A rising number of child deaths in Florida has people looking with trepidation at child welfare services across the state. But while the Department of Children and Families remains under scrutiny for the climbing death toll, agencies in North Central Florida are working to reduce local cases of child abuse.
Eleven children have died this year from verified abuse or neglect despite having previous contact their family, said Whitney Ray, DCF press secretary.
DCF now faces tough questions about why it didn’t intervene before it was too late.
Interim secretary for the Department of Children and Families, Esther Jacobo, took the reins in July following the resignation of former secretary David Wilkins. Jacobo has been with the Department since 2008, and most recently served as statewide deputy director for Children’s Legal Services.
One of Jacobo’s first moves as secretary was a directive to review all the deaths during 2013 of children already known to the department. But Jacobo also says it is crucial to strengthen families before abuse occurs and DCF needs to directly intervene.
“It’s important for us to continue to try to get better at providing the families and children with programs and interventions that help them stay out of our system,” Jacobo said.
Some critics, like outspoken Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, said child protective investigations shouldn’t be limited to investigating present danger.
Ledermen has also suggested DCF should stop doing child-welfare investigations altogether and transfer the responsibility to local law-enforcement agencies, a system currently in place in Pasco County.
The Child Advocacy Center of Gainesville coordinates the efforts of law enforcement, DCF and medical teams to provide abuse victims the services they need in a child-friendly space.
Sherry Kitchens, president and CEO of the Child Advocacy Center, said DCF faces many problems fighting child abuse that may be out of its control, especially when families refuse to cooperate with the agency.
“Families, especially families that have been affected by the system or have been involved with the system for many years, have a really serious distrust of DCF,” Kitchens said. “So they’ll do anything to get DCF out of their life. So that means they’ll have to show up at a class five times, but did they learn anything?”
In Florida, foster care and related services are outsourced to a variety of agencies within individual communities, created by community leaders and stakeholders.
“I think every community has different resources and that’s why our system in Florida is so unique,” Jacobo said. “What I’m hopeful that will happen in the next year is that each of these communities will identify their needs, will talk to us about what those needs are and that we can respond to each of the communities differently.”
The benefits of privatized child welfare are difficult to measure. Funding was cut this summer for The Child Abuse Prevention Project — a collaboration between the University of Florida and various state agencies, which served a 16-county area in North Central Florida for 30 years. Funding was transferred to a program called Devereux, said Annie McPherson, Child Abuse Prevention Project program director.
Still, Kitchens says private child welfare agencies, like North Central Florida’s Partnership for Strong Families, offer programs and services the state likely cannot.
In response to the Florida Legislature’s mandate that child welfare services be privatized by the end of 2002, a group of community leaders formed The Partnership for Strong Families — the lead provider of child welfare services for 13 North Central Florida counties. The Partnership for Strong Families is under contract with DCF, handling everything from abuse prevention and in-home interventions, to foster care placement and adoptions.
Shawn Salamida, CEO for the Partnership for Strong Families, said following up with families even after they’ve left the system is imperative to stopping the cycle of abuse.
“A lot of the tragedies that we’ve seen have been cases where we’ve encountered the family, we thought the child was safe, we stabilized things, we left and weeks, months, years later something occurred,” Salamida said. “We obviously can’t track these children and families forever and ever, but we really need to look at how we can evaluate the level of risk that exists when we walk away from that family.”
It’s not all bad news for child welfare in Florida. More than 3,300 children from the state’s foster care system were adopted last year — a three-percent increase from the year before, according to a News Service of Florida article.
Florida is one of a few states getting extra funding from the federal government for exceeding standards in adopting hard-to-place children, like teens who have been in foster care for more than five years.
According to the Child Advocacy Center of Gainesville, more than 2,000 children are confirmed as victims of child abuse each year in Alachua County.
“We hear about children not getting watched properly and getting burned; children who tell us about being victims of sexual abuse,” Kitchens said. “We have children that know more about drug environments and about how drugs are bought and sold and made than any adult sometimes knows.”
Local child welfare professionals and volunteers agree child abuse is most common in situations where substance abuse or domestic violence is involved.