Published Sunday, December 23, 2001

Child deaths by abuse, neglect climb
Report says Florida system still failing


In the months after 6-year-old Kayla McKean's 1998 death shocked and shamed state leaders, child welfare administrators overhauled Florida's system for protecting vulnerable children.

A soon-to-be-released report, however, shows children are dying from abuse or neglect in even greater numbers than before.

The report, which examines the deaths of children who had been the subject of at least one prior child abuse investigation, says that 30 of those youngsters died in 1999, and 30 more in 2000. The children died despite the fact Florida has taken about 3,000 additional children into foster care since 1998 in an effort to better protect them.

The death toll among children already known to the Department of Children & Families was 19 in 1995, 21 in 1996, 34 in 1997, and 26 in 1998.

Among the deaths in 2000 that are detailed in the report by the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Team, comprising 17 state officials and child advocates:

* Twenty-month-old Rosa, whose father brutally beat her, then left her at home to die. Rosa's mother arrived the next morning to discover the toddler, already dead for hours. A prior report said Rosa's father had beaten an older sibling so severely that both the girl's legs were broken. The children were placed in foster care but were returned to their mother's home after she was judged a fit parent -- though she was ordered never to allow the father anywhere near the children. According to the report, she ignored the order.
* Fifteen-year-old Sally, whose father shot her and her mother to death. He then turned the gun on himself. The father was on probation for a domestic violence conviction. Child protection workers investigated two previous reports alleging the girl was in danger but didn't intervene. The teen was killed as her mother was packing to leave her father.
* Twenty-month-old Sam, who was savagely beaten by his mother's boyfriend while child abuse investigators were still looking into an earlier report of bruises on the toddler's face. Medical examiners found 32 bite marks on his chest, back, arms and legs. State Department of Health workers were tracking the developmentally disabled boy, but his mother often missed doctor's appointments. An autopsy showed he might have survived the attack had his caregivers sought prompt medical attention.

The report by the review team -- overseen by the Department of Health -- covers the two years immediately following the passage of the Kayla McKean Law, designed to prevent deaths by abuse and neglect by strengthening the way in which suspicions of child abuse are reported and investigated.

Kayla was killed by her father the day before Thanksgiving, though Richard Lee Adams led police and activists from Central Florida on a massive search for the daughter he claimed had been abducted. The case, which revealed a child protection system in tatters, sparked widespread public outrage. Adams was sentenced to life without parole.

Report finds most deaths
in 1999, 2000 `preventable'

Among other things, the 1999 reform law, which bore Kayla's name, required that teachers, police, judges, therapists and other social welfare authorities immediately report all suspicions of child abuse to a hot line.

Of the 60 child deaths in 1999 and 2000 studied by the review team, 48 of them, or 80 percent, were ``definitely preventable,'' the report says. Another eight of the deaths were ``probably preventable.''

The report says child welfare, public health and juvenile justice administrators -- together with neighbors and caregivers -- might have helped save some of the children had they done a better job of intervening. Inadequate child abuse investigations occurred in 45 percent -- or 27 of the 60 -- cases, the report states.

Specifically, child protective investigators failed to observe red flags that should have warned workers that children were in danger, the report says. Had the ``risk factors'' been heeded, the report said, ``appropriate actions [could have been] taken to address immediate child safety.''

The team also warned that a failure to share information among the Department of Children & Families, police departments and state child protection teams may have hindered efforts, as well. The concern was raised last week when DCF released the records of a 9-year-old West Palm Beach boy, disabled since birth, who died in his bed. The boy had been tracked by DCF his entire life.

DCF officials acknowledged last week they had failed to bring together all the investigators, caseworkers and service providers who cared for the boy -- who had been the subject of seven separate investigations since 1991. They insisted, however, that better work by the department likely would not have saved the boy, who was dependent on caregivers for his very survival.

DCF has `some concerns,'
says it has made progress

DCF spokeswoman Cecka Green said administrators would not discuss the report because it is still in draft form.

``We did express some concerns about the report,'' Green said. ``We would like to see what the final copy looks like.''

In a letter to The Herald last week, DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney, a former Broward juvenile court judge, said her department had made substantial progress in recent years toward ensuring that ``children are kept safe in loving homes.''

``The department has made significant improvements to a child-welfare system that has had many chronic problems. For the first time in decades, we have some momentum going in our fight to ensure that vulnerable children are safe,'' she wrote.

But Jim Towey, who led the agency six years ago when it was called the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, said children will not truly be safe in Florida until lawmakers, policymakers -- and ordinary people -- declare a ``zero tolerance policy'' for the preventable deaths of children.

``These are sobering statistics to hear about that many deaths, year after year,'' said Towey, who now heads the Washington-based Commission on Aging with Dignity. ``Florida just accepts a certain number of child deaths every year. It's a challenge for the Legislature, and a challenge to the community to take an interest in this.''

For more than a decade, state officials have struggled to protect children from dying at the hands of their own caretakers -- a tragedy many have described as a public health crisis. At least nine commissions have been formed since 1985 to study the problem; task force members say few of their recommendations have been heeded.

Most suggestions of a 1999 study received scant action

Of eight recommendations contained in the review of deaths in 1999, only one was fully implemented: an innocuous suggestion that the group's report be released in December instead of September. The DCF said it lacked resources to improve the ``quality and timeliness'' of its child-death investigations, which was the first recommendation.

The review of deaths in 2000 contains six recommendations, including providing training to local professionals and police on how to recognize abuse and establishing mandatory time frames for caseworkers to follow up on visits.

``The recommendations [in this year's report] are the same recommendations we've made for the last 20 years,'' said Edward Feaver, a former Children & Families secretary who is now a director at the Lawton & Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies. ``We don't have a fundamental commitment to children and families.''

Charles Mahan, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Public Health, has been appointed to two of the commissions.

He says the ``epidemic'' of child abuse deaths will persist until lawmakers dramatically increase funding for prevention programs, such as early childhood education.

``We made a big point of saying this keeps happening over and over again,'' Mahan said. ``There are more and more commissions and nothing ever changes. We're just sort of nibbling around the edges of this problem.''

Some DCF districts did not write child-death reports

The death review team also questioned the quality of information provided by the DCF on children who died of abuse or neglect. Some of the districts do not even produce written reports, the team found.

Feaver said the investigation of preventable deaths was too important a task to be handled haphazardly.

``I just think that's fundamental,'' said Feaver, who was a career social service administrator before being tapped to head the agency in 1995. ``It may be that you don't do that kind of stuff because you don't want to know the enormity of the problem. It's easy to pretend it isn't there.''

Towey questioned the role of DCF caseworkers in preparing the documents reviewed by the statewide team -- which includes 17 members, all but one from outside the DCF. ``If I waited for them to come up the line, most memos tended to get pretty well baked,'' Towey said.

``People were either covering their butts or covering up the fact that caseworkers hadn't documented information. Then they would hide behind the secrecy laws.''

Advocates, and others, would be more forgiving when a child dies a preventable death if they believed the tragedy resulted from an ``individual failure'' rather than a ``systemic, ongoing inadequacy,'' said Michael Dale, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University.

``That's what's so troubling,'' Dale added. ``It appears to be [the latter].''

© 2001 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Published Wednesday, December 5, 2001
1). U.S. judge rejects lawsuit against foster-child agency

In a stunning blow to child advocates -- and an equally stunning victory for Florida child-welfare officials -- a judge in Miami has tossed out the most significant claims of a lawsuit designed to force sweeping changes in the state's foster-care system.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno ruled in an order released Tuesday that federal oversight of Florida's child-welfare system was unnecessary because individual state court judges had the power to protect and order services for children under their jurisdiction.

Moreno dismissed the suit's primary claims ``with prejudice,'' which means the attorneys cannot refile them in federal court.

For a decade, Florida's foster-care system has come under attack by lawyers and advocates who assert that many youths are better off remaining with abusive or neglectful parents than being placed in a state system often characterized as chaotic, insensitive and woefully underfunded.

When she filed her suit in June 2000, Tallahassee attorney Karen Gievers described the foster-care system as the worst ``abuser, neglecter and exploiter of children in Florida.'' For the most part, Moreno declined to rule on the merits of the case; he dismissed the most significant portions of the complaint on purely procedural grounds, a rarity in such cases.

In his 43-page decision, Moreno wrote that for all children under age 18, state court judges are able to exercise authority over children's fate from the time they enter care until the time they are either adopted or returned to their parents.

``The relevant question is not whether the state courts can do all that [advocates] wish they could, but whether the available remedies are sufficient'' to protect children in state care, the judge added. ``This court declines to hold that the allowable remedies are inadequate.''

Moreno wrote that enforcing the lawsuit's requests could create an ``unseemly conflict between state and federal judges.''

Moreno actually dismissed the entire complaint, saying it violated federal rules requiring that lawsuits ``contain a short and plain statement of the claim.'' Much of the suit, he said, ``reads like a closing argument.'' Twenty-eight pages ``contain a sprawling exposition of alleged violations'' of children's rights.

Three of the lawsuit's claims -- none of them cut to the heart of advocates' concerns -- may be refiled, he said, but only if they comply with procedural rules.

For Gievers, who filed the class-action lawsuit last year on behalf of about 20,000 children in state care in Florida, it was the second time she has been disappointed in her efforts to improve foster care. She said she settled a similar lawsuit, filed 11 years ago, only to find the department failed to make agreed-upon changes.

Moreno's decision is the second recent victory for the Department of Children & Families (DCF). In October, Moreno declined to appoint independent monitors to oversee the department's Broward County office. Advocates had argued that foster children were not safe in Broward.

``I think this sounds like an important victory for the state, and the state has tried very hard to provide quality foster care,'' said Paul Hancock, the deputy attorney general who helped defend the lawsuit.

``I think the [Broward] trial demonstrates that success has been achieved in Broward County, and that will have ripple effects throughout the state. Broward County is the starting point for reform.''

A spokeswoman for DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney could not be reached for comment late Tuesday after Moreno's ruling was released.

Children's advocates were as dismayed as state officials were pleased. Though the lawsuit originally was filed by Gievers, almost two dozen lawyers and child advocates were involved in the case.

Carolyn Salisbury, associate director of the University of Miami Law School's Children and Youth Law Clinic -- and a member of the legal team working with Gievers -- said the group had not yet mapped out a new strategy.

One avenue could be filing a similar lawsuit in state court, she said.

Salisbury said Moreno's ruling is flawed because it assumes children can be protected by dependency court judges, even though the overwhelming majority of foster children are not represented by lawyers. DCF has its lawyers, as do parents of children found to have suffered abuse, neglect or abandonment.

``In most cases, the child stands alone before a juvenile court,'' she said. ``The DCF attorney stands in opposition to that child. How can a little child possibly vindicate his or her rights when the state is represented by a lawyer, and he or she has none.''

© 2001 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Published Sunday, December 9, 2001. The Miami Herald



A federal judge's rejection last week of a class-action lawsuit to force changes in the state's foster-care system was surprising and unfortunate. The decision, unless reversed on appeal -- which is a long-shot -- effectively eliminates the federal courts as a possible avenue for compelling the state to meet constitutionally guaranteed standards of care.

An attorney with the coalition of lawyers that brought the lawsuit on behalf of nearly 15,000 children in state foster care said the ruling would be appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. That is the right choice, but it brings no immediate relief for scores of children.

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno said that federal-court intervention was unnecessary because appropriate remedies were available in state courts. The lawsuit, filed in June 2000, was the latest in a series of legal challenges and reports over the past decade that accuse the Department of Children & Families of consistently failing to protect hundreds of children in foster care.

Indeed, the department's lapses have been documented in Inspector General reports, by the Broward County grand jury and in investigations by a coalition of children's advocates as well as newspapers, including The Herald. A wide variety of abuses has been found, among them: that DCF neglects children, fails to prevent instances of physical and sexual abuse, is seriously under-funded, has chaotic procedures and is insensitive.

DCF officials acknowledge that the record of care has been spotty in the past but say that vast improvements have been made, especially in recent years. True, but these were due largely to the success of a previous lawsuit, which forced the Legislature to put more funding in foster care.

Last Friday, a DCF spokeswoman said that although some children receive inadequate or inappropriate care, DCF overall was providing for the ``safety, well-being and permanency'' of children in its care at a level that meets or exceeds state and federal standards. Then perhaps it's time to raise the standards.

According to the DCF, the rate at which children leave foster care, or find ``permanency,'' has improved from less than 10 percent three years ago to 36 percent today. That is better, but not good enough. What about the remaining children in substandard foster homes who often are at great risk? Not a single child in the state's care should be left vulnerable, and yet many are, even after the department has done its best to improve its care. That is unacceptable.

Without recourse to the federal courts as an intervener on behalf of children, too many kids still will fall through the cracks of DCF's good intentions and the state court's skimpy oversight -- which was the main assertion of the class-action lawsuit. For now, the onus is back on DCF to prove that it really is up to task of caring for all Florida's foster children.

Published Wednesday, December 12, 2001. The Miami Herald.

3). Critics attack area's foster-care system

A meeting of Broward County's legislative delegation to discuss the area's troubled foster-care system began amicably on Tuesday -- but state Rep. Roger Wishner, a Plantation Democrat, finally said what a handful of children's advocates had been thinking:

``Let's not hear the sugar-coating,'' Wishner said. ``Let's hear about the problems that exist. Let's get away from `everything's great.' ''

Critics of the Department of Children & Families wasted little time. State Sen. Walter ``Skip'' Campbell, D-Tamarac, for example, vowed to ``look toward dismantling this mismanaged affair,'' referring to the state's longstanding foster-care woes.

A half-dozen high-ranking department officials -- including District Administrator Jack Moss and statewide Family Safety Director Michael Watkins -- acknowledged the department's shortcomings, but insisted the department had made much progress in recent years, and was ready to turn the keys over to a consortium of community groups.

Howard Talenfeld, a child advocate who sued the department in 1998 on behalf of about 1,500 foster children, echoed the concerns of several advocates that turning child welfare services over to private providers could prove disastrous if the department does not allocate enough money.

``The community is resoundingly unanimous in its desire to move forward with community-based care,'' Talenfeld said. ``But there are tough questions, and we've got to answer the tough questions.''

Among the questions: Why is the department offering to pay the managing agency only about $46 million of a possible $72 million available from DCF's budget for foster-care services? Talenfeld asked Jack Moss what would become of the remaining $26 million, only to be told agency officials did not know.

Peter Balitsaris, a volunteer guardian ad litem who chaired the Broward Child Welfare Initiative, called on DCF officials to open their books to independent scrutiny and make audited financial information available to the public.

© 2001 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

4). Advocates question whether private agencies can handle Broward foster care
By Shana Gruskin
Staff Writer

December 12, 2001

State child welfare officials told four legislators Tuesday that they're ready, willing and able to transfer management of Broward County's oft-maligned, multimillion dollar foster care system to private agencies.

But in a packed, free-form meeting designed to lay foster care's problems on the table, local advocates said over and over that they have their doubts -- particularly whether the state Department of Children & Families will inject the system with enough money to keep 5,200 children safe.

"It's one thing to run a system that costs one amount of money; it's another thing to build a system of care where there are pieces missing," said Peter Balitsaris, co-chairman of the Broward Child Welfare Initiative, a group of community leaders who designed a plan for privatizing the county's foster care system. Privatization is the hand-over of foster care services from the state to a private organization, known as a lead agency. The state Legislature has mandated the transfer to occur by 2003.

Jack Moss, Broward's DCF district administrator, assured the group of about 40 that money will not be a problem.

The department's current child welfare budget in Broward is $72.9 million, he said. It costs on average $11,600 a year to care for a child in the system, according to a figure determined by the Child Welfare Initiative. That means it should cost about $60 million to cover the costs of 5,200 children, Moss said.

If that's the case, asked local lawyer and advocate Howard Talenfeld, why are the two organizations that are bidding to become Broward's lead agency competing for $48 million? He questioned what will happen to the rest of the money.

"We're working to refine the numbers," Moss said. "We're trying to get our arms around what the real numbers are. I cannot specifically answer your question."

The group's discussion turned to other problems, such as the crossover of children in the social services and juvenile justice systems, the lack of coordination between child welfare providers, and the constant deficit in residential services for mentally ill children.

Moss told the group his staff is working on those issues.

But that didn't assuage state Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, who has watched Broward's foster care system struggle through lawsuits, grand jury investigations and a constant flux in leadership.

"If this was a corporation, I'd fire you all," he said, noting there's talk in Tallahassee about once again dismantling the department.

He's ready, he said, for some action.

"I've seen so many of these meetings where everybody goes, `Kum Ba Yah, Kum Ba Yah,' and everybody leaves happy, and nobody does anything."

The group decided to gather again in a month.

Shana Gruskin can be reached at or 561-243-6537.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

15 June 2000. "Meanwhile, a 5-year-old Miramar girl has spent the past 26 months in an emergency shelter without the benefit of a formal hearing placing her in foster care, even though state law requires such a hearing be held within 30 days of a child being removed from his or her home."
11 July 2000. "In an unusual move, the father of a 5-year-old girl held more than two years in an emergency shelter has asked a state appeals court to order her immediate release from state custody. Paul Scott Abbott, whose daughter Ashleigh Danielle Abbott was removed from her father's home by state officials in April 1998, filed a habeas corpus petition Monday before the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach. The petition claims Ashleigh is being held illegally and should be released back into her father's custody. Ashleigh currently lives at the Children's Home Society emergency shelter in Broward. Seven different judges have been assigned to hear her case, and Ashleigh as yet has never had a completed hearing to determine whether she should remain a dependent of the state or be returned to her father. Experts said Monday it is fairly unusual for lawyers to file habeas corpus petitions for children who are alleged to be dependents of the state. Usually, such petitions are filed by jail or prison inmates claiming to be held without due process."
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