An advocacy group on Wednesday called for the Florida Department of Children and Families to relinquish its oversight of child-protective services to local law enforcement or other agencies following last month’s mass murder-suicide involving six children in Gilchrist County.
Roy Miller, spokesman for the Children’s Lobby, said the murders amounted to the last straw in the department’s response to a series of child deaths stretching back many years.
“Why is DCF continuing to do the direct oversight of child-welfare services when they have a three-decade history of not doing it well?,” he asked. “We need a new model.”
Miller’s group was responding to a department report on Don Spirit, the Gilchrist County man who murdered his daughter and six grandchildren before committing suicide on Sept. 18.
Citing media reports, the group said the Department of Children and Families was warned last year that “Spirit, a convicted felon with a history of discharging a gun that resulted in the death of a child, should have no contact with his grandchildren. More damning, some of the grandchildren themselves, as recently as last year, told DCF workers they feared their grandfather. Yet, they were living with him at the time of their horrific deaths and the household composition was known to DCF.”
The Department of Children and Families released a preliminary report last week, saying it would increase staff training and take up other reforms in the wake of the murders. DCF did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday about Miller’s calls for change.
According to the department, the family had been involved in 18 child-protective investigations since 2006, with Spirit involved in six of the investigations and alleged to be the perpetrator in three. Investigators confirmed that Spirit had physically abused his then-pregnant daughter, Sarah, who became one of his murder victims and was the mother of the six dead children.
The Children’s Lobby said DCF did not enforce its own safety plans or take action after a verified report that Spirit physically injured one of his granddaughters in 2013.
The murders in the small community of Bell drew national attention and scrutiny about DCF’s prior involvement with the family. Both the department and the Gilchrist County Sheriff’s Office had visited the family’s home as recently as Sept. 2, but the preliminary report said a case note showed that the children were not “in imminent danger of illness or injury from abuse, neglect or abandonment.”
The department concluded that the rampage could not have been foreseen, calling the tragedy “an extreme outlier” — but Miller strongly disagrees.
“Clearly what we are doing isn’t working,” he said.
For nearly two years, the Department of Children and Families has been under fire for the most recent round of child deaths on its watch. Lawmakers responded with a sweeping reform measure and increased funding during the 2014 legislative session.
But although the department has been putting the reforms into place, the murders in Bell have brought a new hail of condemnation.
“While DCF issues one more report stating they will use this tragedy to do better, six murdered children who relied on DCF to protect them don’t get a do-over,” Miller said. “This report is not at all different from any number of previous DCF reports about children the state failed to protect.”
Now, Miller said, the Children’s Lobby will join forces with others critics of Florida’s child-welfare system who believe DCF should transfer the oversight of its protective services to local law enforcement agencies or other community partners, such as local governments, who can do the job better.
Currently, six Florida sheriffs’ offices oversee child-protection services in their counties — Broward, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Seminole — rather than the Department of Children and Families having the responsibility.
Many children’s advocates believe the sheriffs do a better job.
“DCF cannot and should not perform protective investigations,” said Cindy Lederman, a dependency court judge in Miami-Dade County. “DCF has consistently proven itself incapable of conducting comprehensive investigations. We need trained law enforcement officers to take over.”
In February 2010, the state’s Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability released a memorandum concluding that sheriff’s offices have advantages for conducting child-abuse investigations. The state office noted that “due to their law enforcement affiliation, child-abuse investigators working for sheriffs generally have greater access to training and specialists, as well as enhanced cooperation and community respect not always afforded to DCF investigators.”
But some sheriffs have been wary of the responsibility, if only due to the cost. The 2014 Legislature allocated $8.1 million for those sheriffs’ offices that conduct child protective investigations, along with $13.1 million for 191 new investigators at the department.
Nanette Schimpf, a spokeswoman for the Florida Sheriffs Association, said law enforcement officers generally accompany DCF child-protective investigators on cases “because it can be a dangerous job.”
But not all sheriffs choose to oversee the investigations. “It’s on a county-by-county basis,” Schimpf said.
–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida