Category Archives: Child Protective Investigations

To Err is Human

Guest post by Judge James Seals.

SealsThe death of a child at the hands of a caregiver, someone a child trusts, is indeed one of our community’s most tragic events. It’s even more tragic when the child is under the watch of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), but it will continue to happen as long as humans have the capacity to make mistakes – which is always.

Child protection system professionals, like physicians, airline pilots, builders, and police officers, to name some, make mistakes which can directly or indirectly cause the loss of human life. Their duties require them to gather information, process it, exercise judgment, reach conclusions and make decisions – all human functions – usually under some measure of situational stresses and the pressures of time. With risky endeavors, having insufficient information, or lack of time to consider all the information, or drawing an erroneous conclusion can lead to bad decisions which in turn can cause a death or other tragedy. Expecting zero deaths in professions where human judgment and high risk intersect every day is a fool’s wish.

Rather than pass judgment and sentence on DCF on the few bits of anecdotal evidence gleaned from the media – which covers less than 1% of all cases handled – the better response is to ask whether the child protection system is learning from mistakes made, and how. As a veteran of 15 years in the child protection system, my answer is yes, but I must quickly add that learning from mistakes will not guarantee that child mortality by abuse will always decrease over a given period of time. Every day the child protection system encounters new, different and increasingly bizarre ways that parents and caregivers manage to endanger their children. If child abuse and neglect were stationary targets, then systemic improvements would consistently reduce child abuse and neglect. Child endangerment, however, is and always will be a moving target pursued by humans who, no matter how competent, will always fall short of perfection. The best we can hope for is a steady downward trend over the long term.

The child protection system, which includes our legislature (policy), the courts (oversight and final decision-making), and the child welfare agencies (investigations and case management), is constantly searching for new and better evidence-based best policies and practices to prevent child maltreatment, to ensure child safety and to improve families’ capacities to safely and competently parent their children.For example, investigations now go far beyond just focusing on the alleged maltreatment to information gathering on surrounding circumstances, child functioning, adult functioning, general parenting practices and general discipline practices within the family under investigation. This enables system professionals and courts to make better safety-related decisions right from the start of the case; it improves the system’s capability to assess and control the dangers to vulnerable children through safety planning; and it helps caregivers through targeted case planning to improve family functioning by removing or reducing the threats to child safety.

Costly mistakes are most likely made out in the field where system workers come face to face with offending parents and victim children. Throughout Florida there are many well qualified, well trained, passionately motivated workers out in the field. However, the turnover rate of these key players in child safety and welfare is very high. The good ones get promoted out of the field or move on to better paying, or less stressful jobs in other careers. The ill-suited are either terminated or resign. High turnover in field personnel is the incubator of error. Even the best child protection system available, staffed at the higher echelons with the best leaders and experts, will always underperform without a stable, qualified, motivated cohort of investigators and case workers at their command.

Constant and diligent efforts at controlling risks and dangers will never eliminate the human capacity to err. Regrettably, airplanes will continue to crash, bridges will collapse, brakes will fail, parents will abuse children, and people will die. That’s life, pure and simple. I’m not suggesting we look upon child abuse with resignation or acceptance, nor am I suggesting we throw away accountability. I’m advocating for responsible, well-informed, constructive accountability which asks the right questions instead of making the same old ill-informed, ill-advised, illogical demands.

 We can begin by acknowledging that Florida’s child protection system is blessed with many great generals and colonels, but it is also plagued by high turnover and low morale among the troops. Not taking adequate care of the troops may well be the worst mistake of all. Why this is happening is one of those right questions to ask.

Drowning can happen to anyone – even experienced swimmers. Be safe this 4th of July!

So far this year, the Florida Abuse Hotline has received 40 reports of children drowning. The state loses more children under the age of five to drowning than any other state in the nation. As we go into the 4th of July holiday, it is important to emphasize supervision and swim safety while spending time with friends and family around the pool.

To combat this horrible statistic and other dangers, the Florida Department of Children and Families is launching a summer series of weekly public service announcement (PSA) videos online to promote prevention of tragedies like drowning. For the first PSAs, DCF has partnered with the Florida Department of Health to produce two short videos:

There are many layers of protection that can prevent drowning deaths:

Supervision: Someone should always be actively watching children when they are in the pool. This means don’t play around on your phone or get involved in a big conversation while watching the kids. Drowning can happen in just a few minutes. Designate a “Water Watcher” to keep an eye on swimmers.

Barriers: A child should never be able to enter the pool area unaccompanied by an adult. Barriers physically block a child from the pool. Barriers include: child-proof locks on all doors, a pool fence with self-latching and self-closing gates, as well as door and pool alarms. Pool covers may also be used but make sure it is a professional cover fitted for your pool. A simple canvas covering can be a drowning hazard and entrap a child in the water. Florida law requires barriers for home pools.

Swimming Lessons: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 4 and older learn to swim in order to help prevent drowning. It also encourages caregivers of children ages 1-3 to consider swim instruction for their child, as studies have shown it reduces drowning incidents. Caregivers should learn to swim as well.

Emergency Preparedness: The moment a child stops breathing there is a small, precious window of time in which resuscitation may occur, but only if someone knows what to do. Even if you’re not a parent, it’s important to learn CPR. The techniques are easy to learn and can mean the difference between life and death. In an emergency, it is critical to have a phone nearby and immediately call 911.

Have a wonderful, safe 4th of July!

Learning what true love is

Guest post by Merrilu Bennett, Communications and Media Coordinator at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home in Central Florida, one of DCF’s community-based care organizations. The Children’s Home has been in existence for more than 100 years and provides residential, therapeutic, emergency shelter and foster care to hundreds of abused, neglected and troubled children from across the state each and every year.

Allen’s mother was a drug addict who had abandoned him numerous times during his young life. She would leave him with friends or relatives for months at a time. The last time she left him, she didn’t return.

When she was finally tracked down and contacted by authorities, she said she didn’t want him back and then she disappeared.  Authorities could find no friends or family members willing to take care of him. His father, who Allen has never met, was in prison.

Florida United Methodist Children’s Home

Florida United Methodist Children’s Home

So at the age of 7, Allen was placed at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home in our residential care program in the hopes it would provide him with much-needed structure and stability. “Stable” and “structured,” however, are the last two words that could be used to describe Allen’s initial behavior. During fits of anger he would shove rocking chairs, benches and even a bicycle off the front porch of his cottage.

One morning, one of our staff members sat with Allen when he refused to attend school.  She explained to him that she wanted him to go to school because she cared about him and his future.  Between sobs, he exclaimed, “My momma cared about me, and she never made me go to school!”

Living with a drug-addicted mother who didn’t care if he went to school was all this fragile little boy had known as love. And he also knew that “love” had been taken away from him.  He didn’t know his mother’s behavior and his childhood weren’t normal.  It was all he had ever known. Our job here at the Children’s Home was to teach Allen what “normal” really was.

The transformation did not take place overnight, but over weeks and months noticeable differences in his attitude began to take shape.  He began to attend school without argument and also began to participate in on-campus activities like sports.

Today, two years later, Allen plays football with a league in the community.  He not only enjoys school, but also helps other young residents understand the material.  In January he was recognized as our “Resident of the Week” because of how helpful he is.

Allen is just one of the hundreds of children we serve who just need to know they are loved. It takes time and it takes patience.  It also takes an unwavering belief that we can make a difference. But seeing the children grow emotionally – and learn what true love is – is more powerful than any bumps in the road along the way.

If you are interested in mentoring a child, donating time or items, or becoming a foster parent, please contact me at Merrilu.Bennett@fumch.org. It is an honor and privilege to work with these children and to share their stories. We welcome all volunteers who want to make a difference in their young lives.

Editor’s Note: If you are interested in mentoring or fostering in other areas of Florida, please visit www.fosteringflorida.com to find a local fostering agency. 

Giving and receiving

Guest post by Franklin Monjarrez, Executive Director of Neat Stuff Inc. This past year, more than 5,000 abused, neglected and at-risk children in Miami-Dade County visited Neat Stuff and received more than $1.3 million dollars worth of clothes and uniforms.

Early one afternoon a young boy, about 4 years old, came into our store for free clothes. He was in his PJs, his only possession. As I got closer to him I saw about 15 burns all over his small face. When he saw me he extended his arms for me to hold him.

The lady with him, his aunt who had just received temporary custody of the boy, told me I looked like his dad. The one who had caused those horrible burns on his face. The father was a crack addict and had burned the boy with a lighter.

Despite all the pain he had just gone through, this boy was just looking to give and receive love. I picked him up and played with him awhile. We gave him all the clothes and supplies he needed.

Stories like this happen all the time – the aunt bravely stepping forth to care for nephews and nieces. The grandma raising grandkids. The caring couple who takes in abused children and tenderly helps them heal. The holidays can be a hard time for these families, so we decided to make it just a little easier by organizing a turkey giveaway.

Turkeys ready for delivery to families

This past Saturday, Neat Stuff had the pleasure of sharing the joy of Thanksgiving with 111 foster care advocates and adopted families. Each family received a turkey and a grocery bag loaded with cranberry sauce, green beans, corn, sweet potatoes, gravy, marshmallows and stuffing!

Our annual turkey giveway brings together the best and brightest of our Miami community.  The turkey and trimmings distribution effort was made possible by generous donations from Publix Super Market Charities, Sam’s Club and Neat Stuff’s Board of Directors.

At the store where at-risk kids can get free clothes (Franklin is in the blue Neat Stuff shirt)

Grandma Mary said it best, “For the past three years I have been coming to Neat Stuff to receive free clothes and uniforms for my grandkids. I’m so happy I was able to receive a turkey this year. This agency feels like a second home to us.”

We are so thankful for all the community partners who help us help families every day. We wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Delivering a turkey

Stuffing bags of food for families.

Neat Stuff volunteers (Franklin is in the blue Neat Stuff shirt, third from left)

A Team of Hearts

No child is ever unadoptable. Every child deserves a mom and dad. Even if they are only to be with us for a short time, they touch our lives forever.

Polk County child welfare professionals teamed up to ensure one local infant, born with medical complications that threatened her life, would fine a forever home. The newborn, delivered at Florida Hospital Heartland Medical Center in Highlands County, came to the attention of child protection officials after her mother relinquished custody through the Safe Haven Baby Law.

Traditionally, babies considered Safe Haven Babies are quickly adopted to potential parents already screened and awaiting a new addition to their family through private agencies. They do no enter foster care.  Safe Haven Laws allow mothers unable to care for their infants to leave newborns with a designated professional to reduce the risk of abandonment in an unsafe environment. As long as the newborn is seven days of age or younger and found in the care of hospital, fire station or EMS location, there are no questions asked of the parent, no repercussions, and the infant is placed with a loving family.

But with such a life-threatening diagnosis, private adoption agencies in this case were concerned they would not be able to find a new mom or dad in time, which is how the newborn came to the attention of child protection.

Employees from DCF and Heartland for Children, the Community Based Care organization overseeing foster and adoptive services in Polk County, were touched by the newborn’s story, refusing to accept that the tiny baby may pass without ever being part of a family.

Heartland for Children’s staff reached out to Nick Silverio, founder of Safe Haven for Newborns, a not-for-profit agency that promotes awareness about the Safe Haven Law in Florida. Mr. Silverio linked the team with Gift of Life, a private adoption agency in Pinellas County. Gift of Life staff immediately accepted the infant as well as support through the legal process. An amazing local couple with years of experience with children with special needs, came forward. The baby was named Maiya. She was also given the gift of family prior to her death on August 28.

Baby Maiya’s story is a reminder that there is a home for all children available for adoption.  It also serves as an example of the great lengths child protection officials go to help a child find the greatest gift of all – a family.