Thursday, March 18, 2021

USA TODAY Network reporters document how DCF ignores abuse in Florida foster care

 Once again, it’s the price of foster-care panic 

For decades, NCCPR has pointed out the huge disconnect between officially-reported rates of abuse in foster homes, group homes and institutions and the findings from independent studies which consistently find vastly more such abuse. 

Now USA TODAY Network Florida reporters have obtained copies of thousands of reports alleging abuse in foster care that the state, in effect, covered up, by deciding they were not serious enough even to investigate as child abuse reports.   

As the story explains: 

The nearly 5,000 records detail calls to the Florida Department of Children and Families abuse hotline from teachers, health care professionals, day care workers, neighbors and others about the treatment of kids in state care. 

None of these cases would have been counted in what Florida publicly reports each year about the number of serious abuse, neglect and abandonment allegations in its foster care system. 

DCF says the accusations do not meet its definition of serious harm. Instead, they are classified as foster care "referrals," potential license violations that may prompt an administrative review and that Florida officials have fought to keep secret for years. 

As the story notes, NCCPR reviewed a sample of these reports and, using very conservative criteria, found that a great many absolutely would have been considered abuse had the accused been birth parents.  

Florida experts agreed. Here’s what they told the USA TODAY Network reporters: 

“This is stuff kids tell you about when foster homes are really bad,” said Robert Latham, a child advocate and clinical instructor at the University of Miami’s law school. … The system has an incentive not to believe children because it’s afraid to lose foster parents. Even calling in abuse reports is frustrating because you’re almost sure nothing is going to happen.” … 

In at least four counties, the same case manager assigned to complete regular visits to the foster home where the abuse reportedly occurred is often dispatched to investigate the allegation, former DCF attorney Lisa Dawson-Andrzejczyk said. 

"The vast majority of case managers are good and dedicated and appreciate the seriousness of their job, but you're going to have some who didn't do the home visits, or they visited the child at school and called it a home visit," Dawson-Andrzejczyk said. "They have every reason to not want to acknowledge that there's something they might have missed." … 

A system desperate for foster parents will let a lot of things slide, said Neil Skene, who served as DCF’s special counsel from 2008 to 2010 and chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services from 2015 to 2017. … 

But don’t take our word for it – or theirs. The reporters published summaries of scores of allegations. Read them yourself and ask yourself one question: What would the Florida Department of Children and Families have done had the accused been birth parents? 

It isn’t just Florida, of course. The same incentives apply everywhere, especially in places where child welfare agencies are experiencing foster-care panics - sharply increasing the number of families torn apart needlessly in response to politicians or journalists falsely scapegoating family preservation after high-profile child abuse deaths. 

That is exactly what happened in Florida.  So nothing will come of this excellent journalism from the USA TODAY network if lawmakers and others are allowed to ignore the reason DCF is desperate for foster care beds – the foster-care panic triggered by the Miami Herald’s series falsely scapegoating family preservation for child abuse deaths, and the complicity of the Tampa Bay Times in encouraging the panic.  That panic led to the needless removal of thousands of children.  All were likely traumatized by that needless removal from loving homes. Some almost certainly wound up in abusive foster homes, group homes and institutions. 

You can’t fix this with another tired foster parent recruitment campaign. And you sure as hell can’t fix it with more group homes and institutions – where the rate of abuse is even worse. You can only fix it by reducing the number of children taken needlessly from their homes.

As they read the USA TODAY Network story in the Herald and Times newsrooms – and they will – reporters and editors should think long and hard about how they contributed to what better journalists have now exposed. 

But they probably won’t.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Florida journalism begins to face up to foster-care panic; Florida lawmaklers do not.

USA Today Network stories also reveal how the Florida Department of Children and Families effectively has become a spouse abuser’s best friend. 


Confronted with the fact that his agency overlooked
horriffic abuse in foster care and routinely tears children
from the arms of battered mothers, Florida DCF Secretary
Chad Poppell offered, at best, a mea minima culpa.

                In 2014, bad journalism set off a foster-care panic in Florida.  A Miami Herald series, falsely scapegoated family preservation for child abuse deaths.  In fact, efforts to keep families together, led by two leaders of the state child welfare agency, Bob Butterworth and the late George Sheldon, had made children safer.

             The Florida Legislature responded predictably. It passed a bunch of laws encouraging even more needless removal of children from their homes, escalating the panic.

             In 2020, good journalism exposed the harm done to children by the Herald’s bad journalism.  USA Today Network Florida reporters demonstrated how the foster-care panic overloaded the system, prompting the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the assortment of privatized “lead agencies” that together mismanage Florida child welfare to turn a blind eye (to an even greater degree than before) to horrific abuse inflicted on children in foster care.

             Then the reporters published a series of stories about children needlessly torn from their mothers and consigned to the chaos of that same horrific system because the mothers were victims of domestic violence.

             Last week, some Florida legislators responded predictably – accepting at face value meaningless assurances from the current “leader” of Florida DCF, Chad Poppell.

So for starters, let’s review what Poppell and the legislature – as well as the Herald and its ally in pushing Florida to relentlessly tear apart families, the Tampa Bay Times – want swept under the rug.

The USA Today Network journalists found that the system

 …sent nearly 170 children to live in foster homes where the state had some evidence that abuse occurred. In 2016, two preschool girls said their Sarasota County foster father molested them. The state sent him 13 more children, stopping only when a third toddler reported that the 64-year-old had forced her to put his penis in her mouth. …

The number of children under 10 sent to live in group homes doubled between 2013 and 2017, adding to the cost of care and the danger to children. Some were sent to places such as the Mount Dora-based National Deaf Academy even after a whistleblower lawsuit was filed in Lake County claiming that staff had held children down, punched them in the stomach, spat on them and denied them medical care. …

 As caseloads rose, child welfare workers skipped home visits and parent training sessions because they could not keep up with required safety checks. They fabricated logs to make it appear as if the sessions took place. When caseworkers lied and omitted information from their reports, children got hurt, according to lawsuits and DCF inspector general reports. One IG report told of a child who was sexually assaulted after an investigations supervisor falsely claimed a hotline call had been successfully investigated and provisions had been made for the safety of the children involved.


At a legislative committee meeting on Jan. 12, Poppell offered up what can best be called a mea minima culpa

 “I won’t belabor the point, the quality of the work was poor,  We did a bad job,” he said, adding “DCF shouldn’t be finding out about these things in the newspaper.”

 But he neglected to mention that he had done everything he could to prevent his own agency, or anyone else, from finding out.  As the USA Today story notes:

DCF and the nonprofit agencies in charge of foster care repeatedly tried to prevent USA TODAY from obtaining information about foster parents and the allegations against them. They would not provide a list of parent names and demanded $50,000 for search and copy fees for disciplinary records. In reaction to one USA TODAY records request, DCF officials pressed legislators to pass a law making foster parent names secret from the public – an effort that ultimately failed.

Taking children from battered mothers

As I’ll discuss in more detail below, the legislative committee barely touched the issue of abuse in foster care.  And when it comes to the issue of the harm done to children taken from battered mothers, they don’t seem to have said a word. 

So let’s review what the journalists found.  Here’s how one of the stories begins: 

Her memory of the midnight attack was muddled, but her battered body bore the story. 

Purple bruises peppered her arms, legs and chest. Blood dried on her busted lip. Dark, swollen skin circled her bloodshot right eye. Hospital scans confirmed her ex-boyfriend’s attack had inflicted internal trauma too. 

Now, hours later, he was in jail and Leah Gunion was home again. Concussion-weary and tender, she tucked her toddler back into bed and sat down to nurse her infant son. An 8 a.m. knock at the door disrupted her first moment of peace. 

A woman waited at the threshold. Her polo shirt bore the insignia of the Florida Department of Children and Families. Thinking she was there to help, Leah let her in. 

For the next six weeks, Leah would battle the state for custody of her children, though DCF investigators never suggested that she injured her kids. They didn’t accuse her of using drugs or failing to provide for her boys’ basic needs. 

But she had lost consciousness from being beaten and strangled, briefly leaving her children unsupervised. They ordered Leah to never be alone with her children, or risk losing them. 

Ultimately her children were indeed taken away.  It happened right after a domestic violence counselor assured the mother it wouldn’t: 

 “She was very afraid that day of the department,” [the counselor] recalled. “And I stood right here in this building and said, ‘You’ve done everything right. Don’t worry about the department. They’re not going to take your kids.’” 

Because a police officer with a bodycam was there to provide backup, we can see what happened next:


Does Poppell know the research?

             Poppell tried to dismiss the cases as isolated while at the same time justifying tearing children from the arms of battered mothers on grounds that the children had been emotionally abused.          

But research shows that while witnessing domestic violence can harm children, emotionally, taking children from nonoffending parents harms those children far more.  One expert called it “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”  That’s why in one state, New York, as a result of a class-action lawsuit, the practice is illegal.  (NCCPR’s vice president was co-counsel for plaintiffs in that lawsuit.)  In Florida, in contrast, DCF’s approach can be summed up as: please pass the salt. 

            As the Daytona Beach News-Journal wrote in an editorial. Poppell ... 

...should be aware of the national research showing how badly children suffer when they are separated from their parents  – and be wholly committed to ensuring that doesn’t happen to parents who never abused or neglected their children. 

            One reason the emotional trauma is so great in these situations: Children assume they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished.  The Florida stories illustrate just that.  Leah Gunion’s children ultimately were returned, but ... 

Her toddler, whom DCF and police had picked up from day care, asked what he’d done wrong. “He thinks he was arrested,” Leah said, something she’d previously told him happens only to bad boys. 

            As for the claim that such cases are isolated, here’s what the USA Today Network reporters found: 

[I]n defiance of widely accepted best practices, Florida aggressively removes children from parents – most of them mothers – who have been battered by an intimate partner, a USA TODAY investigation found. … While other states have moved away from that approach, DCF cited domestic violence as the reason it removed more than 3,500 children from biological parents in 2018, an increase of nearly 1,400 from 2013. It is the primary reason for 25% of removals this year. … 

USA TODAY identified 22 domestic violence victims who were willing to share their stories and provide case documents that normally are hidden from public view. … Taken together, their experiences reveal a system stacked against women who are abused. Caseworkers and judges treat them like criminals on probation, even when their children have not been physically harmed, and impose a level of scrutiny that many parents could not pass. Any failing can be used against them to remove their children or delay reunification. 

Perhaps worst of all, Florida DCF effectively has become a spouse abuser’s best friend: 

Worried their children could be taken again, eight mothers say they’re now afraid to call 911 if they’re in danger. Four mothers told USA TODAY they believe their children were abused or medically neglected in a foster home. 

“The thing I regret most is that I ever called 911,” said a Martin County mother of two whose sons spent eight months in foster care after she reported to police that her boyfriend hit her and threatened her with a gun. “But I could also have been killed that night. Which one do you pick?”


The Florida Legislature responds – NOT! 

On Jan. 12, Poppell spoke at a meeting of the Florida Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs.  He admitted that DCF had wrongly dismissed a large proportion of the allegations of sexual abuse in foster care – now that the journalists had overcome DCF’s own efforts to hide the problem.  He promised the agency will look more carefully in the future. 

But he implied that the official figure of 92 children with such allegations in fiscal year 2020 is accurate.  In fact, study after study shows that there is abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes, and the rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse. 

Having just admitted that his investigations of abuse in foster care are sloppy and miss a lot of such abuse, Poppell then went on to claim that abuse in foster care had declined since 2007.  I trust the problem with that claim is obvious. 

As for the foster-care panic, Poppell claimed, of course, that all those children were taken to keep them safe.  But, as always happens with foster-care panics, it backfired.  Independent monitors found that the one time child safety really improved in Florida was when Butterworth and Sheldon were running DCF and doing more to keep families together. 

By overloading the system, the foster-care panic didn’t just make foster care less safe, it also made it harder for caseworkers to find the relatively few children in real danger. 

But safety wasn’t the real reason for taking away all those children.  That was made clear by Poppell himself – inadvertently – when he pointed out that the number of children torn from their families has returned to about where it was before the panic.  

But why? If all those children were so unsafe they needed to be taken away in 2014, why not now? 

      There are two possible explanations for the rise and fall in entries into Florida foster care: 

1.              1. By amazing coincidence, child abuse in Florida spiked at precisely the same moment the Herald was publishing its stories, and then it magically declined again. 

2.              2. Thousands of children were needlessly torn from everyone they know and love, consigned to the chaos of foster care, suffered emotional trauma akin to that suffered by children torn from their families at the Mexican border and, in some cases were horribly abused in foster care itself – all so Florida DCF could appease the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

             So, which is more likely? 

1,280 “great things” per child? 

Speaking of unlikely, Poppell also declared that “a million great things happen in this system every day.” 

I did the math.  On average, 781 children come to the attention of DCF every day – that’s the number of children who are investigated as alleged victims of child abuse and neglect.  So if Poppell is right, his agency is so magnificent that it does an average of 1,280 great things for each one of those children!  Kinda makes you wonder why the outcomes for children who go through the system are so rotten, doesn’t it? 

And yet, instead of holding Poppell to account for any of this, his token initiatives about abuse in foster care reportedly were “well-received.” Another news account said “For the most part, the Senate committee members appeared pleased with Poppell’s responses.” 

Of course they were.  Poppell simply ignored the problem at the root of all the others – taking away too many children.  That’s the problem for which the legislature is complicit. 

The chair of the committee State Sen. Lauren Book had earlier written that “The USA Today investigative series will serve as a blueprint for me to follow in examining these issues.”  

But if she, or any other committee member, so much as uttered a word at the hearing about what was being done to the children of battered women, no news account mentioned it. 

So if you’re really going to use those stories as your guide, Sen. Book,  

● Will you introduce legislation to make it illegal to tear a child from the arms of mothers whose only crime is to, themselves, be the victims of domestic violence? 

● Will you demand that DCF stop taking away so many families needlessly, often when family poverty is confused with neglect? 

● Will you demand that DCF return to the reforms initiated under Butterworth and Sheldon, reforms shown by independent monitors to make children safer? 

● Will you demand that Florida create a program of high-quality interdisciplinary family representation like the one in New York City that has spared so many children the trauma of prolonged needless foster care, with no compromise of safety? 

● Will you at least demand that DCF follow this sound advice from the News-Journal and start 

...[examining] a random sample of child-abuse investigations that cite domestic violence as a leading cause and assigning an experienced team (preferably made up of people who don’t currently work for DCF) to review them. It should also look into allegations that assigned blame to victims of domestic violence and looked for any reason to take their children into foster care.

          And one more thing: Will you demand that Florida child welfare do what you say you are going to do and use the USA Today series as a blueprint – instead of taking its cues from the Miami Herald?

Monday, November 9, 2020

Gannett Florida newspapers expose the harm of the Herald's reporting

 I have often written that the solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism.

 Six years ago, bad journalism from the Miami Herald set off a foster-care panic in Florida.  This site is devoted to responding to that journalism.  Last month, good journalism from Gannett’s Florida newspapers and USA Today documented how Florida’s most vulnerable children are paying the price for what the Herald did.  (And they didn’t flinch from saying that the Herald stories triggered it.) UPDATE, DEC. 18, 2020: They published even more powerful stories this week.

And on Sunday, the Florida Times-Union published our response to the stories:

Investigation shines spotlight on child welfare reform

 Decades ago, in Illinois, the death of a child “known to the system” led to a surge in the number of children taken from their parents. With every caseworker terrified to have the next horror story on her or his caseload, they flooded the system with children who never needed to be taken from their homes.

 As a result, one advocate said, the child welfare system became “Like a laboratory experiment to produce the abuse of children.”

 Thanks to the outstanding stories published in the Times-Union and elsewhere by reporters for the USA TODAY Network, we know the laboratory didn’t close – it just moved to Florida.  Their reporting documents how the foster-care panic triggered six years ago by reckless scapegoating of family preservation for child abuse deaths led to thousands of children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love.

 Read the full column here:

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Tampa Bay Times exposes a crisis made far worse by the Tampa Bay Times

The Times tells us all about the enormous harm done to children when they are moved from foster home to foster home - without ever mentioning the Times-fueled foster-care panic at the root of the problem.

UPDATE, JANUARY 11: Although the Times story has huge problems, Robert Latham, Associate Director of the University of Miami School of Law Children and Youth Law Clinic has done a brilliant job of visualizing the underlying data - driving home the serious and real problem of multiple placement that the Times has made worse.  Check out Prof. Latham's work here.

“Nowhere to call home,” says the headline on a big story in the Tampa Bay Times at the end of last year. “Thousands of foster children move so much they risk psychological harm.”  The subhead declares that “A Tampa Bay Times investigation finds Florida’s overburdened foster care system repeatedly bounces children from home to home and family to family.”

A Tampa Bay Times investigation?  Really?  All they had to do was turn on a television and watch the stories on WFLA-TV.  The television station broke the story and beat the you-know-what out of the Times on it all through 2018.

The Times catch-up story goes on to describe the terrible toll taken on children by being moved from placement to placement. It does add some data giving a sense of how often it happens in Florida in general and Hillsborough County (metropolitan Tampa) in particular.  Any story reminding people of this institutionalized child abuse has value, even one that adds little to what WFLA already told us.

How the Times made the whole problem worse

But the biggest problem with the story is the problem with all of the Tampa Bay Times reporting on child welfare over the past few years.  In a state that’s been in the midst of a media-fueled foster-care panic since 2014, and where, by some measures, the panic is worst in the Tampa-St Petersburg area. The Tampa Bay Times has spent years committing journalistic malpractice, helping to fuel the panic by denying the very existence of the problem that drives everything else: needless removal of children.

Who says children are being taken needlessly in the Tampa Bay area?

● A “peer review team” made up of other key players in the child welfare system and named by the then secretary of the state Department of Children and Families (WFLA reported this; the Tampa Bay Times ignored that part of the team’s report.)

● A representative of the Florida Attorney General who admitted that children are taken just because their families are poor. (The Tampa Bay Times never reported this – WFLA did.)

The most recent story did not ignore the issue entirely – not quite. In the 2,400 word story by reporters Chris O’Donnell and Nathaniel Lash, the problem gets exactly one sentence. Here’s the sentence:

Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights, said the state is struggling because too many children are unnecessarily removed from their homes.

Normally in news stories, that kind of sentence is a way of introducing a topic.  Succeeding sentences elaborate on it, explaining what is meant by unnecessarily removed, why it happens and what can be done about it.  But that’s not how they do things at the Tampa Bay Times.

So after another sentence reporting on the sharp increase in foster care numbers, with no discussion of causes, the story drops anything that would even hint that needless removal is the reason for that increase  Instead there’s this:

Without enough foster beds, placement becomes a scramble to find any home willing to take a child instead of matching a child with a foster parent trained to deal with children with severe behavioral issues. That can start a cycle where children who act out are repeatedly moved because foster parents are unable to cope, Rosenberg said.

The story continues in that vein, describing the problem exclusively as one of too few foster parents, instead of too many foster children.

The editorial was even worse

The inevitable editorial that followed was, inevitably, worse. The Times editorial page has taken the position that there is no problem of children being needlessly removed; in fact, they’ve demanded that government be even more aggressive in tearing apart families. No dissenting view is allowed.  So while the editorial summarizes almost every other aspect of the Times news story, there is not even a token mention of needless removal of children.

Instead, the editorial repeatedly tells us that multiple placement causes further trauma or further damage - in other words, the editorial is telling us, damage over and above what those vicious, rotten, evil, no-good abusive parents did to them – so don’t even think that the answer might be not taking away so many children in the first place!  The Tampa Bay Times is not about to allow any serious discussion of the possibility that some children don’t suffer “trauma” or “damage” until they are removed from their homes.

And the editorial tells us “a high-volume county like Hillsborough needs additional funding to meet this disproportionate need.”  But the “high volume” is not because Hillsborogh County is some kind of cesspool of depravity with vastly more child abuse than anywhere else in Florida. Even poverty, so often confused with neglect, doesn’t explain it.  Other large counties with higher rates of child poverty don’t take children at the same high rate as Hillsborough.  No, the “high volume” is a result of the statewide foster-care panic, and how the Tampa Bay Times has made it worse in its part of the state.

Since they refuse to face up to the real cause of the problem, the Times offers solutions that are as unimaginative as they are ungrammatical, calling for things such as “A public-private effort to enlist more families and provide stabler [sic] long-term housing …” for older foster children.

The Tampa Bay Times has an unusual ownership structure. It’s owned by the Poynter Institute which sees itself a standard-setter for journalism.  Too bad the paper it owns debases the standards of journalism whenever it publishes a story about child welfare.

Monday, September 17, 2018

An open letter to two Florida columnnists

Their anguish over the death of another child “known to the system” is genuine.  I think they’ll also be open to some new ideas.

A little over a week ago, two columnists for the Tampa Bay Times, Sue Carlton and John Romano, wrote about still another death of a child “known to the system” in Florida.  Often, when that happens, I reach out to the journalists in a letter.  This time, I’m sharing that letter with everyone.

It's on the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Remembering George Sheldon …

… Including the legacy the Miami Herald wants you to forget

George Sheldon
When former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, named one of the state’s most prominent Democrats, Bob Butterworth, to run the state Department of Children and Families, a joke made the rounds: “Nobody can fix DCF,” the joke went. “Now a Democrat will be blamed for the failures.”

Butterworth brought in another prominent Democrat, George Sheldon, to be his deputy. But if the joke was right about Crist’s secret plan, the joke was on him. Together, Butterworth and Sheldon engineered one of the largest transformations of any child welfare system in America. What was once the nation’s most prominent example of child welfare failure, became, relatively speaking, a remarkable success. 

When Butterworth left, there was speculation that Crist would never name Sheldon to the top job – after all, Crist had defeated Sheldon in two statewide election campaigns.  But he did.  And Sheldon expanded on the reforms begun under Butterworth.

During the Obama Administration, Sheldon became the nation’s highest-ranking official in child welfare, running the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services. While there, he championed real child welfare finance reform.

The term “hero” is overused.  So is the term “champion for children.” But they both apply to George Sheldon, who died last week at the age of 71. 

Reading the tributes to Sheldon it is striking how many of them come from former foster children.  They knew that, finally, they had a real friend in a position of power.

Sheldon’s greatest accomplishment

Sheldon moved aggressively to curb the use of psychiatric medication on foster children, and he prohibited the use of foster children in drug trials.  He championed “normalcy,” working to clear away the bureaucratic barriers that made it hard for foster children to enjoy the smallest pleasures in life, such as a sleepover at a friend’s house.  And Sheldon and Butterworth took DCF out of the bunker, opening records and speaking candidly about the agency’s failures.

But their single greatest accomplishment was this: Sheldon and Butterworth dramatically reduced the number of children torn needlessly from their families – and independent monitors found they did it without compromising child safety.  The dramatic transformation was featured in The New York Times.  

Yet this appears nowhere in the Miami Herald’s obituary for Sheldon. 

The obit is filled with warm reminiscences and wonderful stories, like this one, from former journalist Martin Dyckman, about Sheldon’s time in the Florida Legislature:

In the 1970s, when the Legislature passed financial disclosure laws, Sheldon often ranked dead last among his colleagues in the House. One newspaper led a story about the financial worth of lawmakers by noting that then-Miami-Dade Rep. Elaine Bloom disclosed ownership of a pure-breed dog whose declared worth was greater than Sheldon’s, Dyckman recalls.

But the obituary profanes Sheldon’s memory by leaving out entirely his single greatest accomplishment in Florida. In 2,000 words, reporter Carol Marbin Miller found no room to even mention his work to safely and successfully keep more children out of the chaos of Florida foster care.  But, of course, Miller has led a crusade against those changes. Now, she wants to pretend they never happened.

But they did happen.  And the best way to honor George Sheldon would be for the people of Florida to turn their backs on the Miami Herald’s fearmongering and demand that DCF return to George Sheldon’s vision of child welfare reform.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Miami Herald story that amounts to a scathing indictment – of the Miami Herald

As far back as 2011, Miami Herald reporter Carol Marbin Miller was scapegoating efforts to keep families together for child abuse deaths.  The headline on a story that year summed up Miller’s false claim perfectly: “State steps in less and more kids die.”

That also was the claim throughout  Miller’s 2014 series, Innocents Lost. 

After that series was published, the Herald got exactly what it wanted: The state stepped in far more.  The number of children torn from their parents soared.  So problem solved, right?  No more child abuse deaths.  Or at least, now that the state is stepping in more, fewer kids are dying, right?

But that’s not what happened – according to a story in the Miami Herald, by Carol Marbin Miller.

The story, published on August 10, looked back on the tenure of DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, who had announced plans to resign effective September 6.

Carroll took over after the publication of Innocents Lost in 2014  – and he did exactly what the Herald wanted – oversaw the removal of far more children.  But, according to the Herald’s own story, Carroll

…was unable to stem the tide of high-profile calamities, especially the deaths by abuse of vulnerable children,

Missteps by the department often made state and national headlines: a youngster whose father's mental deconstruction was well-known was tossed into Tampa Bay; an adolescent foster child suffering a long-documented emotional collapse hanged herself from a Miami Gardens foster home while livestreaming on Facebook. …

Back when Florida was emphasizing safe, proven approaches to keeping families together, under the leadership of Bob Butterworth and George Sheldon, Florida made a very different kind of national news – as in this assessment from The New York Times. But thanks to the Herald, and Carroll’s willingness to pander to the Herald, all that was wiped out.

And again, the Herald itself says that didn’t work out too well:

When Carroll took the top slot, he stated that any child's death was "unacceptable" and that the department needed to improve.

But under Carroll's tenure, the agency continued to struggle with high-profile child deaths. In 2015, an agency report documented missed opportunities in the case of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck, who was killed after her father dropped her from a St. Petersburg bridge into Tampa Bay.

That same year, Carroll also acknowledged "system failures" in the brutal deaths of two other Tampa Bay-area children. As recently as May, a scathing report faulted several — including agency investigators — in the January scalding death of 1-year-old Ethan Coley of Homestead.

So, now that the state is "stepping in" so much more and, the Herald itself admits, kids are still dying at such a rate that Carroll couldn’t even “stem the tide,” maybe it’s time to finally reconsider why this keeps happening – and stop scapegoating the only approach that ever actually made Florida children safer and Florida child welfare better.

The real reasons children known to the system sometimes die are the same as they always were – caseworkers overloaded with so many false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect, that they don’t have time to investigate any case properly.

But don’t take my word for it. Innocents Lost actually said as much – well, sort of. The series cited Alabama as a success story, without telling readers that Alabama created this success by emphasizing family preservation – and taking away children at a far lower rate than Florida. Here, again, The New York Times got the story right.

It is not clear, however, who is going to challenge the Herald, and the way that newspaper has hurt Florida’s most vulnerable children.  It’s unlikely that Carroll’s replacement will be any more willing to stand up to the Herald than Carroll was.

And with all the cutbacks in news gathering, the Herald and the Tampa Bay Times which is, if anything, even more extreme in advocating a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, have a virtual monopoly on child welfare coverage. 

So Florida’s most vulnerable children still have no champion.  And after Mike Carroll’s successor leaves the job, the Herald can write the same story all over again.