Miami Herald Editorial: Florida's child welfare system remains broken; caseworkers discounting problems

November 8, 2013 

Jewel Howard, of Sarasota, was 3 when she was beaten to death. Weeks earlier, DCF had received a report that Jewel had suffered a busted lip. Family photo via Miami Herald.

Twenty-five and, most unfortunately, counting.

Michael McMullen, a 3-year-old restrained in a tight blanket, placed face down on a bed and gasping for air until he just stopped, is at least the 25th child to die since the spring who was under the watchful eyes of the Department of Children & Families caseworkers and, in this case, a private social-work agency, Lutheran Services.

Believe it or not, "watchful" is just the right word: Caseworkers read the initial report last year that said Douglas Garrigus, 21, the boyfriend of Michael's mother, Samantha, had kicked one of the four McMullen children in the head.

They saw a second report claiming the children were living in a home overrun with animals and reeking of feces. One caseworker saw a bruise on Michael's sister, the result of punishment that her grandmother first denied, then admitted.

This same granny, Gale Watkins, told caseworkers that the kids liked sleeping in a cat crate. The Lee County Sheriff's Office has charged her with aggravated manslaughter of a child.

Caseworkers initially removed Michael and his three siblings from their mother's home.

Mr. Garrigus was considered so violent that one investigator asked for police to accompany her to the home.

This death happened on interim Secretary Esther Jacobo's watch, as others have happened under the tenures of several DCF leaders who preceded her. Unlike some predecessors, Ms. Jacobo appears to understand the depth of dysfunction within the agency, and says that she plans to have a new framework in place by December.

But here's one thing that can't wait: Ms. Jacobo should declare immediately that DCF's policy of keeping families together -- no matter what, it seems -- can no longer be its overriding policy if children in mortal danger are to be rescued from their abusers.

It let DCF supervisors conclude Bryan Osceola, not yet a year old, was safe with a mom who had been arrested three times on drug and alcohol charges and a dad held on domestic violence charges. But the toddler wasn't safe. His mom has been charged with manslaughter. More than a decade ago, it allowed Rilya Wilson to go missing. Nobody knew for more than a year.

Knowing that Mr. Garrigus had kicked a child, that the kids were living in a filthy environment and that a teacher found large bruises on one of the children, DCF workers rode to the rescue -- and asked Mr. Garrigus and Ms. McMullen to sign a "safety plan," where they basically agreed to clean up their act.

Needless to say, the agreement signed by a violent drug-abusing meth user and a woman he cowed with his fists wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. How could caseworkers -- and the administrators who back them up -- have thought otherwise?

How could services -- drug rehab, anger management, parenting -- not have been offered? How bloody red did the flags have to get?

The children were finally removed to their grandmother's house, where things got worse, and where Michael died.

A few months ago, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, who presides over juvenile court in Miami-Dade, skewered the agency's investigative arm: "The kids are left in the homes way too long. They have been looking for present danger," she told the county's legislative delegation. "They are not looking at how the family is functioning, the history."

They're not looking? In the case of Michael and two dozen other children, the question is: How could caseworkers miss it?

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