By Carol Marbin Miller
Two years ago, Desene Simmons grabbed a pillow and held it over the face of her son, Antwan Hope, in an apparent attempt to smother him. Antwan screamed. Simmons’ mother barged in. Tragedy was averted.
The Department of Children & Families took no action, explaining later that Antwan never bothered to tell them what his mother tried to do.
Antwan was 2.
That story, and others, emerged Tuesday in a scathing report on DCF’s systemic failure to protect children in dangerously dysfunctional households. The child welfare agency commissioned the report, by the respected Casey Family Programs, after the Herald revealed that at least 20 children from families with DCF histories had died in Florida over the spring and summer.
Among the report's findings:
• Though the leading cause of death among the 40 children in the review was smothering in bed by parents or family members — many of them drug addicts — DCF seldom intervened in a meaningful way, other than requiring parents from troubled families to promise to stop sleeping in the same bed as their infants. Those promises were quickly forgotten.
“Giving information regarding co-sleeping to drug-addicted parents, or to substance-abusing parents not established in a recovery process, and having these parents sign agreements to refrain from co-sleeping with infants, is a highly risky and questionable basis for safety planning,” the report said.
• Investigators often failed miserably to assess and understand the dangers children faced with violent, drug-abusing parents. “Domestic violence and substance abuse dynamics were woefully underexplored,” the report said of one case, adding: “The overall thoroughness of the investigations leading up to the child’s death is highly questionable.”
• Investigators left children in troubled homes without developing a plan to protect them, and often relied on nothing more than a parent’s pledge to protect their children. With few exceptions, the report said, investigators failed to ensure that troubled parents received state services designed to protect the children — such as free child care, which would have guaranteed that objective caregivers kept an eye on them, or home visits by specially trained nurses.
In general, the report said, investigators were often beset by tunnel vision, considering only the narrow allegations of an abuse report, rather than the overall functioning of a family.
“In a number of cases, prior…investigations had focused on specific safety threats indicated by a particular incident only to have a child in the family, often the youngest child, die of other causes,” the report said.
Among the child deaths examined by the Casey organization was Antwan Hope.
Although they took no action at the time of the would-be smothering, DCF removed the child from his mother months later after she was repeatedly committed for psychiatric treatment and had made threats that she would hurt Antwan.
This past summer, DCF’s private child welfare group in Broward, ChildNet, made a disastrous decision. They gave Antwan back to his mother. He was dead within hours, under circumstances that still has not been explained by DCF or anyone else.
After Antwan’s death, his mother waited 10 to 15 hours to call police. She has not been charged.
The Casey organization said DCF workers should have seen it coming.
“What may have been the attempted murder of this child in 2011 was disregarded because the child, less than 3-years-old at the time of the attempted suffocation, did not ‘disclose’ that the incident had occurred,” the report noted.
Antwan’s case was among several, the report said, in which child abuse investigators failed to intervene even when parents had exhibited “hostility or possible homicidal intent.” In another case, a child was found dead soon after the youngster’s mother had “made it widely known that she did not want to raise a child with a serious disability.” The child had a cleft palate.
Casey said there is a “general consensus” that the mother was responsible the death of that child.