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Scott's Child Abuse Deaths Claim Questioned

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

Republican Gov. Rick Scott repeatedly tells voters that abused and neglected children are safer under his leadership than when his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist was governor, but an Associated Press examination of that claim shows that campaign claim may be an exaggeration.

Scott says deaths among children who have come to the Department of Children and Families' attention have plummeted from 97 in 2009 to 36 last year, but child welfare experts say any drop is attributed to the way DCF responds to abuse reports and changes to what is considered a death caused by neglect or abuse. The result artificially reduces the number of child deaths compared to Crist's 2007-11 term.

"It's amazing how this works, isn't it? You just change how you do things and you can make it appear ... like things have improved," said Pam Graham, who was on the state's child abuse death review team until December and who is a professor at Florida State University's College of Social Work.

Three times during a debate last Friday, Scott said 97 children with a DCF history died of abuse in 2009. But the state's Child Abuse Death Review Team, which is independent of DCF and often highly critical of the agency, says only 69 children fell into that category that year. Scott's staff said the 97 figure came from a private company hired by DCF and the Scott administration that examined child deaths between 2007 and 2013. The administration says the company's analysis is based on updated data.

After the debate, Scott's campaign issued a release saying child abuse deaths have declined dramatically since he took office in 2011. But the governor and his team omitted a crucial point: Child welfare officials no longer count children who drown or infants and toddlers who die because a sleeping parent rolls onto them, saying there had to be a caregiver's willful act for the death to be considered abuse or neglect. The new standard meant many deaths weren't counted, even when there was evidence that parental drug use contributed.

The result made it appear there were fewer deaths. The change came under Crist but has affected the numbers since Scott took office.

The effect was immediate and the number of verified child abuse and neglect deaths dropped 30 percent under Crist, from 197 to 136 between 2009 and 2010, according to a tally by the state Department of Health.

In the three years since Scott took office, the figures dropped to 130, 129 and 112, according to state data. This includes verified abuse and neglect deaths where the family had no history with DCF.

Crist said Scott's use of the death figures to score political points is "unconscionable."

"These children aren't political pawns to be played with," Crist said in a telephone interview. "I don't think anybody would expect anyone in political office to utilize the fate of children under the care of an agency for political gain."

Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said the governor "has laid out a clear plan to protect Florida's children and keep our reforms at DCF moving forward," including additional supervision and risk detection methods. Amid growing scrutiny of DCF this year, Scott and the Republican-led Legislature overhauled the child welfare system, dedicating roughly $18.5 million to hire nearly 200 new investigators.

But it's difficult to say whether children have been safer under the Scott or Crist administration. DCF has had a troubled history for decades.

Graham believes it's misleading to say children are safer under Scott's leadership.

"When you look at the overall number of kids that die, it really hasn't gone down that much," she said.

Graham said DCF is screening out a higher percentage of calls to the state child abuse hotline under Scott, which means both fewer investigations and fewer deaths ultimately categorized as abuse.

Advocates are angry that child abuse deaths are being politicized, especially since several gruesome child deaths made national headlines on Scott's watch including a recent tragedy in Bell, Florida. Don Spirit fatally shot his six grandchildren and his daughter before killing himself. Records show DCF had been called 18 times to investigate the family over several years, both under Scott and Crist.

George Sheldon, who was Crist's DCF secretary, said he and his predecessor decided that more cases should be sent to the child death review team, including drowning and co-sleeping deaths. This year the Legislature mandated that the review team examine all suspicious deaths.

"To not see the broader picture is in essence just hiding the real problem, which is we could do more. If you're going to spend your time saying there were fewer deaths, then you're ignoring the bigger problem. New deaths are occurring," Graham said.