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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) —  During the gubernatorial debate Wednesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott said child protection has improved  under his watch especially compared to that of his opponent former Governor Charlie Crist.

“The number of child deaths has come down since Charlie was governor,” Scott said Wednesday night. “It’s not zero. I wish it was zero.”

And before the debate was over, the governor’s campaign had sent out an email stating that Scott had increased the budget for child protection each year he’d been in office, leading to a 14 percent drop in child deaths caused by maltreatment from 2010 to 2013.

“Crist cut over $5 million from child protection funding,” the email said. “As a result, child fatalities due to abuse or neglect rose every year Charlie Crist was in office.”

But many Crist allies, including former Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon, dispute Scott’s statements.

“It’s regrettable that this is now political fodder,” said Sheldon, who is the Democratic nominee this year for attorney general. “I think child fatalities went up and down under Governor Crist. They’ve gone up and down under Governor Scott.”

While Crist was in office, agencies across state government faced budget cuts because the recession drove down tax collections. Sheldon said he and Bob Butterworth, Crist’s first DCF secretary, made a commitment that although the department’s budget had to be cut, “frontline staff were to be held harmless. …We did not reduce the number of child-protective investigators. We took the cuts that we had to take out of administration.”

Child protection has been a hot-button issue in Florida for years and has drawn heavy attention since a series of media reports in 2013 about child deaths. Those reports were among the factors that caused Scott’s former DCF secretary, David Wilkins, to resign in July 2013 — and led to lawmakers holding hearings and passing sweeping child-welfare reform legislation this spring.

“I think we did a whole lot better,” Crist, who served as governor from January 2007 to January 2011, told The News Service of Florida. “And the reason is a very, very different overall approach.”

The Scott campaign noted that the 2014 Legislature allocated $47 million in new funding for child welfare, including $18.5 million for child-protective investigators. That came in response to public outrage over the children’s deaths.

Critics argue that Wilkins cut positions that provided so-called “second-party review” of child-abuse investigations. They contend that reduced oversight, which contributed to child deaths.

Nonetheless, Scott said during a debate Friday that deaths among children with prior DCF involvement had dropped from 97 in 2009 to 36 in 2013.

Scott’s comments sparked an Associated Press story to the effect that the state had changed its criteria for concluding that a child death was caused by maltreatment. Among other things, AP reported that child-welfare officials no longer count child drownings or deaths caused by sleeping parents rolling over onto toddlers.

DCF refuted the story Wednesday, saying that when “a child dies of abuse of neglect, the fatality is verified. DCF has never stopped verifying fatalities due to drowning and unsafe sleep.”

But that is a matter of contention in child-advocacy circles.

In June, a Miami-Dade County grand jury released a report on reforms implemented by Florida’s child welfare system in the wake of Nubia Barahona’s gruesome 2011 death in South Florida. The grand jury blasted DCF for its reporting of child fatalities, noting that the department in 2010 had 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 child-welfare reforms passed this year will expand the scope of the death reviews, but not as much as advocates had wanted.

While Scott has faced criticism for some of his statements about child protection, Sheldon gave him high marks for increasing the pay of child-protective investigators early in his term.

On the other side of the race, many advocates credit Crist, who was a Republican when elected governor but is now a Democrat, with tapping Butterworth and then Sheldon — both Democrats — to lead the department.

Crist pointed to those appointments as examples of the more open-minded approach he said is needed at DCF.

“Reaching across the aisle to solve problems for children, who aren’t Republicans or Democrats,” he said. “That’s the approach that we need to be taking, instead of an ideological approach.”

The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.

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