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Friday, Oct 24, 2014
National Politics

Interim DCF chief begins investigation into child deaths


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Department of Children and Families Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo today ordered a complete review and analysis of recent cases in which children died from abuse or neglect after the department had been involved with their families.

"This analysis is the department's number-one priority, and I want you to deploy whatever resources are necessary to accomplish this as expeditiously as possible," Jacobo wrote in a memo to DCF Assistant Secretary Pete Digre.

Gov. Rick Scott tapped Jacobo to lead the agency last week, after four small children had died since May 16. A fifth toddler was taken off life support Sunday after allegedly being shaken by his father for vomiting.

Critics, noting that all the children had come to DCF's attention before their deaths, charged that the department should have done more to prevent their return to abusive or neglectful parents.

Jacobo also asked that each of the department's regional managing directors consider opportunities to work with law enforcement agencies "to strengthen our child protective investigation efforts."

She noted that Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman of the 11th Judicial Circuit Court, Juvenile Division, had suggested "that we explore models similar to those in place in Pinellas, Manatee, Seminole, Pasco, Broward and Hillsborough counties," where law enforcement agencies --- not the department --- conduct child protective investigations.

Lederman made the suggestion this week, noting that DCF's child protective investigators often failed to accurately reflect the parents' prior abusive or neglectful behavior.

Today, DCF also announced that it has entered into an agreement with the Children's Research Center at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. The center developed a risk-assessment tool that has been used in Miami-Dade to help child-welfare staffers make decisions about family safety.

The center withdrew from an earlier partnership with DCF last November, after discovering that the department was altering its risk-assessment tool. For instance, parents classified as high risk to their children by the center's model would have been classified as moderate risk by a DCF hybrid. That way, they would not have qualified for the same services.

Today, however, DCF released an agreement that included provisions for the staff of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency to review the department's policies, procedures and training to insure consistency with the council's risk-assessment model.

Jacobo became the interim secretary after former secretary David Wilkins resigned amid debate about the children's deaths.

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