Florida senator calls for committee hearing on child deaths, ””turmoil”” at DCF
TALLAHASSEE – The chairwoman of the Senate committee that oversees the state Department of Children and Families wants answers about a recent wave of child deaths in Florida.
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who leads the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, plans a hearing on the deaths and other developments at DCF when the Legislature returns to Tallahassee in September for committee meetings.
“No child should die because of abuse and neglect,” Sobel said. “Especially if the state goes in and investigates. That””s unacceptable.”
Four children ranging in age from five months to four years have died since May 16. All had previously come to the department””s attention. In at least one of the cases — 5-month-old Bryan Osceola, who died after his mother, who had a drinking problem, left him in a hot car — the child-protective investigator did not have a license and is charged with falsifying records that proved pivotal to the case.
The deaths came as DCF was launching a new child safety initiative, and Sobel has questions about that, too. She plans to invite a wide range of people to the hearing, including judges, children””s advocates and community-based care organizations that oversee child-welfare services such as adoption and foster care.
DCF Secretary David Wilkins welcomes the scrutiny, said department spokeswoman Alexis Lambert.
“Any child death due to abuse or neglect deserves our full scrutiny, and we invite input from all interested parties so we can thoroughly examine our processes to identify how they might be improved,” Lambert said. “We look forward to feedback from the Legislature and all partners because we share a common goal —ensuring the safety and well-being of our children.”
One issue sure to come up is DCF””s move earlier this month to eliminate what is known as a “second-party review” that had been required in child-protection cases.
Previously, investigators had to complete safety assessments within 48 hours of their first contacts with children, followed by reviews by supervisors within 72 hours and, when certain risk factors were present, “second-party” reviews by program administrators or their designees.
DCF moved to strike the second-party reviews July 1, the week after 2-year-old Ezra Raphael died of blunt trauma allegedly inflicted by his mother””s boyfriend.
Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida””s Children First, said she””s troubled that the department would take that step at that time.
“It was certainly a cause for alarm, knowing what””s going on with the recent deaths,” Spudeas said. “(DCF is) saying there””s a better system. But what is it and where is it?”
The move to cut the second-party review caught the eye of another legislative body as well, the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee. The committee””s senior attorney, Jowanna Oates, wrote DCF General Counsel Drew Parker on Monday, saying the change doesn””t seem to have been adopted in accordance with state law.
Sobel also wants to learn more about a dispute between Wilkins and the community based care agencies. The agencies have been recruiting lawmakers to help them rewrite part of state law that created the community-based care system, which shifted many child-welfare duties from the state to local non-profit organizations.
Wilkins wants more oversight of the agencies, including the right to name their CEOs and other top staff.
“I””m concerned about the children””s deaths, but I””m also concerned about the turmoil that””s going on between the community-based care agencies and the secretary and the department,” Sobel said. “Having this hearing might help the Legislature understand better what the parties are saying and what kind of reform needs to happen.”