A grand jury report slammed the Department of Children and Families for making misleading changes in the way the agency categorized child abuse deaths to make the count seem lower, but also noted the agency has made great strides since the abuse death of a 10-year-old Miami girl.
In the 30-page report issued Tuesday, grand jurors noted that child deaths and abuse cases have continued since the gruesome 2011 death of Nubia Barahona who "was repeatedly abused and ultimately killed." Her adoptive parents have pleaded not guilty to first degree murder in the case.
The initial report on Nubia's death found systemic issues as investigators and caseworkers repeatedly missed red flags and failed to communicate with each other, but Wednesday's report praised the agency for implementing policies to address those issues.
But the panel also found that changes in the way DCF investigates and discloses child death information were "worse than useless" and should be corrected, according to the report.
The Associated Press reported in 2012 about changes in the way the state was tallying child deaths after obtaining a 2010 memo showing DCF narrowed guidelines for how to classify drowning and the deaths of children sleeping with parents known as co-sleeping.
The agency said there had to be a willful act of a caregiver to be considered neglect. Although it never became policy, investigators unofficially implemented it in a patchwork approach in various regions.
The top two causes of death for Florida children under the age of four were drowning and co-sleeping.
"We are at an utter loss to understand how those who labor in the field of child protection and child welfare could intentionally and deliberately find that these deaths were not verified as acts of neglect," the report said, adding: "Aside from being misleading, reported reductions in the total number of deaths may only be a consequence of changing the definitions of abuse and neglect."
But the bulk of the report praised the agency for implementing recent changes, including improvements in the abuse hotline, in child abuse investigations and in the use of a tool that helps investigators assess risk.
The report comes days after Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that would allow funding for 270 additional child protective investigators to reduce caseloads, which the report recommended.
The new law also calls for a fundamental shift in the way DCF investigates and responds to cases. It clearly states that protecting a child from abuse is paramount and more important than keeping a family together.
“You wouldn’t think you’d have to actually mention that," said Kurt Kelly of the Florida Coalition for Children. "But they have gone in and redefined the methodology they are going to utilize.”
In the past, DCF has placed a premium on putting fewer children in foster care and, instead, offering family services while the child remains at home.
The grand jury report noted there are gaps in those services and lax enforcement, usually nothing more than a verbal agreement from a parent to stay away from an abusive spouse, attend parenting classes or to quit drugs. The report said those "empty promises" often put children in harm's way.
But the new law says safety plans can no longer rely on verbal promises from parents.
On Wednesday, the agency also launched a website aimed at improving transparency around child abuse deaths. The site, which was mandated by the Legislature, will include data by county, child's age and prior history with the department.
“If we have a child’s death that’s reported in the state, the general public will get information on that right away," said interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll. “We have taken very quick, very decisive steps to fix the system in question."
A full report on 10 years of child deaths is expected to be up for viewing by the end of the year.