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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.

Sobel helped author a series of reforms adopted by the Legislature last year, overhauling DCF’s child protection system and setting aside nearly $50 million in new money for more investigators. The law also articulated the Legislature’s intent to hold the welfare and safety of children above the rights of parents accused of abuse and neglect. Lawmakers also stated that they wanted to see more openness from agency administrators, and mandated a website to track child deaths.

Sobel said she had expected Armstrong to appear before the committee to answer questions about the changes, but instead the presentation was provided by Celeste Philip, the deputy secretary for health and in charge of the Child Death Review.

Philip told the committee that the department replaced several volunteer members of the review committee even though they had “institutional knowledge” as part of a routine review, removing people “who had been in those positions for a long time” with other applicants who had similar experience.

She explained that while information was removed from the final report, the Department of Health is looking at “how we can share that information on a different format.”

Sobel was not satisfied with Philip’s answer.

“I hope that you could find ways to be more transparent about deaths in reporting the information to the public,’’ Sobel told her. “Nothing has changed in the law and yet the committee has changed its direction.”

Meanwhile, Sobel had the opposite reaction to a report by Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll, who described to the committee the changes his agency has made in the way it handles abused and neglected children in the state’s care, in response to the reforms adopted by lawmakers last year.

He presented the committee with a nine-page spreadsheet, detailing dozens of changes that have taken effect. He was followed by Janice Thomas, DCF’s new deputy secretary who told the committee that while they have filled most of the 170 child protection workers authorized by last year’s legislation, turnover remains a problem.

The number of cases each case work “is still too high,’’ she said, noting that half of the agencies caseworkers have a case load is higher than the 8-10 new cases a month.

She said that the agency is focused on assessing a family’s history, rather than the issue that prompted the call to the child abuse hotline. “The new practice looks at the family history and its entire situation,’’ Thomas said. “There are now practical steps to determine if there are enough services to put into a home to keep a child safe.”

 Sobel said she was pleased with the progress the agency has made.

“I think Mike Carroll is working very hard,’’ She said after the meeting. “Will there be unforeseen child deaths? Yes, and that is why we need child death review reports.’’