With less than a year to go before voters choose the state’s next governor, Florida Democrats are tipping their hand on an issue they think could move the needle in the election: the failures of the state’s child welfare system.
The leader of the Democratic Caucus in the state House of Representative, Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale, delivered a letter to Gov. Rick Scott Thursday morning blasting the governor for proposing cuts to the budget of the agency that has failed to prevent the deaths of scores of children whose families had been on the state’s radar because of prior complaints. Scott is seeking re-election, but faces unfavorable poll numbers.
“In view of your abject failure to protect these vulnerable children, I plead with you to avoid in your forthcoming budget recommendations any additional spending cuts to your Department of Children & Families,” Thurston wrote. “When you have failed to protect Florida’s most innocent residents, it would be abhorrent to ask the agency you have tasked with their protection to make budget cuts.”
The shortcomings at DCF first came to light this past summer, when the Miami Herald reported on the deaths of four children DCF had previously investigated. Amid a loud outcry from children’s advocates and community leaders, then-DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned.
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But the deaths continued. At the urging of interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, who had headed the agency’s Miami outpost before being tapped for the job, a team of consultants from Seattle-based Casey Family Programs reviewed 40 child death cases from this year.
The report, released in November, said investigators often failed to assess and understand the dangers children faced with violent, drug-abusing parents, often left children in troubled homes without developing a meaningful plan to protect them, and often relied on nothing more than a parent’s promise to alter dangerous behavior.
Even with the continued scandals, Scott’s proposed spending plan for the next budget year contains cuts to several child-protection programs.
“Funding does matter, and under your administration, hundreds of employees charged with protecting and caring for abused and neglected kids have been laid off,” Thurston wrote. “This year, I urge you to listen to the child-advocacy community and to take the necessary steps to stop children from dying.”
Among 13 specific recommendations, the Casey report suggested the state restore lost dollars, set aside more money for drug treatment, mental health and other programs that can help unfit parents improve, and develop a system for “flagging” children who return to the state’s abuse hotline again and again in need of intervention.
Referring to the Casey Families’ report, Thurston wrote: “I caution you and my colleagues in the Florida Legislature that, in light of these recommendations, it would be patently reckless to consider further budget cuts to DCF — and it is time to invest in the needs and priorities of our most vulnerable residents.”