Reviews of child deaths off schedule

Published: Friday, January 2, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 11:04 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - Florida's child welfare officials are months behind schedule in investigating deaths of children from abuse or neglect, and have fully reviewed only three of 36 such deaths in 2003, a state memo says.

Last April, Department of Children & Families officials changed the review process of individual children's deaths, curtailing investigations, and exempting some deaths from the review process altogether. The move was designed to reduce the load on harried child welfare workers.

But in a Dec. 1 memo, DCF Deputy Secretary Cathleen Newbanks said the change was a mistake, and set new deadlines for finishing investigations related to 2003 deaths.

Newbanks' memo said reviewing information on such deaths is ``critical'' to the department's mission of protecting children, and many employees agreed.

``It's important to examine what (social work) practices, associated with both investigations and service provision, lead to children dying - and to correct the errors,'' said Chelly Schembera, a former DCF administrator.

Edward Horton, who led DCF's West Palm Beach branch from 1997 to 1999, said the reviews also pointed to disturbing trends.

In the fall of 1997, after a series of well-publicized child deaths across the state, DCF released a report alerting workers to the dangers small children may face when left with their mothers' boyfriends.

``This was a very clear red flag to us,'' Horton said. ``And it came out of death reviews.''

The annual Florida Child Abuse Death Review released Wednesday also criticized the state's decision to curtail child death investigations, saying Florida's criteria for review were ``significantly more restrictive than any other state in the nation.''

The report showed 79 children died from DCF-verified abuse and neglect in 2002. Of that group, 29 children had been subjects of at least one report to the state's child abuse hot line. The report concluded better attention from officials could have prevented 11 of the 29 deaths.

Criticizing state officials for ``gaps in services that leave children at risk,'' the report called for better training for 911 operators, police, judges and child abuse investigators.

Robert Hodges, an assistant state attorney who led the report's panel, said the group was troubled by how many parents left children unattended by bathtubs and pools, and returned to find them drowned.

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