South Florida Democrats fired a stinging rebuke at Gov. Rick Scott (R) Thursday, holding him responsible for the deaths of 40 children who were known to state child welfare workers when they died during the first half of 2013.
"Clearly, your idealogical agenda of smaller government and less regulation doesn't always neatly fit with the priority of child protection, which has resulted in heartbreaking outcomes for too many Florida children," wrote Rep. Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale), leader of the House Democratic Caucus.
Later, Thurston appeared at a press conference with Rep. Elaine Schwartz (D-Hollywood) and Barbara Watson (D-Miami Gardens) to lambast Scott over DCF's failures. The trio held Christmas presents that symbolized children who died on DCF's watch this year, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, and spoke specifically of three children whose controversial cases were the subject of brutal investigative reports by the Miami Herald:
- Two-year-old Ezra Raphael was whipped to death with a belt several months after being returned to his mother, a North Miami Beach prostitute and drug user. According to a Miami Herald report, though the caseworker had labeled the boy at "high" risk, she closed the case and did not prevent the boy being taken from his caregiver's home by his mother.
- Three-year-old Michael McMullen died at his grandmother's house after being wrapped and tied in a blanket during a bizarre and cruel punishment. Child welfare workers had placed him in the home, according to the Herald, then left him and his siblings there despite "red flag" reports the children were sleeping in animal crates, had bruises, were living in the presence of their abusive stepfather, and were possibly being drugged.
- Twelve-year-old Tamiyah Audain, a disabled and autistic Lauderhill girl, lost half her body weight but remained in the care of an aunt before dying in the woman's roach-filled home of suspected starvation, her 50-pound body covered in sores including one so deep a bone was exposed. The Herald reports a private agency paid by the state failed to complete a background check and paid little attention to the case despite pleas for help from medical professionals and the aunt herself.
The cluster of deaths came after Scott said that budget cuts to DCF were necessary in order for him to grow jobs in Florida and the agency would have to make do with less.
They also prompted the eventual resignation of DCF Secretary David Wilkins, a Scott appointee in whom the governor expressed confidence even after the Herald stories ran. "I think Secretary Wilkins is doing a very good job," Scott said a month before Wilkins stepped down.
A scathing commissioned evaluation of the state released last month by the non-profit Casey Family Prgrams examined 40 total child deaths, but noted they represented just "slightly more than a third of reports of child fatalities possibly related to child maltreatment" that DCF had received from January to July 2013.
The deaths included cases of asphyxia, drowning, physical abuse, shootings, and a drug overdose. "No safety plans were developed in a number of these cases. Completed safety plans were usually not adequate to control safety threats to children in that they were inadequately resourced and highly dependent on parents’ promises. In most cases, [investigators] did not follow up on safety plans to assess their effectiveness," the report found.
Thurston, who is running for Florida attorney general against a former DCF secretary under Charlie Crist, wrote to Scott that many of the system failures noted in the report are linked to "diminished resources."
"...In light of these recommendations, it would be patently reckless to consider further budget cuts to DCF -- and it is time to invest in the needs and priorities of our most vulnerable residents," he wrote, adding that "as long as you are governor, they are your responsibility."
The Sun Sentinel reports the state was "muted" in its response: "We are prioritizing spending on critical services as we craft the budget, and vital child protective services will not be reduced," said an e-mailed statement from deputy press secretary John Tupps.