Judge to rule on DCF information on missing children
Published: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 10:25 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - A judge is expected to rule next week whether the Department of Children & Families must release information on children that were once missing from state custody but have since been found.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is seeking documents showing how long the children were missing, whether any were harmed and what actions DCF took once the children were found.
"The public has an interest in knowing and understanding the complete story," the newspaper's petition states. "The scattered bits of information DCF has provided is insufficient to allow the public to understand and evaluate the problems in the DCF system."
The DCF is citing children's right to privacy in its refusal to release the records.
During a Thursday hearing before Circuit Judge Nikki Ann Clark, a DCF official said 425 children remain missing. That is only a slight improvement over this summer, when the governor created a large-scale task force of police and social workers to find most children missing from state care.
Throughout the three-month sweep, leaders of the task force contended that they were looking for 393 children.
But Ted Harrell, a DCF statistician assigned to the project, told a judge that the number missing was actually 513.
The discrepancy raised new questions about the state's ability to reduce the number of children who run away from state supervision or are abducted by parents.
Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday that runaways are the biggest variable in counting missing children.
"How we count them needs to be evaluated," Bush said when asked by reporters about the subject during a trip to Orlando. "Also, to recognize that a child who is in danger who may not have any ability to defend for themselves, a 3-year-old or something like that, is different from a 16-year-old girl who's running away on a regular basis.
"We need to treat them differently, in terms of providing support for them. Our law enforcement needs to recognize there's a difference, as well."
Harrell said DCF loses on average nine children a day, which over the life of the task force totals more than 800 youngsters. At the same time, he said, nine children on average return or are found each day.
"Envision it like your checking account," Harrell said, explaining that some children disappear every day and some return, resulting in fluctuating numbers, much like bank deposits and withdrawals.
Harrell's reckoning of the numbers shows that, despite the massive manhunt, the state only brought the total number of lost children down by 17 percent, from 513 to 425.
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