October 27, 2015

Gov. Scott requests $22.9M for DCF to counteract child abuse


Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday requested $22.9 million in the state budget for case managers for children in the custody of the Department of Children and Families and provide other safety services for abused and neglected kids.

The money is expected to hire 272 case managers, reducing the number of children each manager is responsible for.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking when a child is a victim of abuse or neglect," Scott said in a statement. "Anytime something horrific happens to an innocent child, we have to stop and think about what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again."

In stories published over the last year and a half, the Miami Herald found that children have died and been severely abused as a result of cutbacks to DCF. This has meant that fewer children are being taken into state care and those who are have access to fewer resources.

Hiring people alone may not be enough to keep staffing levels high and kids safe. Earlier this month, Janice Thomas, deputy secretary of DCF, told a Florida House subcommittee that the agency faces high job turnover: For every three new hires, one staffer leaves.

“It is a high-pressure stress situation,” said Thomas, a former investigator.

October 22, 2015

Florida girl died after Department of Children & Families bowed out of case

Janiya Thomas B_F 08-29-04

via @Marbinius

Keishanna Thomas’s name — and those of her five children — appeared again and again in reports to the state’s child abuse hotline. The calls began more than a decade ago. There were an even dozen.

In June 2014, just as state lawmakers were passing the most far-reaching reform of Florida’s child protection system, Thomas decided she had had enough of caseworkers coming to her home and scrutinizing her children. “Ms. Thomas became uncooperative” a report said.

The Department of Children & Families could have asked a judge to force Thomas, now 32, to let workers into her home, to accept their oversight. But agency lawyers instead insisted the state walk away.

It was a tragic mistake.

When the next report — No. 13 — was phoned to the hotline earlier this month, an investigator made a startling discovery: Thomas now had only four children. Eleven-year-old Janiya was nowhere to be found, and her mother had nothing to say about her whereabouts. What is believed to be Janiya’s body was found Sunday night inside a locked freezer in a relative’s garage. “The freezer was brought to the relative’s home by the mother . . . under the guise that she was being evicted,” a DCF report said.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll declined to discuss the case Wednesday with the Miami Herald. In a short statement, the agency’s press secretary, Michelle Glady, said Carroll has dispatched a “Critical Incident Rapid Response Team” to Bradenton to look into the agency’s long history with the Thomas family, and to investigate the actions leading to Janiya’s death.

More here.

April 02, 2015

Miami Herald Innocents Lost series wins investigative journalism prize

via @CTeproff

The Miami Herald “Innocents Lost” series, which examines the deaths of nearly 500 children in Florida who had a history with the Department of Children & Families, has added another award to the list.

On Wednesday, the year-long project written by staff reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, won the 2014 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism, an annual award honoring investigative reporting.

“This series is powerful,” Bingham Judge Deborah Nelson said in a release. “Powerful statistics, powerful examples, powerful writing. And that’s what it takes to move government to protect its most vulnerable citizens — and move they did with significant changes in law and policy.”

Also recognized for their work on the project: Reporter Mary Ellen Klas, designers Lazaro Gamio, Ana Lense Larrauri and Kara Dapena, videographer and photographer Emily Michot and investigations editor Casey Frank.

The $20,000 Bingham Prize will be presented to the Miami Herald on May 7 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The series, which was published in March 2014, resulted in sweeping changes in child-welfare laws across the state. In addition to the stories that ran in the newspaper, The Herald built a searchable database detailing the children’s stories.

The series has already won several major awards: The Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in March; The University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism's Selden Ring Award in February; the McClatchy President's Award for Public Service in February and the Knight Award for Public Service in September.

March 26, 2015

Warning signs were ignored by Broward sheriff in dead boy's violent, 'painful' life

Ahizya OsceolaThe purple bruises on either side of Ahizya Osceola’s jaw were telltale signs: Someone, a child abuse expert said, had grabbed the 3-year-old’s face forcefully enough to leave fingerprints.

But Ahizya’s bruised jaw was only a small part of what the boy faced. The state’s abuse hotline received a report on April 21, 2014, that he had scratches on both sides of his neck, and a “large bruise and bump” on his forehead. Two weeks earlier, teachers saw a “pinch mark” on one ear, a bruise behind the other and two bruises on his face.

Two weeks before that, Ahizya had a busted lip, another scratch on his face, a bruise on his shoulder blade and pinches and bruises on his ears. Ahizya told his preschool teacher that “daddy” hit him with a belt. His father, Nelson Osceola, instead described an active and clumsy toddler who frequently injured himself in run-ins with furniture, walls, a toilet and other children during an Easter party.

Broward County child protection investigators discounted the possibility of abuse and left him with a father who had a lengthy rap sheet — including aggravated assault charges — and a history of alleged drug use. The Broward Sheriff’s Office had one last chance to intervene in December, when the state’s abuse hotline was told that Ahizya’s stepmother had beaten his bottom, and he had bruises and abrasions on his face. But that call, too, went unheeded.

On Wednesday, Nelson Osceola and the stepmother, Analiz Osceola, were arrested by Hollywood police in connection with Ahizya’s death the previous week. He was found last Friday concealed by garbage bags in the family’s laundry room. Analiz Osceola faces the bulk of the charges: aggravated manslaughter, child neglect and giving false information to police conducting an investigation. Nelson Osceola is charged with one count of child neglect.

More from Carol Marbin Miller and Carli Teproff here.



March 03, 2015

Miami Herald wins Goldsmith Prize for 'Innocents Lost' project

Miami Herald reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch won the 2015 prestigious Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting for their series, Innocents Lost, a year-long project that chronicled how nearly 500 children died of abuse or neglect over six years in families who had a history with the Florida Department of Children & Families, the state agency designed to protect children.

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School announced Tuesday night it had awarded the $25,000 prize to Marbin Miller and Burch. Also recognized: reporter Mary Ellen Klas, designers Lazaro Gamio and Kara Dapena, videographer and photographer Emily Michot and investigations editor Casey Frank.

The series led to sweeping changes in child-welfare laws across the state. The project included a searchable database detailing the children’s stories.

More here.

February 04, 2015

Child welfare officials defend transparency and death review report

Mike Carroll DCFFlorida’s top child welfare officials were on the defensive before a House committee on Wednesday as they defended an annual report on child deaths that had been stripped of data and embarrassing details about the state’s role in failing to protect the children whose lives were lost. 

Secretary of the Department of Health John Armstrong told the House Committee on Children, Familes and Elders outlined the membership, duties and terms of appointment for the state  Child Abuse Death Review Committee’s which, by law, must provide an analysis of what killed Florida children the year before.

But unlike previous years, which was nearly 200 pages long and included dozens of charts and graphs describing both the victims and perpetrators of child abuse, and brief memorials for several of the youngsters whose lives were cut short, the 2014 report was only 17 pages long.

The scaled-down death report came the same year the Miami Herald’s series Innocents Lost detailed the deaths of 477 children whose families were known to the Department of Children & Families.

“Ultimately, recommendations are only as good as the quality of data and analysis,’’ Armstrong told the House panel. He then introduced the chairman of the death review committee, Robin Perry, to explain the report.

Perry told the committee that said they are going to update the web site to include local committee reports reports, and past committee reports, but his goal is to produce a more “epidemiological approach” to the data  in its analysis of the data.

Photo: DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, courtesy of DCF

Continue reading "Child welfare officials defend transparency and death review report" »

January 22, 2015

Sobel doubts ability of admnistration to do transparent review of child deaths

Eleanor SobelFrustrated that state officials have scrubbed crucial, and often embarrassing, details from a state report on children who have died from abuse, the head of the key Senate oversight committee said Thursday that it may be time to take the job away from the administration.

“It seems they are less transparent that they have been in the past,’’ said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, referring to an annual report from the the Child Abuse Death Review Committee that went this year from nearly 200 to 17 pages and failed to include a discussion of the state’s role in the child deaths

“If they are not going to change their ways, maybe we need an alternative,” Sobel said. Her suggestion: change the law to take the job away from the governor’s agency and require an independent panel to review the fatalities, such as the newly-created Florida Institute for Child Welfare, which is housed at Florida State University. 

Current law requires the Florida Department of Health to produce an annual report of the Child Abuse Death Review Committee which reviews each child death, as required under federal law, in order to determine what changes needs to be made to try to prevent future deaths. Until this year, the report had been a robust 197-pages. At the same time the report was scaled back, several veteran and well-respected members of the committee were removed by Surgeon General John Armstrong.

Last year, the report helped to underscore the state’s failure in protecting the children in its custody as the Miami Herald documented the deaths of 477 children whose families were known to DCF in a series of reports, entitled Innocents Lost.

Continue reading "Sobel doubts ability of admnistration to do transparent review of child deaths" »

January 09, 2015

Before father threw his daughter off bridge, he had history of abuse


By age 5, Phoebe Jonchuck already had a significant history with Florida child protection authorities: Her father, they were told, was habitually violent with his domestic partners, and had been accused of “smacking” his daughter in the face. Phoebe’s mother, according to reports to the agency, was a meth user who had been charged with cruelty to another child in 2008.

A Tampa judge left to determine custody between them faced difficult choices.

The battle between John Nicholas Jonchuck and Michelle Kerr ended tragically early Thursday when Jonchuck tossed his 5-year-old daughter from a bridge approaching the iconic Sunshine Skyway, which spans Tampa Bay between St. Petersburg and Manatee County. Phoebe’s body was found by an Eckerd College dive team.

The report of Phoebe’s death to the state Department of Children & Families child abuse hotline was the sixth report the agency had received about the family in the past 2 1/2 years. Records of those contacts suggest little was done to ensure Phoebe’s safety since the first report was received at 9:51 p.m. on April 14, 2012. More from Carol Marbin Miller here. 

January 04, 2015

Florida's public records tradition in 2014 became the year of 'oops'

It was a dark year for sunshine in Florida in 2014.

Legal fights by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican Party of Florida kept crucial documents under wraps long enough to dilute their impact once they were released. The governor took the state’s public records tradition a new direction as he used taxpayer money to defend his attempts to shift the burden for holding the public records from the state to individual employees, and his lawyers opened a new legal vein with his interpretation of the blind trust law.

A lawsuit over the state’s congressional redistricting was fought without the aid of emails that showed GOP political consultants conspired to manipulate the process with false witnesses and gerrymandered maps. A legislatively commissioned report to make the state’s budgeting process more transparent was ignored by legislators.

Scott continued to be the first governor in modern history to shield all record of his travel from public view, and his office defended efforts to erase events from calendars before turning them over as public records.

The Department of Children & Families, under orders from the Legislature following a Herald serieson the state’s failure to protect vulnerable children from abusive parents, unveiled a website listing all child deaths. At the same time, Scott’s Department of Health stopped posting critical child death data on its website and excluded from its annual report on child deaths detailed analysis of the causes of death and the state’s role leading up to the fatalities.

And although the Department of Corrections introduced a “transparency database” listing prison deaths after a spate of critical news reports, it continued to embrace a policy that makes it difficult to fully examine the circumstances of in-custody deaths.

“What you’re seeing is a CEO mentality in which everything is viewed as a trade secret,’’ said Paula Dockery, a former Republican senator from Lakeland and former Scott supporter. “While that has served Rick Scott well, it has not served the people of Florida well and is not abiding by the spirit of the open government laws.” Story here. 

Here's a timeline of only some of the issues:

Continue reading "Florida's public records tradition in 2014 became the year of 'oops' " »

January 03, 2015

Another judge slams the state for failing children in its care

Judge Michael Hanzman@Marbinus

A child welfare judge in Miami has accused the state of denying necessary psychiatric treatment to abused and neglected children in its care, and has ordered Florida social service administrators to appear before him and explain why they have “no duty” to help sick foster kids.

The blistering order by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman comes in the case of two siblings, identified only as L.S. and D.S, who are in the state’s care after being removed from their parents. Though Hanzman has ordered the Department of Children & Families to send the two to an in-patient mental health facility for treatment, the siblings remain without treatment.

“This court’s orders are routinely ignored, and children with severe mental health needs are denied critical care,” Hanzman wrote in the Dec. 29 order.

The judge’s order comes at a sensitive time for state healthcare and child welfare administrators: On New Year’s Eve, a federal appeals court judge in Miami released an equally scathing order saying the state had systemically, and for many years, rationed care to impoverished and disabled children insured by the Medicaid program. The failure to provide adequate healthcare to needy children, the judge wrote, violates federal law. Story here.