gave Antwan back to his mom. He was dead within hours, under circumstances that still have not been explained by DCF or anyone else.

After Antwan’s death, his mother waited 10 to 15 hours to call police. She has not been charged.

The Casey group said DCF workers should have seen it coming.

“What may have been the attempted murder of this child in 2011 was disregarded because the child, less than 3-years-old at the time of the attempted suffocation, did not ‘disclose’ that the incident had occurred,” the report noted.

Antwan’s case was among several, the report said, in which child abuse investigators failed to intervene even when parents had exhibited “hostility or possible homicidal intent.” Mary Ellen Klas of the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau reported from Tallahassee

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