As the Florida Department of Children and Families rolls out a new website to track child deaths and make them public, the sponsor of a new law aimed at reducing those deaths is calling for an independent investigation into whether the department has been open about some recent fatalities.
“Sweeping child deaths under the rug will only serve to perpetuate a culture of cover-up and corruption,” warned state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, the Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, in a statement Tuesday. “Hiding the deaths should never be a solution.”
But DCF Interim Secretary Mike Carroll, who took the job in early May, has pushed back strongly against charges, like Sobel’s, that stem from newspaper reports. He is banking on the website to make his case for the department’s improved transparency under a new law.
Sobel’s call for an investigation came one day after Gov. Rick Scott signed her bill aimed at reforming Florida’s child-welfare system. The far-reaching measure (SB 1666) includes a provision calling for the department to publish basic information about all child abuse deaths, and Carroll said the site exceeds the bill’s requirements.
Within 72 hours of a death, the child’s name, age, date of death and a narrative of how he or she died will be posted at www.dcf.state.fl.us/childfatality. Users will be able to sort the data in multiple ways, such as determining the causes of local deaths. The department hopes communities will use the data to guide prevention efforts.
“It will be the preeminent website in the country in terms of the amount of information and the user-friendliness of that information for the general public around child deaths,” Carroll said.
The website launches Wednesday, and children’s advocates who have seen it praised it.
Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First, has pushed for real-time reporting of child deaths since last year. She said the DCF website provides more information than the Arkansas site that gave her the idea.
“Florida has gone 100 times beyond that,” Spudeas said.
But Sobel, who hosted a town-hall meeting on last year’s wave of media reports about child deaths, zeroed in on new Miami Herald reports that DCF was less than forthcoming about some deaths in 2013.
“The recent Miami Herald report alleging that the Department of Children and Families has engaged in a systematic and widespread cover-up of child deaths in Florida adds another layer to the tragedy taking place in our state,” Sobel said. “It appears these were employees directing other employees to conceal child death reports, not simply a system or technical error.”
The Herald reported that last fall, DCF stopped producing incident reports about child deaths during a time period in which at least 30 children died. At the time, the Herald was preparing its investigative series, Innocents Lost, which was published in March and found that at least 477 children known to the department had died of abuse and neglect over a six-year period.
Citing the Herald, Sobel said that last December, a child welfare administrator for DCF’s southeast region directed a subordinate via email “to delete an incident report, stating that she would ‘advise why later.’”
But Carroll denied that a cover-up took place. On June 6, he sent a letter to Dennis Miles, the department’s southeast regional manager, following up on an internal investigation by Deputy Secretary Pete Digre into “the lapse in official incident reporting.”
“No records were destroyed,” Carroll wrote. “All incidents were reported to the deputy secretary via email or phone.”
However, Carroll added, Miles hadn’t followed DCF requirements that incident reports be entered into the department’s system within one business day. Further, he wrote, Miles had failed to follow a directive to correct the matter for another two months.
He placed Miles on a two-day suspension, noting that “even the best leaders make mistakes.”
Since then, Carroll has visited the editorial boards of six newspapers to address the transparency issues head-on and tout the website. He also sent a memo refuting the Herald charges to DCF employees and “partners” last week.
Carroll told The News Service of Florida that the controversy had hampered his efforts to lead DCF into a new transparency, but not irretrievably.
“I don’t believe that the department should be in the business of hiding or concealing records,” he said. “In fact, the more information we get out to the public—I think it puts the department in a better light. And it puts the community in a better position to partner with us to help us get things done around these issues.”