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Florida's New Department of Children and Families Website to Open Up Information on 'Tragedies'

The website rolled out one day after a Miami-Dade grand jury blasted DCF for “intentionally and deliberately” undercounting the very child deaths that are reported at the site.

by Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, McClatchy News Service / June 26, 2014

Two days after Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a measure that requires greater openness from state child welfare administrators, the Department of Children & Families unveiled a new website designed to make a host of new information — both grim and academic — available to ordinary Floridians.

The website went live Wednesday morning, a week before the major provisions of a child welfare overhaul are expected to be implemented broadly. It also rolled out one day after a Miami-Dade grand jury blasted DCF for “intentionally and deliberately” undercounting the very child deaths that are reported at the site.

“This website will serve as an important tool to maximize transparency and to raise public awareness of the tragedies our department is committed to ending,” Interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in a statement. “We know this data will be useful to communities statewide and will allow the department and our partners to improve child welfare practice and better protect children and assist at-risk families.”

The Senate bill Scott signed Monday is designed to reform Florida’s long-troubled child welfare system in the wake of a Miami Herald series, Innocents Lost, that detailed the abuse and neglect deaths of 477 children — most of them infants and toddlers — whose families had a history with the state. The measure requires far greater transparency from DCF, which has often been accused of using state confidentiality laws to shield accountability.

On Tuesday, a Miami grand jury issued a 30-page presentment saying it appeared that much progress already had been made since the February 2011 death of Nubia Barahona, a 10-year-old twin whom police say was tortured to death by her adoptive parents. Nubia’s body — soaked in toxic chemicals and stuffed in a black garbage bag — was found in the bed of her father’s pest control truck, sparking gut wrenching public hearings, a highly critical report, and a 2011 grand jury report.

When the grand jury revisited the child welfare issue this summer, jurors concluded the agency had implemented, or was implementing, an array of changes designed to make children more safe. The reforms include creation of a “command center” to help workers get the records they need before launching an investigation; a pilot project that pairs investigators for high-risk or complex cases; and better training for hotline workers and investigators.

“The Grand Jury believed that implementation of the recommendations in the [original 2011 Nubia grand jury report] would fix many of those problems and reduce the number of child maltreatment deaths. We believe DCF and the Florida Legislature responded very well to many of the recommendations contained therein.”

In his release Wednesday morning, Carroll said the website “exceeds the new data requirement set out by the Florida Legislature ... which requires DCF to publish basic information about all child abuse deaths.”

DCF said the website will be updated weekly. It allows users to sort data by a variety of measures, including county, age, and some details of the department’s past history with each child’s family.

But the website opens to some serious skepticism.

Just Tuesday, the Miami grand jury that looked at DCF’s progress since Nubia’s scandalous 2011 death reported that the agency has deliberately undercounted child deaths by changing the definition of “neglect.”

In order to be counted by DCF, a child death must be “verified” as resulting from either abuse or neglect. But about four years ago, DCF required investigators to find that a parent intended to mistreat his or her child in cases of drowning or sleep-related suffocation — two of the largest causes of child fatality in Florida. The result was a marked decline in the number of such deaths DCF reported to the governor and Legislature, the Herald reported.

“We are at an utter loss to understand how those who labor in the field of child protection and child welfare could intentionally and deliberately find that these deaths were not verified as acts of neglect,” grand jurors wrote in their 30-page presentment, which explicitly discussed the Herald’s findings.

DCF’s website contains short narratives for recent child deaths, but greater scrutiny of such cases may prove difficult.

In its investigation, the Herald found that verification of child fatalities often takes months, and sometimes years. DCF did not verify Nubia’s death as resulting from abuse until March 22, 2014, more than three years after she died. Both of Nubia’s adoptive parents are awaiting trial on murder charges; they face the death penalty.

DCF’s child death czar, Lisa Rivera, completed her investigation into the abuse death of 1-year-old Josephine Boice on May 4, 2014 —20 months after Josephine died, and seven weeks after the Herald published its series without the case being disclosed. Josephine was shot in the head by her mother, who then shot and killed herself, on Sept. 1, 2013.

DCF first came into contact with Josephine’s family on July 8, 2013, when the agency’s hotline was told mother Sarah Harnish had threatened to shoot her daughter, as well as herself. Harnish had long suffered from severe mental illness, a DCF report said, and had once told police “the Children of God were after her.” Five years earlier, she had tried to kill herself.

When DCF closed its investigation on Aug. 23, 2013, Josephine’s father, Sean Boice, has signed a “safety plan” promising to protect his family. Boice agreed that either he or Josephine’s grandmother would supervise all contact between Harnish and her baby; to enroll Josephine in day care for her protection, and to ensure Harnish received appropriate mental health care. But he also seemed to minimize the danger his daughter faced.

Boice wrote comments in the safety plan “saying the mother never had suicidal thoughts and that there were no concerns for the mom and baby,” a report said. “These comments are concerning as they appear to call into question the father’s understanding of the seriousness of the mother’s mental health condition and the fact that the child was not safe in the mother’s care.” The report added: “The safety plan was unsustainable.”

A week after DCF closed its case, Harnish shot her toddler in the head, and then did the same to herself.

“She shot our baby; she shot our baby,” Boice told police after he discovered the bodies, a Sarasota Police Department report said. Boice had left his visibly “agitated” wife alone with Josephine to ride his motorcycle, a report said.

State Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican whose district includes the county where Josephine died, said she was adament that DCF post information on all child deaths when she helped write the law Scott signed Monday. “I insisted they put up the website,” Detert said Wednesday. “The department wanted to take a year. I said these deaths will be on the nightly news within 24 hours.”

Detert said it was unfair to scrutinize the website too closely just yet, as the agency brought it live only Wednesday morning. But she intends to hold the agency accountable.

“We are holding their feet to the fire,” Detert said. “The changes we made in the law are excellent, and I fully intend for them to be 100 percent implemented.” The law, Detert said, “is the biggest rewrite in a decade.”

©2014 The Miami Herald

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