Startling find in Jacksonville's DCF child death investigations

I-TEAM examined 227 death investigations from 8-year span

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter , Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects , Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Nearly half of the 227 cases of child deaths in Duval County investigated by the Florida Department of Children and Families between 2009 and 2016 involved families already known to DCF investigators, an I-TEAM analysis of data found.

Those in charge of local child protection organizations were unaware the number was that high until shown the analysis by News4Jax.  The startling discovery by the I-TEAM has led to questions about staff experience and oversight within Florida’s child welfare system.

I-TEAM: Startling find in Jacksonville's DCF child death investigations

A privatized system

Florida privatized its child welfare system under then-Gov. Jeb Bush. The Department of Children and Families contracts with different lead agencies -- mostly nonprofits -- in different parts of the state, broken down by judicial circuits. The goal of that process is to have smaller organizations handle child welfare, in each individual community.

Family Support Services of North Florida is the lead agency for child welfare in Duval and Nassau Counties.

In Jacksonville, Family Support Services contracts with four other nonprofits to handle case management for children in troubled homes. Those organizations -- Children's Home Society, Daniel, Jewish Family and Community Services and Neighbor to Family -- also do other work beyond case management.

Lee Kaywork has been the CEO of FSS for eight years. The nonprofit annually oversees the cases of about 1,500-2,000 children who are victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment, largely due to domestic violence, substance abuse or mental health issues.  But the I-TEAM learned that Family Support Services doesn’t actually oversee any individual case involving abuse or neglect.

“I think we’re one of the best in the state,” Kaywork said when asked how child welfare in Jacksonville compares with communities across the state.

Kaywork told the I-TEAM he was confident that his case managers here have enough experience to make critical decisions about the children’s future.

“I'm confident once the child is in care, the safety of the child is being taken care of,” Kaywork said.

Taking a closer look at investigations

The harsh reality uncovered by the I-TEAM is that sometimes those families known to DCF and Family Support Services still end up having children die.

Statistics on the DCF’s website show that 48 percent of child deaths the agency investigated in Duval County over the last five years were in families known to the agency. That percentage was higher than the percentages in jurisdictions with large cities, including Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

“I don’t know that for a fact, but I’ll believe you for the moment,” Kaywork responded when asked about the comparison. “I don't know the detail behind the number.” Kaywork added, “I think that, in most cases, those are going to be investigations that never reached us at Family Support Services.”

The I-TEAM discovered that not to be the case.

In 2015, DCF began deploying a new oversight team -- the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team -- to investigate child fatalities in families that are already known to the state system.  One goal of the team was to figure out how to make improvements. A review of reports from the team’s first year found that Duval County had six CIRRT investigations – more than any other county in the state.

A review of the case of a 6-month-old girl found her death to be sleep-related, but investigators still found issues within the case. One finding cited “high turnover and lack of available staff.”  One child protective investigator also stated he felt he “lacked experience to handle complex cases.” 

The report also found “safety plans were not sufficient” to manage dangers.

In another case investigated by the CIRRT, a 3-month-old girl died after co-sleeping with her mother. The family had been investigated by DCF prior to the girl’s death. 

In this case, the report found “investigations lacked a thorough assessment of the family situation,” and that the “region’s workforce was inexperienced at all staffing levels.” The report went on to say that 57 percent of child protective investigators had less than one year of experience, and 80 percent having less than two years of experience.

In three of the six cases from 2015, Family Support Services was involved. FSS delegated out the case management of the families to some of the nonprofits under them.

“That’s an alarming number. I’m not going to make short sight of it,” Kaywork said when pressed. “That is an alarming number.”

The I-TEAM asked Kaywork how often Family Support Services examines its actions to see if a mistake was made in a child’s case.

“I don’t go to sleep at night without thinking of the children we are serving,” Kaywork said. “That’s our job.”

Kaywork acknowledged the system is not perfect.

“It’s a child welfare system. We are at the tail end of a lot of woes of our society,” Kaywork said.

In recent years another societal issue -- opioid addiction -- has had an effect on the child welfare system. 

Kaywork said the bulk of child removals from custody now are tied to opiate use, accounting for the case of 75 to 80 percent of the children taken from their homes. That’s up from 40 percent in the past.

Family Support Services, a fully accredited organization, has been the local lead agency for foster care, adoption, and family services since 2001. Kaywork explained their state-mandated goal is to reunify families, but the I-TEAM found that happens in less than half of their cases.

In 2013 and 2014, more children were adopted out than reunified. In 2015 and 2016 there were fewer adoptions, but still only 35 percent of families were reunified.

Kaywork said it’s a delicate and difficult balance.

“There is nothing more traumatic to a child than being removed from their parent,” Kaywork explained.  “Nothing. They will never recover from it.”

Thursday afternoon DCF responded to the I-TEAM analysis with a statement:

Child safety is the first priority of the Florida Department of Children and Families and our staff and partners are entrusted with a sacred mission to protect the vulnerable and aide family recovery and resiliency. Every case of suspected abuse or neglect called into the Florida Abuse Hotline is carefully evaluated based on statutory criteria to be accepted for investigation. Every child death, regardless of family situation or the community, is a devastating tragedy. DCF takes every child fatality very seriously and is absolutely committed to reducing preventable child deaths."

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