Cluster of Child Deaths Unprecedented and Alarming, Advocates Say

Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo is examining what went wrong in deaths of 5 children in South Florida and others across the state

By Diana Gonzalez
|  Wednesday, Jul 31, 2013  |  Updated 1:04 AM EDT
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Unprecedented and alarming. That's how child advocates describe the recent cluster of deaths allegedly due to abuse and neglect. Florida's Children First President Howard Talenfeld and Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo discussed the issue.

Unprecedented and alarming. That's how child advocates describe the recent cluster of deaths allegedly due to abuse and neglect. Florida's Children First President Howard Talenfeld and Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo discussed the issue.

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Unprecedented and alarming. That's how child advocates describe the recent cluster of deaths allegedly due to abuse and neglect.

Three-year-old Dakota Stiles of Vero Beach drowned in a dirty pool July 25 just two weeks after the Department of Children and Families had been called to his home. He is now part of a dozen child deaths under review.

"In the 25 years of working with the department, we have never seen such a series of deaths and that is the ultimate indicator of failure of a child protective system here in the state of Florida,'' said Howard Talenfeld, president of Florida's Children First.

DCF Announces Thorough Review of Child Deaths

He was meeting Tuesday in Broward County with Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo. She has been on the job for two weeks and is examining what went wrong in the deaths of five children in South Florida and others across the state. She is focusing on child protective investigators.

"It disturbs me that there are things they are not completing that they should complete. You know I feel like we're not, in these cases we're not gathering all the information that we should be gathering to make the right decisions," said Jacobo.

In Broward and a few other counties child protective investigators actually work for the sheriff's office.

Jacobo is looking into whether that's a better system.

"I will tell you that I’m not sure the data is there that says there are any less child deaths with law enforcement than there are within DCF. So before we commit to any of that we would have to look into that," said Jacobo.

Of the five local deaths this year, two of them were in Broward – Dontrell Melvin and Antwon Hope.

In the case of Jayden Villegas Morales of Homestead, two agencies failed to protect the child – DCF and the Children's Home Society, which managed the case when the boy was placed with his father. Jayden died a month later.

"We've learned since, after we’ve debriefed on the case, that they had concerns about that placement. But I'm not aware of any raised concerns” to date in the court, Jacobo said.

There had been three court hearings in that month. Jacobo said that it was never suggested in those hearings that Jayden and his siblings should not be with their father, who is now charged with second-degree murder.

Jacobo said she is working to move DCF in the right direction and is concerned about the number of deaths.

"In my experience here this is the first time I've seen it and it’s alarming. Alarming,” she said.

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