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5 child deaths reveal turmoil at Florida Department of Children and Families

6:10 PM, Jul 24, 2013   |    comments
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The death of another toddler rocks the Florida Department of Children and Families and prompts a call for immediate changes at the troubled agency.

Two-year-old Jayden Villegas-Morales is the fifth Florida child to die since May after DCF looked at their cases, but decided not to intervene.

The father of Villegas-Morales is accused of killing the boy.

Now DCF faces tough questions about why it did not intervene in any of the five cases, especially when there was plenty of evidence they were in danger.

Critics say DCF is conducting incompetent child-welfare investigations that put kids at risk. A south Florida judge said DCF should turn over that responsibility to law enforcement or community groups.

Linda Alexionok of the Children's Campaign is calling on DCF to start using two-person investigative teams in South Florida for children under the age of five since all of the recent deaths happened there.

"We absolutely have to do everything we need to do. No more children need to lose their lives when they are entrusted with adults and entrusted with the community and the state to care for them."

Alexionok said the state can and should act immediately and implement two-person investigative teams in south Florida.

The Children's Campaign is also calling on Gov. Rick Scott to organize a roundtable discussion on Florida's child-welfare system: focus on what's working and what's not working to make sure children are safe from harm.

Alexionok said the series of child deaths should not prompt a knee-jerk reaction of system-wide changes at DCF. But they should spur a closer look at the responsibilities that the state performs best, and the functions that community groups or law enforcement might do better.

"Let's put the functions where they belong and where they can get the right outcome versus a perhaps knee-jerk reaction. So there's a role for DCF. There's a role for community-based care. There's a role for citizens. There's role for the advocates. There's a role for the service providers. There's a role for the elected officials. Let's make sure that we all, when we stay in our roles, that's where we'll bring a strong system of care for children."

DCF refused to be interviewed for this story. Instead, the agency issued this statement:

"We are deeply saddened and are mourning the death of Jayden. This is a complicated family situation and we are only beginning to examine what could have been done differently to change the tragic outcome of this case. DCF, Our Kids and Children's Home Society are now doing an in-depth, honest and difficult assessment of what happened and what gaps there may be in our system that will need to be filled in order to prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring in the future. Working together with our partners we will quickly address any issues uncovered by this assessment and work to improve the system. For Jayden and all children who are counting on us, the tough work we are doing now to understand the circumstances that led to this tragedy will save more children's lives in the future."

DCF is also dealing with the abrupt resignation of its leader David Wilkins. He stepped down last week as questions mounted about how the agency had responded before the earlier child deaths.

Plus, Wilkins had been waging an increasingly bitter fight with community-based groups over their services.

Dave Heller

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