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Florida Matters: DCF Secretary Says Child Fatalities Are Public Health Issue

Department of Children and Families
Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll

Florida is on pace to have nearly as many child deaths this year as it did before the overhaul of its child welfare system last year. In about a quarter of those deaths, the Florida Department of Children and Families had prior contact with the family. 

This week on Florida Matters (Tuesday, Nov. 3 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 8 at 7:30 a.m.), we sit down with DCF Secretary Mike Carroll to discuss how the department is trying to do a better job protecting children.

Florida Matters host Carson Cooper sits down with Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll.

MIKE CARROLL:  We’ve got to get the conversation to a place where we start asking: why do we have so many parents in this state who do not have the capacity to parent for their kids, and why on earth do we have so many parents in this state that kill their children? Because until we begin understanding what’s driving that issue, all we’re doing in the department is providing Band-Aids. We’re responding, and we’re trying to keep kids safe, but we can’t remove every child.

As a result of the legislation that passed last year, our removal rates are up. We got a significant increase in our budget last year because our removal rates are up. When I say removal rates, I mean we’re taking more kids out of their homes and placing them in foster or adoptive homes. 

"One is too many; 450 to me is an absolute red flag for this state that we have a public health issue around children and child deaths in this state."

CARSON COOPER: Is Florida an outlier among the states as far as these types of cases – parents who kill their kids, as you pointed out?

CARROLL: That’s difficult to say. Another frustration of mine in child welfare is nothing is done the same around the country. Florida is very progressive in the way we track child fatalities. So for instance, if you  looked at the child fatality website in Florida, we’re one of the only states – in fact, we’ve had several states come to us trying to emulate our child fatality website in their state to make it very public – but it’s clearly, if you look at our child fatality website, it clearly points to child fatalities as being a public health issue.

In the state of Florida, we get about 450 reports called into the hotline every year that involve a child fatality. 450. To me, that’s an outrageous number. But when you look at it more deeply, the leading cause of death is unsafe sleep, where there was not an intentional act. It was either a parent co-slept with a baby, or they were put in an unsafe crib or they were put on a couch. There are times when folks co-sleep with a child and they are on substances. To me, that’s neglectful. To me, that should be a crime. That’s no different to me than driving under the influence. Second leading cause of death in Florida is child drowning. Some of that is directly associated with minimal parent oversight and supervision, and the third leading cause of death for children called into the hotline is SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) or some other natural cause of death.  I say that because if you go and you compare our child fatalities numbers with our states, most states don’t report those type deaths to their hotline. There has to be abuse and neglect, so a lot of times when other states report, they only report out on inflicted trauma deaths.

COOPER: So it is hard to tell, but as you pointed out, one is too many.

CARROLL: One is too many; 450 to me is an absolute red flag for this state that we have a public health issue around children and child deaths in this state. 

Carson Cooper has become a favorite of WUSF listeners as the host of "Morning Edition" on WUSF 89.7 since he took the job in 2000. Carson has worked in Tampa Bay radio for three decades.
Lottie Watts is our Florida Mattersproducer, and she also covers health and health policy for.