Line by line


Below, the February 27 2011 Herald story that would prove to be a template for Innocents Lost.  The story is presented in full, with a point-by-point rebuttal from NCCPR.  Details and citations for the points noted briefly here are available elsewhere on this website.

State steps in less and more kids die
By Carol Marbin Miller

COMMENT: Actually, more kids died during Florida’s Years of Panic, when the state stepped in much more.

The details of Nubia Barahona’s death are grisly: Soaked in toxic chemicals, decomposed and stuffed in a garbage bag, she was found rotting on the shoulder of the interstate on Valentines Day. Authorities believe she had been stashed in a septic tank for weeks before her adoptive father dug up her corpse.

COMMENT: Adoptive father.  So if we follow Miller’s logic, isn’t the real lesson here to curb adoption because sometimes children in adoptive homes die?  Obviously that’s absurd – just as absurd as blaming efforts to keep families together for the fact that, sometimes, children die in their own homes.

Statistically, however, Nubia’s story is rather common: She is one of hundreds of Florida children who died of abuse or neglect during the last decade after child welfare authorities had performed at least one investigation into their welfare.

COMMENT: Every death of a child is the worst form of tragedy and even one is one too many.  But in a state with four million children, child abuse deaths are, thankfully, not common.

Florida not only leads the United States in the number of such deaths, it dominates the nation.

COMMENT: For reasons described elsewhere on this website, it is impossible to know which state leads the nation in child abuse deaths, and attempting such a comparison only penalizes states that are aggressive about investigating such fatalities and ferreting them out.

In the wake of a controversial decision by child welfare administrators to halve the number of children taken into state care

COMMENT: That figure is flat wrong.  Miller is confusing two sets of numbers.  The number of children taken into state care did not start to decline until after 2006.  It has declined by 35 percent, not by half, since then.  Miller is confusing the entry figure with the number of children in foster care on any given day, a figure which can rise or fall for reasons entirely unrelated to whether more children are taken away in the first place.

— while, at the same time, reducing the number of children receiving protective services with their birth families — the number of deceased children with a child protection investigative history almost doubled, from 35 in 2001 to 69 in 2009. No statistics are available for 2010.

COMMENT: Once again, the real change, if any, is unknown, because of a radical change in definitions for what constitutes a maltreatment fatality beginning in 2006.  We do know that the number of deaths increased significantly after Florida started taking away far more children in 1999.

Over the past six years, 41 percent of all children who died of abuse or neglect in Florida had been the subject of at least one prior contact with child protection authorities, the state Department of Health reports. The average for all other states: about 12 percent.

COMMENT: The average for other states is unknown, both because states have widely varying definitions of maltreatment fatalities and widely different competencies in ferreting out such cases and also because 17 states did not provide data – including huge states like New York and California.

In 2008, the number of Florida children with a history of abuse or neglect reports who later died made up almost half of the U.S. total. In 2009, 64 of the 120 child deaths nationally with a history of prior reports occurred in Florida – or 53 percent.

COMMENT: See previous comment

The statistics are noteworthy because state child welfare workers can only protect children whose plight comes to their attention. When children with no history of prior state contact perish, their deaths are equally tragic but far less preventable.
The spike in child deaths with a prior investigative history occurred during a time of significant change in state child-welfare policy.
Beginning in 2003, when then-Department of Children & Families Secretary Jerry Regier initiated a campaign to reduce the number of children in out-of-home care – a campaign that continued under the administrations of DCF secretaries Lucy Hadi, Bob Butterworth and George Sheldon – the number of Florida children removed from their parents decreased from 30,200 then to 18,300 currently — a 39 percent decline in the yearly total.

COMMENT: Wrong on several counts.  Once again Miller is using the snapshot number.  The number of Florida children removed from their parents did not decline under Regier or Hadi.  The decline did not begin until 2007.

But that’s only part of the story. The number of Florida children under so-called protective supervision — meaning authorities allowed them to remain with their parents while caseworkers monitored the home and provided services geared toward improving safety —also declined dramatically, from 17,300 in 2003 to 7,350 in 2008, the last year for which such statistics are available. That is a 57 percent decline.

Most of the years in this time period are years when Florida still was taking away children at the same high levels that began in 1999, so of course there was less funding for better options.  This figure includes only the first year after Florida’s Child First waiver, which allows more funds to be shifted from foster care into better alternatives. 

And the sad fact is that foster care is such an extreme intervention that two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases found that, in those typical cases even children left in their own homes without much help typically fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  Furthermore this figure includes the time before Florida’s child first waiver allowed more funds to be moved from foster care to better alternatives.

None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents. Rather, it means foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses – smaller than Florida uses now, since the state’s rate of child removal actually is still above the national average.

 “In our quest to reduce the number of children in care or under state services, the state of Florida has placed children dangerously at risk — and there’s no doubt about it,’’ said Cheleene B. Schembera, a 27-year DCF child-welfare administrator and inspector general who worked as a district administrator in Miami in 2003, just before the state’s sea change began.

COMMENT: Schembera is hardly a disinterested observer – she was a key player in the Kathleen Kearney DCF, she shares responsibility for the enormous harm Kearney’s policies did to children, and so has an obvious vested interest in condemning the people who did so much to undo the damage of the Kearney-Schembera era.

When a child dies a terrible and preventable death, said Schembera, who retired and now works as a consultant, observers always ask: “How did this happen to this particular child? But they never look at the broader issues,’’ she added.
Joe Follick, DCF’s Tallahassee spokesman, said administrators had not been able to review the death statistics, but added “it is impossible and dangerous to compare states when the parameters vary so widely.’’
“Florida investigates every child’s death, while other states do not,’’ Follick said. “We are confident our methods are strong since they allow us to detect trends that other states do not. Statistics are a wonderful tool, but when used inappropriately they can provide a terribly skewed and inaccurate measurement.
He added: “Every one of this department’s 13,000 employees devotes their life to helping others. Each child’s death is a tragedy that is felt individually and personally. No statistics can fairly measure this daily commitment and passion.’’

COMMENT: And that’s all anyone who disagrees with Miller’s thesis gets to say in the entire story.

Nubia and Victor Docter (their original last name) presented particularly thorny challenges to Florida’s child welfare system. They were taken from their birth parents in 2004: the twins’ mother was a drug addict and prostitute; their father was charged twice with molestation. They were placed by DCF caseworkers, and a Miami judge, in the West Miami-Dade home of Jorge and Carmen Barahona, who later adopted the children. The Barahonas already had two other children adopted from foster care.

COMMENT: To get a sense of the real reasons this may have happened, see far better February 27 story in The Palm Beach Post.

Administrators may well have placed the youngsters in greater danger, unwittingly. Following the twins’ adoption, the state’s abuse hotline received four reports that Nubia was being abused and neglected – Nubia, the state was told, was starving, bruised, dirty, unkempt, and afraid of her parents. All of the reports were made by employees of the girl’s school, Blue Lakes Elementary. The allegations all were investigated, and closed as unfounded.
DCF’s top Miami administrator, Jacqui Colyer, now acknowledges that, perhaps, investigators were too quick to accept Carmen Barahona’s explanations for Nubia’s condition, and too slow to require that the family submit to state supervision.
Few states have seen the child welfare pendulum swing more dramatically than Florida. In the late 1990s, state administrators, reeling from a series of ghastly and controversial deaths, emphasized keeping children safe, even if it led to larger foster-care caseloads.

COMMENT: Miller, like Kearney, falsely equates child removal with child safety.  In fact, Kearney’s take-the-child-and-run approach made children less safe.  Indeed, an apples-to-apples comparison, using the same definitions of fatalities shows that during Florida’s years of foster care panic, child abuse deaths among children known to the system increased.  In contrast, when entries declined again starting in 2007, independent evaluations found that child safety improved.

Following the Thanksgiving 1998 death of 6-year-old Kayla McKean — whose father beat her to death in a rage because she soiled her panties, though authorities had been told repeatedly her life was in danger — then -DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney declared that protecting at-risk children was her greatest priority. Foster-care caseloads, as a consequence, rose to their highest levels, peaking at 35,500 in 2001.

COMMENT: Again, Miller is using the snapshot number instead of entries into care, which did not peak until 2005 and remained nearly as high in 2006.

But the frantic removal of children from their birth parents — one children’s advocate called it a “foster-care panic’’ —

COMMENT: That would be me.  But of course Miller did not contact me, or any other advocate of family preservation for this story.  She allowed only that token response from within DCF.

did little to stanch the tide of deaths among kids known to the child protection system. Two years later, when Kearney left the agency, DCF reported the same number of children with prior abuse or neglect investigations who later died, 35.

COMMENT: But Miller neglects to mention that this figure is significantly higher than the average of 25 such deaths in the four years before Kearney started the foster-care panic.

At the same time, well-respected children’s advocates and research groups, including the Casey Family Programs, were reporting that states could reduce the number of children in foster care safely by allowing some kids to remain with their parents under the watchful eye of case-managers, and with the aid of intensive home services. Advocates called the approach the “family preservation’’ model, and it had the added virtue of enjoying wide support among real foster kids, many of whom said their ordeals in state care could, and should, have been avoided.
Five months into his tenure, then-DCF Secretary Jerry Regier —who inherited Kearney’s albatross, the aftermath of Miami foster child Rilya Wilson’s disappearance amid a clogged and chaotic foster-care system — announced a new “vision’’: a more streamlined agency that protected children by preserving families. To that end, he said, DCF would reduce the number of children in state care by 25 percent before the summer of 2004.

COMMENT: But he never actually carried out the vision.  Entries into foster care remained at the record levels set under Kearney

And though Florida was the first state in the United States to obtain special permission from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to spend federal dollars earmarked for foster care on in-home services, records show the number of Florida children under state supervision did not come close to keeping pace with the number of children who were diverted from foster care. DCF records show that, in fact, the number of kids under protective supervision declined by 57 percent from 2003 through 2008.

COMMENT: Florida didn’t get that waiver until 2006, and did not start implementing it until 2007.  So figures before that date are a red-herring.

And Florida narrowed its child-welfare front door as well, ramping up a program in which counselors at the state hotline were encouraged to “screen’’ out calls that appeared to fall short of the definition of abuse or neglect. Some of the calls were screened in error, and at least one child, 1-year-old Bryce Barros of Broward County, died in 2009 after three calls from a judge were screened out.

COMMENT: Miller started riding this hobby-horse in 2009.  As with the current story, she took data out of context and got facts wrong.  Details are in these posts to the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog

What’s more, Florida continued the rapid pace of diverting children from protective supervision at the very time that the state – and, indeed, the nation – suffered through one of the worst recessions in U.S. history. As agency administrators were reducing caseloads, they were begging lawmakers to hold their budgets harmless while other state agencies’ budgets were being slashed. Their reasoning: it is common wisdom that economic stress leads to greater abuse and neglect of children.
In 2008, for example, then-DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth described a $4.5 billion package of legislative budget cuts as a “contract on kids.’’

COMMENT: And child welfare was largely spared from those cuts thanks to the waiver.  Under the waiver, had the cuts gone through, Florida would have lost all of its federal funding.

But for a growing number of children’s advocates and academic-based social workers, the greater threat was posed by the ever-widening gulf between reports of children at risk, and effective, accountable methods for mitigating such risk.
It wasn’t that caseworkers were ignoring troubled families. Far from it. Investigators and caseworkers frequently encouraged parents with poor records to accept help from the state voluntarily. They left glossy brochures and thick information packets for domestic violence shelters, alcohol- and drug-treatment programs and anger management classes with thousands of parents. But then they simply walked away. Often, the children’s names returned to the hotline, as the danger mounted.
“When people were non-compliant,’’ Schembera said, “they fell off the face of the earth.’’

COMMENT: That is contradicted by the independent evaluations required under the waiver, evaluations which show that child safety has, in fact, improved.

There were warning signs:
•  In 2005, consultants with the University of Utah hired by the Miami-Dade Community-Based Care Alliance wrote that children who were reported to be in harm’s way repeatedly fell through the cracks until their situation became grave.
“It appears that the investigatory system is only working with families who are in the most severe, egregious circumstances, and other children and families do not have entry into the system’’ said the report, written by professor Norma Harris, who heads the university’s Social Research Institute.

COMMENT: This was when Florida still was taking away record numbers of kids.  In fact, 2005 was, literally the worst year on record for tearing apart Florida families.

•  In 2009, the federal Children & Family Services Review, which assessed Florida’s child welfare performance from October 2006 through January 2008 reported that “children were unsafe, or at risk of harm, in their own homes either because no services were provided to address safety issues or the services provided were insufficient to ensure children’s safety.’’ In some cases, the reviewers found, caseworkers failed to implement a “safety plan’’ for at-risk kids; in other cases, they closed their investigations prematurely.

COMMENT: Almost every state flunks the CFSR.  And the CFSR methodology is so flawed that the results tell us nothing.  That is a position NCCPR first took in 2003 – and we have said that about every state, including those rare states that did relatively well.  Even when it is to our advantage, as when a state that takes huge numbers of children flunks this review, or a state that takes relatively few passes, we have maintained this consistent position.  To see why, see our publication “The Trouble with CFSRs.”  But as long as Miller brings it up: She neglects to mention that Florida also flunked its first CFSR, which took place during the Years of Panic – and it flunked then even though Florida arranged to have what it thought was a better than average county chosen as one of the three to be examined.  (Yes, they only look at three counties in every state.)

“I told them this from the beginning,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, a child welfare judge who wanted DCF to go to court with troubled families so judges could order parents to accept help – or face the removal of their children. She said investigators told her – privately – that they were under intense pressure to keep their caseloads down.

COMMENT: Miller systematically avoids talking to anyone who doesn’t share her view – again, except for the token two paragraphs from DCF.

Schembera, who has reviewed about 20 recent cases where a child died or was seriously injured, said poor investigations – including reports where caseworkers failed to interview a single “collateral contact,’’ such as neighbors or pediatricians – often led to poor outcomes.
She called such investigations “drive-bys,’’ adding: “The reality is many investigations are not worthy of the name.’’

COMMENT: That was certainly true when DCF was overloaded with children needlessly taken from their homes.  It happens less often thanks to the reforms.  If Schembera – and Carol Marbin Miller – get their way, there will be more such “drive-bys” as workers once again are flooded with children who never needed to be taken from their parents.

In Nubia’s case, elementary school workers told the DCF abuse hotline in June 2010 that the girl’s hunger had become so “uncontrollable’’ she was stealing food, and that she was losing her hair. It was the second such report on the girl, who, school officials said in 2007, was hoarding food and afraid of her adoptive mother. DCF administrators at first suggested the 2010 report had resulted in a referral for services to Miami’s private foster-care agency, but records show no such referral ever was made. The plea from Nubia’s school, the fourth made by Blue Lakes Elementary, did not lead child welfare workers to take any action to monitor her family.

COMMENT: The most likely reason for any failure to act more aggressively in this case is the fact that Nubia was a foster and then an adopted child.  Child welfare agencies tend to underestimate maltreatment in substitute care, since they were responsible for making the placement in the first place.  It should be obvious that the solution to this problem is not to throw even more children into foster care.

Nubia is among hundreds of children over the past decade for whom cries for help went unheeded.
Records maintained by the state Department of Health, which houses the Statewide Child Abuse Death Review Committee, show that the number of children with a prior DCF history who later died rose from a low of 29 in 2002

COMMENT: that was not the low.  Records go back to before the creation of the review Committee, and those records show lower numbers in the years before Kearney took over and demanded a huge increase in entries of children into foster care.

 to a peak of 79 in 2008 – a 172 percent increase.

COMMENT:  Except that in 2006, the definition of maltreated child was radically broadened and the Review Committee’s own report says this figures cannot be accurately compared.

Such deaths declined in 2009 to 69,

COMMENT: Oh, there it is at last: Four paragraphs from the end of a 2,300 word story – the acknowledgement that, with no changes in definitions, these deaths went down in 2009, the same year that entries into foster care declined by ten percent, something Miller doesn’t bother to mention at all.

a figure that is still well above levels from the early 2000s.

COMMENT: Which was before the definition changed.  And the figure in the early 2000s was higher than in the mid to late 1990s, when DCF took away far fewer children.
In 2009, the report says, the 69 deaths represented 36 percent of the child deaths the Team studied.

Among the 69 children, the number of prior reports to the state’s abuse hotline ranged from one to seven. Seven percent, or 14 children, had been the subject of a pending child abuse or neglect report.

In 2008, though Texas reported a larger number of child fatalities, with 223, the percentage of those deaths with a prior child protection history was only 11 percent, according to the U.S. Administration for Children & Families, whose data are slightly different than those kept by the state. At 76 percent, South Carolina had a higher percentage than Florida, but the numbers involved were much smaller – the state had 16 children deaths.
“One of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior,’’ the team wrote in the report, which was released in December 2010. “Often the history of the parents is overlooked and opportunities to provide services are missed. Many of these young parents were neglected as children and parent as they were parented, allowing the cycle of abuse and neglect to continue.’’

COMMENT: So Miller only quotes from the actual report when it suits her purposes, ignoring anything in the report that contradicts her thesis.