How Many Babies Must Be Buried?

How Many Babies Must Be Buried?

Most of the dead are babies and toddlers, and they perish in horrible ways — starved, punched, shaken, burned, thrown from cars or simply forgotten. There’s nothing left to protect them except the state of Florida, which fails over and over.

Kyla Joy Hall was beaten to death by her father at age 10 months. Eight months earlier, she’d been hospitalized with multiple fractures and a bleeding brain, yet no one got arrested.

Tavont’ae Gordon was smothered at age 2 months while sleeping on a couch with her mother, who was high on coke. Tavont’ae’s sister, Tariji, was removed from the home by child welfare officials, but she was later returned when Rachel Gordon said she’d kicked her drug habit.

A few months later, Tariji was killed by a blow to the head and buried in a shallow grave by her mother, now in jail.

Since January 2008, at least 477 children have died for no other reason than being overlooked by the system. Their families were known to the Florida Department of Children and Families, yet they’d been allowed to remain with reckless parents in high-risk homes.

The blame goes in every direction, at every step of a crippled process.

In some cases, incompetent investigators overlooked obvious danger signs. Other times, diligent case workers pleaded for action but DCF lawyers said there wasn’t enough evidence. Sometimes it was a judge who ordered that an endangered child remain in a powder-keg setting.

Many of the victims’ heartbreaking stories have been told in the Miami Herald’s ongoing investigative series, Innocents Lost. It is a horror saga, as shameful as it is nauseating.

Of all the services people expect from government, none is more important than shielding the youngest and most helpless from brutality and neglect. Florida’s record, dreadful for decades, is getting worse.

Said interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo, “I don’t think we are broken; I think we are challenged.”

Unbelievable. How many babies must be buried before somebody in Tallahassee admits the system is broken?

DCF has been grossly underreporting the number of child deaths to the Legislature, evidence of either ineptitude or a cover-up. Lawmakers have been consistently misled, which partly explains why DCF funding has been cut.

Under Governor Rick Scott, more case investigators were hired, yet money for oversight and family counseling was slashed. The agency’s budget shrunk by $100 million during this fiscal year alone.

A decade ago, the state embarked on a new child welfare strategy of “family preservation,” the mission being to not take children from their parents but rather work to improve the situation in the household.

The concept was meant to placate advocates of “parental rights,” with an added cost-cutting benefit of reducing the number of children in state-funded foster homes (which have also generated plenty of nightmarish stories).

A key component of the new system was to ask troubled parents to sign “safety plans” promising they’d do a better job of caring for their children. This approach has been, to put it mildly, disastrous.

In one infamous case, a mother who refused to give up drugs was allowed to keep her 2-year-old daughter after pledging that she and her boyfriend wouldn’t do dope in the child’s presence. The little girl was later killed by the family’s pet python after mom popped a Vicodin and dozed off.

The Herald documented at least 83 tragic instances in which a child whose parents signed one or more DCF “safety plans” later died from neglect or abuse.

“We have kind of known they have failed,” Jacobo replied when asked about the written promises, “and we have kind of been at a loss as to how to fix it.”

Then kind of stop doing things that fail. How’s that for starters? Try listening more closely to experienced case workers and supervisors.

Of the 477 child deaths during the last six years, 323 involved alcohol or drug use by parents or caregivers. Meanwhile, legislators have cut funds for drug treatment.

And despite employing more investigators, DCF still loses track of suffering children. In at least 34 cases since 2008, a child died even though the agency had previously received 10 or more hotline reports about possible abuse.

Kaleb Cronk’s family had been the subject of 26 worried calls to DCF. His mother, a drug addict, had been arrested 18 times.

Incredibly, the state took no action to save Kaleb. The 1-year-old was run over and killed by a pickup truck while crawling down a road. That was phone call No. 27.

Last month, the governor proposed adding $40 million to help DCF decrease investigative caseloads and improve oversight of cases. Under his plan, the agency’s budget would rise slightly more than one percent.

That’s not nearly enough. DCF needs not only priority funding but a whole new direction. “Family preservation” is killing too many kids.

It’s inconceivable that any lawmaker who has been reading the Herald’s series isn’t both heartsick and aghast over what happened to little Kaleb and the others.

One person who’s been paying attention is Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville, who acknowledged that it will take “tens of millions of dollars” to start making DCF function as the law intends.

“I think in child welfare we have gone on the cheap, and I think that’s been a mistake,” he said.

A terrible, frequently fatal mistake. To let it continue this way would be an immoral and unforgivable course.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

Photo: “orangejack” via Flickr

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