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Panel Told FL Child Death Reform Not Enough

Department of Children and Families
Mike Carroll, interim director of the Florida Department of Children and Families

Despite a new law revamping Florida’s child welfare system, the state still has far to go to stop child deaths from abuse and neglect, a federal panel heard Thursday.

The Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities held a meeting in Tampa to review Florida’s policies and practices, as the panel is doing in other states, with an eye to making recommendations to President Obama and Congress.

Hundreds of state officials, social workers, law enforcement officers and children’s advocates listened as their peers described which policies and practices are working in Florida, and which ones aren’t.

For instance, the state is making better use of data to understand trends in child deaths, said Maj. Connie Shingledecker, who oversees child-protective investigations for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

Shingledecker pointed to the discovery that within a group of deaths, all the children had been killed by male perpetrators while the mothers were out.

"We found they were working, they were in school … and perhaps day care might have saved the lives of some of these children," she said. "So drilling down into that data can be extremely helpful."

Florida Department of Children and Families Interim Secretary Mike Carroll touted what is known as "Rapid Safety Feedback," which the department rolled out last year with Eckerd Community Alternatives. It is designed to quickly identify cases with issues that pose the greatest risks to children.

Eckerd became Hillsborough County’s community-based care lead agency in 2012, after nine child killings in two years under the previous provider.

"Fortunately, we have had no new abuse-related child tragedies since that time," Carroll said.

"This should be funded not only in the state of Florida, but on a national level," said Lorita Shirley, who heads Eckerd Community Alternatives. "The outcomes speak for themselves: zero child deaths."

Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who chairs the House Healthy Families Subcommittee, told commissioners about Senate Bill 1666, the sweeping child-welfare reform law that went into effect July 1.

Harrell praised the bill’s establishment of a DCF website that posts data on all child deaths reported to the state abuse hotline. She said she hoped to add more data requirements to it next year, such as the community-based care lead agencies responsible for the areas where deaths occurred.

Other speakers said a statewide push to prevent children from dying because of drowning and what is known as "co-sleeping," the two biggest causes of child deaths in Florida, had been effective. Maj. Rob Bullara of the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office said his agency had given away more than 100 portable bassinets to prevent co-sleeping deaths, which occur when young children sleep with their parents and get suffocated.

But other reports were more troubling. Several speakers said Florida’s policies on reporting child fatalities made it impossible to accurately assess whether they had been caused by abuse or neglect or not. Drowning and co-sleeping deaths often occur when a parent is intoxicated, but they aren’t always reported that way.

Shingledecker urged the commission to recommend a uniform set of standards for reporting child abuse and neglect, the same way other crime statistics are compiled. She also said Florida should review all its child fatalities, not only those reported to the state child-abuse hotline.

"We’re one of the few states that don’t look at all child deaths," she said. "The children are still dying. The medical examiners know it."

After the daylong meeting, Harrell said she’s "starting a list of glitches already" with an eye toward making more improvements to the child-welfare system during the next legislative session.

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