Florida's child welfare agency is facing renewed scrutiny following an investigation into children who died of abuse or neglect.
A recent investigative series by the Miami Herald found more than 475 cases in a span of six years where a child died after Department of Children and Families had been in contact with the family. In some cases, more than 10 reports about the welfare of the child been logged through an abuse hotline.
The first installment of the series, which was published this weekend, ties the deaths in part to a shift in state policy aimed at keeping children with their families instead of taking them into state custody. Decreases in state services and monitoring programs were also a factor, the Herald found.
Gov. Rick Scott said Monday that he wants to add 400 investigators to DCF's ranks to ensure safety for children.
"We don't want anything to happen to any child in our state," he said during a stop at a high school in Miami Lakes.
But Howard Talenfeld, the president of Florida Children First, says that's not the biggest problem facing the agency. Talenfeld, who has worked as a child advocate for 30 years, said improving the system will require changing state law.
"The problem is, we have a state statute that says after 60 days the investigation is closed and so the investigations are closed and there is no follow up in many cases with respect to services the family and a child needs to protect the child," he said.
Talenfeld has seen his fair share of what he deemed "appalling" cases in his years fighting for South Florida kids like Jayden Villegas, who was shaken to death. Others include Bryan Osceola, who died after his mother left him in a hot car, Dontrell Melvin, whose body was found nearly two years after he was last seen, but never reported missing, and Nubia Barahona, whose adopted parents allegedly tortured her to death.
"It's unfathomable that before DCF's eyes this many children died when there were red flags - indicators these children were at future risk," Talenfeld said.
In a statement issued on the series, the agency highlighted several steps it has taken to improve practices, including measures to better assess whether a child is as risk. It said the report "will bring attention to this important issue and give the public a glimpse into what we at DCF already know—far too many children die of abuse and neglect each year."
“The Herald series will give names and faces to these children,” DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo said in a statement. “DCF knows these names. These cases have been closely studied in our continuous efforts to improve child protection practices.”
Officials also say that the agency's powers to act in cases of neglect are limited. While it can recommend voluntary drug testing or other actions for parents, additional measures, including removing the child from the home, require court intervention.