Nearly 10 years ago, the Florida Department of Children and Families decided that the preservation of families was of utmost importance, even in cases of child abuse or neglect. DCF decided it could drastically reduce the number of children taken into protective custody.
Thus, many children who at one time would have been placed in foster care or a group home were instead left with parents who abused or neglected them or were mentally ill or addicted to drugs -- problems of which DCF was aware.
The philosophy that families must be preserved is based on the desire to preserve the child-parent bond and the sense that foster care has its own risks. Also, state and federal law say removing children from parents is a last resort and must be ordered by a judge.
But the state also saw it as a way to save money, according to a major investigation, "Innocents Lost," by the Miami Herald.
Family preservation works only if child-protection teams force parents to keep their promises of getting help and keep a close eye on the children. DCF, which had suffered funding cuts, did not do either, the Herald investigation concluded.
Reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra Burch spent more than a year examining thousands of pages of case histories on children who died since 2008 to see whether the children had had contact with child-welfare workers but had not been protected.
The Herald team found at least 477 deaths, far more than the agency had reported to the governor and legislature.
"Lawmakers could have committed more money to address the problem, had they known its full scope," the Herald reported. "Instead, they cut funding."
Gov. Rick Scott announced recently that his budget will provide a $40 million increase in funds for child protection. But according to the Herald, that will not make up for the funds that were cut this year alone, much less five of the past six years.
To get the story, the newspaper had to sue the state three times to get it to release records. The Herald also obtained some from negotiations with DCF and from confidential sources. A Herald IT expert built a database.
The Herald's "Innocents Lost" project includes profiles and photos of children who died, many from beatings. It includes videos and a list of resources for the public.
The Herald plans several more stories in the series.