More than 5,000 Florida child protection staffers began training Monday under a new system that emphasizes safety and consistency and was implemented after the deaths of a handful of children who had recent contact with child protective officials.
Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins said the tool is not just another layer of paperwork bureaucracy. He said he was stunned when he took the reins of the agency in 2011 to learn after riding along with child investigators that basic, obvious safety questions weren't being asked during home visits.
There were no standard procedures for investigations, so each jurisdiction ended up doing it differently.
Investigators making home visits are shifting from just judging risk to a more streamlined assessment that looks at whether the child is safe or unsafe. They are being trained in some parts of the state now, but the model won't be implemented statewide until October.
"Will they still make mistakes, yes. It's still not fullproof," said Wilkins. "But if you're afraid that an investigator is not experienced enough or knowledgeable enough to ask the right questions, then that's exactly why you want this template."
Critics say the tool is a hybrid based on a successful model used in 16 other states and worry that it has not been properly tested. But Wilkins said it was tested in two pilot programs.
The new training comes less than two weeks after police found 2-year-old Ezra Raphael unconscious on the dining room of his Miami home. His mother's boyfriend, Claude Alexis, was charged with first-degree murder and child abuse after. An autopsy said the boy's death was a homicide from injuries to his back and body. The toddler was home alone with Alexis at the time, according to a DCF report.
DCF officials said the child's mother, Cierrah Raphael, left the boy with a caregiver in Gainesville in 2012 because she couldn't take care of him. Raphael, a former foster child, told the investigator she had turned to prostitution to try to make ends meet. In February, DCF asked the unnamed caregiver to call the hotline if the mother ever tried to get her child back.
But DCF said the caregiver never made that call and Ezra went back to his mom, who was charged with neglect after the boy's death.
According to the February DCF report, risk was high because the mother had lost custody of an older child and was deemed unfit. But that was mitigated because the child was with another adult. DCF closed its investigation saying there were no indicators of inadequate supervision or threatened harm and no action was taken.
"Every time we have a child die that's the ultimate failure of the system," said Wilkins, who said investigators didn't ask the right questions in Ezra's case. "That's an obvious case where the tool could have made a difference."
In another case, DCF fired an investigator in May after they said she forged documents about substance-abuse treatment for a mother months before her 11-month old baby died in a sweltering car.
Catalina Bruno is accused of leaving her son Bryan Osceola, along with her purse and a can of beer, in the car outside their Miami home. The boy had a 109-degree temperature when he was found. His mother was charged with aggravated manslaughter. But DCF was involved with the family six months before the boy's death after 30-year-old Bruno was accused of driving recklessly, hit several walls before she passed out with the engine still running with the baby lying in her lap. The car reeked of alcohol, according to documents released by DCF.
The investigator was supposed to contact a drug treatment expert to evaluate the mother to determine whether Bruno's children were safe to remain there, but DCF said the investigator falsified those records and Bryan remained in Bruno's care.
Police are also investigating the recent deaths of two other children.
On June 10, 4-year-old Antwan Hope was found dead during an unsupervised weekend visit with his mother, who had lost custody of the boy. ChildNet, the South Florida agency that contracts with DCF, was in the process of reuniting the child with his mother. An email sent to ChildNet was not immediately returned Monday.
And in southwest Florida, authorities are investigating the death of 1-and- 1/2-year-old Fernando Barahona, who was found unresponsive in his crib in June. Two weeks before Barahona's death, DCF was called after the boy was taken to the hospital with fractures to his skull and back. His mother and boyfriend said he was knocked over by a dog, according to DCF records.
DCF can't legally comment on cases where abuse and neglect have not been confirmed and stressed the deaths were under investigation.
Miami Judge Jeri Beth Cohen said Raphael, Barahona and Osceola's deaths "were all very preventable" and lamented that the agency continues to make the same mistakes. The embroiled agency made national headlines nearly a decade ago when a caseworker lied about visiting foster child Rilya Wilson for more than a year, even though she was filing reports and telling judges the girl was fine. The girl is presumed dead.
"It's the lack of training, the lack of accountability, the lack of supervision, the lack of diligence, the inability to read red flags, to work smartly," said Cohen. "It just goes up the chain of command and when you have every level shirking their responsibility you're going to get tragedy."