Originally posted February, 2011, updated November 12, 2015

            Not surprisingly, a lot of people posting on newspaper website comment boards cited the deasth of Nubia Barahona ing this latest tragedy as proof that nothing has changed at the Florida Department of Children and Families. 

After all, in this case a child died a gruesome death and another nearly died even after repeated warnings.  Since that’s exactly what happened in other horror story cases over the years, it’s not hard to see why people would conclude nothing has changed.  People are even more likely to reach this conclusion when those who are responsible for going beyond the horror stories and helping readers to measure change – journalists – abandon that obligation in favor of running from horror story to horror story.

            In all the years that Carol Marbin Miller has covered child welfare at The Miami Herald and elsewhere, and that’s at least 18 years, I have never seen her write a story that provides readers with benchmarks – actual ways to determine if DCF is getting better, getting worse, or remains unchanged.  And, Until Innocents Lost, I had never seen her write about a system or a program that works relatively well, though both are out there.  So it’s no wonder readers jump to the conclusion that nothing, in fact, has changed.  

Then, in Innocents Lost, she wrote about such a system: Alabama.  But she distorted the real story of the Alabama reforms beyond recognition - never telling readers that Alabama made children safer by doing much more to keep families together, and Alabama takes away children at a much lower rate than Florida.  (Details are in our full response to Innocents Lost.)

            If the measure of progress is that no child ever will die, or that no child ever will die who is previously known to the child welfare agency, or even that no child ever will die after the child welfare agency received repeated warnings, then DCF has made no progress.  And neither has any child welfare agency anywhere in America.  By that criterion DCF never will get any better.  And neither will any other child welfare agency anywhere in America.

            Because no child welfare agency can prevent every death.  And as long as the quality of caseworkers and the number of cases they have to handle, and the quality of supervision vary as much in child welfare as they do in any other field of human endeavor, no child welfare agency even will prevent every death.

            But this much we do know: If DCF returns to the Queen of Hearts school of management (“Off with their heads!”) and anyone who ever went near a horror-story case is fired, regardless of fault, and all their bosses are fired, regardless of fault, then you are guaranteed to make your system worse.  Because if you fire everyone you lose your best workers as well as your worst – and you terrify your remaining good workers into seeking work elsewhere.  So all that’s left are the people who can’t find work anyplace else.

            That doesn’t mean you let everyone off the hook either.  But it does mean you draw distinctions – between the worker who was lazy and the worker who was overwhelmed, between the worker who never asked the right questions and the worker who was conned by slick answers, and so on.

            For reasons described elsewhere on this website, you also need a measure for agency progress, or lack of it, beyond a death count.  Even in a state as huge as Florida, the number of deaths of children “known to the system” can rise and fall due to random chance.  And if you change the definition of child maltreatment, or do a better or worse job of determining cause of death, the number will seem to rise or fall when agency practice hasn’t really changed.


            There are, in fact, better ways to measure.  One way is to have independent evaluators looking over the agency’s shoulder.  Often that happens in the wake of class-action lawsuit settlements.  In Alabama and Illinois, it was such monitors who found that, when those systems rebuilt to emphasize safe, proven approaches to keeping families together, child safety improved - though again, you'd never know that if all you know about Alabama was what was in Innocents Lost.  In Florida the state’s Child First waiver from federal funding restrictions requires independent evaluations.  Those evaluations have found that as Florida has reformed, child safety has improved.

            To the best of my knowledge, Miami Herald reporter Carol Marbin Miller never has shared any of this information with her readers.

            Where independent evaluations are not available, the next best option is the standard measure used by the federal government: Of all children known to a child welfare agency to have been abused, what percentage is reabused within six months? By that measure, too, DCF has improved since the take-the-child-and-run approach was abandoned and reforms began in 2007.[1] (Of course that won’t measure all reabuse, children can be reabused long after six months have passed.  But it does allow one to see if there has been progress, or the lack of it, over time.)

            Not only has Miller failed to report this progress (and even distorted the record in her Feb. 27, 2011 story), in all the years she has covered child welfare she has refused to give readers any idea of what really works in child welfare.


            More than a decade ago, not long after authorities had discovered that Rilya Wilson, a four year old foster child, had been missing for 14 months before anyone at DCF even noticed, a Herald columnist, (I don’t remember which one) was being interviewed on CNN.  The CNN anchor was angry – not just at DCF but at pretty much everyone in Florida.  He wanted to know why people in Florida were not more outraged.

            It’s not that they don’t care, the Herald columnist replied, they’re just numb.  After reading horror story after horror story they’ve simply concluded that nothing can be done.  And the most influential reporter covering child welfare in Florida, then and now, has done nothing to disabuse them of that notion.

            Repeatedly during the years when DCF was at its worst, I asked Carol Marbin Miller to help Floridians get beyond the numbness and see that there really are better child welfare systems and ways to do child welfare right.  She never would; in part at least for reasons I discuss elsewhere on this website.

            And for awhile that played right into DCF’s hands.  When DCF was mired in the failing take-the-child-and-run approach, DCF wanted people to believe nothing worked.  DCF officials were quick to engage in “despair-mongering;” they loved to say that nobody was really solving these problems, so how could they be expected to do it?  And Carol Marbin Miller did nothing to set the record straight.  The reporter who knows how to “play” people better than any other I know in order to get information, got “played” by DCF.

            Ultimately, DCF itself decided it wouldn’t settle for despair.  New leaders, first Bob Butterworth and then George Sheldon, did what Miller would not – they looked around the country at what works and what doesn’t – and they listened to the young people themselves, current and former foster children.  And that led them to the reforms that have, in fact, made Florida’s children safer – not safe enough, but safer.  But now, thanks to Innocents Lost, that progress has been undermined.

            Real solutions are out there.  Carol Marbin Miller won’t tell you about them.  But we will.  You can read about them on our main website, You can read about solutions involving reformed systems and model programs here.  And you can read about solutions involving due process for families here.

[1] The data are compiled in the federal government’s annual “Child Maltreatment” reports.  For 2005 to 2009, go to page 52 of the latest report, available here: For 2000 to 2004 see the 2004 report, available here:  Note that the earlier report lists the percentage who are reabused, the later report issues the percentage who are not reabused – which, of course sounds better.