Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll told a Senate panel late last week that the state's child-protection system appears to have failed two Southwest Florida children whose bodies were found in recent days.
"In both these cases, there's no question we had system failure," Carroll told the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.
In the case of 2-month-old Chance Walsh, who was found buried in a stand of woods in North Port, Carroll said the department hadn't had contact with the baby, but had previously removed seven other children from Chance's father, Joseph Walsh.
In the case of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas, Manatee County authorities discovered she'd been missing for a year when they arrived to remove all five children from the home of Keishanna Thomas following a complaint that the woman had abused another child, a 12-year-old boy.
Carroll told lawmakers he'd sent what is known as a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to Bradenton to investigate the case. In Manatee County, the sheriff's office --- not DCF --- oversees child protective investigations. Authorities haven't verified that Janiya is the body found in a freezer, "but it is thought to be Janiya," Carroll said.
He added that Keishanna Thomas is being held on contempt of court charges for refusing to answer a judge's questions about Janiya's whereabouts. Family members who knew the child was missing alerted authorities after Thomas dropped off the locked freezer at a relative's home earlier this month.
As to the death of Chance Walsh, Carroll said, a call to a hotline warning of danger to the boy met the protocol to be accepted for investigation, but the hotline counselor thought it was hearsay.
"She didn't make the right call that day," he said. "Unfortunately, in our work, when you don't make the right call on any day, it can have tragic consequences."
The counselor had a criminal-justice degree and a year's experience, Carroll said. "We looked at her previous work history and she was doing a good job. …We've moved her to another part of the agency that doesn't involve child welfare," he said.
The DCF chief told senators he'd asked for a quality-assurance review of the state abuse hotline following the baby's death. He also said he had tightened the hotline protocol early this year, following the death of Phoebe Jonchuck, whose father was accused of dropping her from a bridge into Tampa Bay.
The senators praised Carroll for his candor.
"When there's the death of a baby, you want to blame somebody, and DCF is the easy target," state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said. "We can pass all the laws in the world, but the only way you can prevent 100 percent of deaths is if there's even a whisper of bad parenting, the state takes the kid, and I don't think we're ready for that kind of a police state."