Under fierce criticism for withholding information on child deaths, the Department of Children & Families on Friday asked a judge for approval to release new details on 177 children who have died since November.
Ruling from the bench, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers granted the agency’s request to release information to the Miami Herald from incident reports received by the agency that the department had previously redacted.
But DCF Deputy General Counsel John Jackson said the agency will continue to withhold similar information in the future. He said the agency had erroneously turned over hundreds of documents to the Herald in the past year and it was now seeking the court’s permission to release the redacted information to help improve public confidence in the agency.
“This is not only a matter of satisfying media interests. It is an acknowledgment by the department that getting this information out there will ultimately improve the process and improve the department,” Jackson told the court during the 20-minute hearing late Friday.
The Herald’s year-long investigation of Florida’s child welfare system led to the Innocents Lost series, which chronicled the deaths of 477 children over the past six years from abuse and neglect whose families had been known to DCF.
The Herald reported last week that after the series was published, DCF changed its policy and heavily redacted information provided in incident reports that it had previously released — including details of the child’s death and the family’s prior history with DCF. To illustrate, the Herald published side-by-side snapshots of the same report, one just released and showing nearly every word censored; the other, from last year, with modest redactions.
“The article raised questions about the department’s handling of the incident reports and created a concern that the department was not being forthcoming with information on these children or on these children’s families,” Jackson said.
The article also sparked immediate criticism from legislators, who were in the midst of rewriting the state’s child welfare laws to overhaul the way DCF handles and investigates child deaths.
Jackson said the news reports “dinged the agency,” and interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, who is in his second week on the job, has since announced he is looking at “revamping the entire death review process.”
“All this put together, we think, that it is [imperative] that we have the trust of the public that we can do this and we can do it right,” Jackson said. “We can do what the Legislature intends and we can do right by Florida’s kids. And so we do not want hanging over our head the fact that there is information that we are holding back because it brings suspicion over the department that we are not being transparent.”
The department asked the court to release of 277 pages, relating to 110 of the 177 cases sought by the Herald, to help the department show that it is willing to “fix problems, ” improve public awareness and restore public confidence in its ability to protect children, Jackson said.