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State Underreports Child Deaths

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Nearly 100 Florida children who died from abuse or neglect after the state was warned of danger are missing from official reports over the past six years, refuting officials' claims that fewer children are dying, a yearlong Miami Heraldinvestigation revealed.

The Herald’s review of Department of Children and Families records found 96 deaths since 2008 that failed to make DCF's annual report to the governor and legislators. It includes the tragic 2011 death of Nubia Barahona, whose starved, tortured and murdered body led to state hearings and changes in law.

The three-year-old case has yet to be reviewed by the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee, which catalogs child deaths, the Herald reports. The committee has become so concerned about missing cases and delays that it has written to the agency about it.

DCF’s interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, said the backlog is not a cover-up for failure, the Herald says.

Changes to state policies may have played a part in some of the missing deaths. For example, a baby smothered in bed would not be counted now unless the state finds “a willful act of neglect” to be verified, the Herald found.

Jacobo told legislators in Tallahassee last week that the state’s oversight is inconsistent from county to county, with deaths and policies about abuse and neglect being interpreted differently, the Heraldreports. Thus, Miami-Dade ends up with fewer such deaths than some counties with smaller populations.

Lawmakers who want to revamp state policies to protect children may benefit by looking at what happened in Alabama after a federal court ordered a change, the Herald reports.  Changes being considered by Florida include:

  • Make children’s safety the primary goal, with the rights of parents secondary.
  • Increase authority of abuse investigators so that they can file court petitions for children at high risk and improve the legal child welfare system in other ways.
  • Check up on parents' promises rather than take them at their word when they say they'll get help with drugs, kick out a boyfriend, etc.
  • Improve local child welfare advisory boards, some of which are inactive.

Originally founded in December 2006 as an independent grassroots publication dedicated to coverage of health issues in Florida, Health News Florida was acquired by WUSF Public Media in September 2012.