TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida is failing in its efforts to prevent child abuse deaths because welfare authorities aren't picking up warning signs in families at risk, according to a scathing new report released Tuesday.
The report reviewed the deaths of 40 children and concluded that welfare authorities who were involved with the families had overlooked danger signs like drug abuse or domestic violence. Most of the children who died were less than 5 years old.
Many families had been reported to child welfare agents within the last two or three years - some just days before the death. But too often, investigators focused on a specific allegation and didn't notice that the child's life may have been at risk, the report said.
"The overall thoroughness of the investigations leading up to the child's death is highly questionable," states the report prepared by Casey Family Programs.
The causes of death include suffocation, drowning and physical abuse. The most common cause was suffocation or asphyxia where most of the parents or caregivers had histories of drug abuse or tested positive for drugs following the child's death.
Interim Department of Children and Families Secretary Esther Jacobo, who ordered the review following a string of deaths, acknowledged there were "shortcomings" in how the state had protected children. She said the state was already taking steps to revamp how it evaluates if a child needs to be removed from its family.
But during a legislative hearing, she also defended the agency. While state law requires authorities to try to keep intact families, she said the department does not "keep children at home at all costs."
Jacobo maintained that better training was needed for investigators and supervisors to help them determine when to intervene.
"You are talking about 20 cases in thousands and thousands of cases where children are reunified and families thrive, where children are adopted and do very well and where we save children," Jacobo said.
Those responses, however, didn't totally satisfy state legislators who had summoned Jacobo to the Capitol. They wanted to know what needs to be done to prevent additional deaths.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said it was "outrageous" nearly 300 deaths had been reported to the state's child abuse hotline during the first half of the year. Many of those are under investigation.
Detert noted that the latest report was just one in a long line criticizing the state's child welfare efforts over the last three decades. She said that Florida needs to spend more money to bring in qualified social workers instead of hiring people with no experience and then training them once they join the agency.
Jacobo was asked repeatedly whether or not the agency planned to ask legislators for any additional money in 2014 to either hire more case workers or make other improvements.
She said yes, but did not have any specifics and said she working with the administration of Gov. Rick Scott on an answer. Scott recently pledged to cut state spending by an additional $100 million but Jacobo maintained her agency can cut in places outside its child welfare division.