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Grand Jury Report Sparks Debate On DCF Reforms After Barahona Death

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A Miami-Dade grand jury on Tuesday released a report on reforms implemented by Florida’s child welfare system after the gruesome death of Nubia Barahona, whose adoptive parents are awaiting trial for her 2011 death.

The findings were mixed.

The report praised the Department of Children and Families for improvements to the state abuse hotline, the practices of child protective investigators and the information systems and databases used by department workers.

But the grand jury also excoriated DCF for its reporting of child deaths, noting, for instance, that the department in 2010 changed its definition of “neglect” in a way that made it apply to fewer children.

“The public does not have confidence in the accuracy of the number of child deaths reported,” grand jurors concluded. “Reported reductions in the total number of deaths may only be a consequence of changing the definitions of abuse and neglect.”

The grand jury was convened last year during a wave of media reports about the deaths of children known to the department. The panel issued an indictment against a defendant for first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse — beating his girlfriend’s two-year-old to death. The grand jury noted that the mother had already lost custody of an older child “due to her unfitness as a parent.”

That indictment in part prompted the panel to track the recommendations of the 2011 grand jury that blasted DCF over the death of Nubia Barahona and the near-death of her twin, Victor. Tuesday’s report was the result, but drew criticism for what it left out.

“It was a rehash,” Howard Talenfeld, president of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First, said of the grand jury report. “It was incomplete. Many of the folks knowledgeable about the problems weren’t subpoenaed as witnesses.”

The Miami Herald reported that Circuit Judges Rosa Figarola and Jeri B. Cohen, both of whom had testified before the previous grand jury, hadn’t been invited to testify before this one. Figarola and Cohen have both been critical of DCF in the past.

The report also further widened the gap between the DCF and the Herald, which has reported on a series of child deaths and on DCF errors in those cases.

DCF Interim Secretary Mike Carroll on Wednesday responded to the grand jury report with a letter to the grand jury, enumerating the department’s responses to its criticisms. The department also sent out a press release entitled, “Response to the Miami Herald’s Misrepresentation of the Miami-Dade Grand Jury Report.”

The release quoted the grand jurors, who had written, “We believe DCF and the Florida Legislature responded very well to many of the recommendations” from the earlier grand jury’s report.

The agency said the Herald’s coverage omitted grand jury findings that highlighted successful steps DCF has taken to respond to criticisms that followed Barahona’s death.

But longtime allies of the department say they’re concerned that the report and its repercussions will hamper the child-welfare system going forward.

“I don’t want to fault the department,” said former DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth, who was applauded for being forthcoming about the agency’s faults. “In my experience, it’s best not to take on the media unless you know you’re right.”

Jim Sewell, a retired assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who has worked on child-welfare issues, said in an email he was concerned that the standards of public accountability and transparency established under Butterworth “seem to have been forgotten by a few persons in positions of leadership in the agency. Hopefully, with the recommendations provided by this grand jury report and with Secretary Carroll’s strong leadership and vision, the public faith in the accuracy of DCF statistics and reports can be restored, perhaps in short order.”

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.

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