Florida’s top child welfare officials were on the defensive before a House committee on Wednesday as they defended an annual report on child deaths that had been stripped of data and embarrassing details about the state’s role in failing to protect the children whose lives were lost.
Secretary of the Department of Health John Armstrong told the House Committee on Children, Familes and Elders outlined the membership, duties and terms of appointment for the state Child Abuse Death Review Committee’s which, by law, must provide an analysis of what killed Florida children the year before.
But unlike previous years, which was nearly 200 pages long and included dozens of charts and graphs describing both the victims and perpetrators of child abuse, and brief memorials for several of the youngsters whose lives were cut short, the 2014 report was only 17 pages long.
The scaled-down death report came the same year the Miami Herald’s series Innocents Lost detailed the deaths of 477 children whose families were known to the Department of Children & Families.
“Ultimately, recommendations are only as good as the quality of data and analysis,’’ Armstrong told the House panel. He then introduced the chairman of the death review committee, Robin Perry, to explain the report.
Perry told the committee that said they are going to update the web site to include local committee reports reports, and past committee reports, but his goal is to produce a more “epidemiological approach” to the data in its analysis of the data.
“It’s meant to be more representative and more informational in its predictive ability so it can inform preventive capabilities,’’ he said.
But Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, chairwoman of the committee, asked him to respond to critics who complained about the failure to acknowledge all the causes of child deaths and what benefit the new approach had.
“What are you producing that has not produced before?’’ she asked. “Why are we not getting real case studies? What is the advantage?”
Perry responded that she brought up “a very interesting issue and a very important issue.”
In the past, he said, the case studies could be “informative and compelling” but they want to use the report to be a better tool for them to prevent problems going forward.
He said the review committee will meet on Monday and will consider the criticism.
“We’re talking about looking at the data in a more detailed way that respects the complexities…of the context in which these fatalities take place,’’ he said. “Even though we might be talking about more analytical methods, it’s still based upon a full case review.”
The committee also heard from Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll, who also defended the state’s approach to child welfare since the Herald series. In response to the Herald report, lawmakers passed legislation last year overhauling DCF’s child protection system, set aside nearly $50 million in new money for more investigators and other reforms, and DCF created a new web site to report all child fatalities.
He said that as a result of legislation passed last year, Florida’sa child fatality web site is the most extensive in the nation.
“I don’t think we can get more transparent on child fatalities than we are,’’ he said.
He defended the department’s extensive redactions of its child death reports, saying that when pages blacked out it is often because they are trying to protect siblings who are still alive.
He said that the predominate cause of child deaths are drownings and unsafe sleep, and nearly all unsafe sleep situations involve a child under age 1 and a parent with drug or mental health issues.
He noted that there are problems when a child is declared safe just because the father, biological father or not, leaves the home. However, he said, too often the father returns and the child remains at risk. “That’s unacceptable,’’ he said.
“Substance abuse is absolutely the root cause of these cases,’’ he said. He cited two recent cases involving children mauled by dogs.
“The parent didn’t kill the child the dog did but the parents were passed out and didn’t know where the child was,’’ he said.
Harrell commended Carroll for the department web site but questioned whether the agency can police itself.
“What do you say to those critics who say that DCF cannot investgiate itself? That you are hiding things? That you are not capable of making appropriate in-depth evaluations as to the root causes that allows this to happen?”
Carroll said that question “hit a nerve.” He said that anybody who assumes that people who work for the department “do not care” are wrong and disagrees the solution is to have someone else “with a different color hat” step in to do what they are attempting to do.
“There’s nothing that irritates me more when I read [those claims] in the newspaper,’’ he said. “We make mistakes and sometimes we miss things…I believe we’re the last best hope for these kids sometimes and we need to act with that sense of urgency.”
He conceded that “we don’t do the job we think we should do but I can tell you it’s not for lack of caring.’’
Anyone who thinks that is “dead wrong,’’ he said. “You don’t put up with the public criticism in this job without caring in this job…It’s complicated work. We need to get better with what we do.”