7 children in contact with DCF die since May

Interim secretary orders complete review of deaths

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Seven children who were in contact with the Florida Department of Children and Families have died since May.

The spike forced out one secretary, and now the new person in charge is searching for answers.

Last Thursday, 3-year-old Dakota Stiles became the seventh child under DCF supervision to die of abuse or neglect since May. The death prompted DCF Interim Secretary Ester Jacobo to order a complete review of the deaths.

"I'm not sure whether we could have prevented them, but what's disturbing is that I don't know that because there are things that we could have done better," Jacobo said in a phone interview.

Two weeks before Dakota's death, the family was investigated after the child was found wandering in a neighbor's yard. Investigators wrote the child's room was a pig sty, that an unkempt and exceptionally unsafe pool posed a significant risk of harm to the child. Still, DCF left the child in the home, where he drowned in the pool.

Across Florida, advocates for children are debating whether or not the child welfare agency needs a complete overhaul or just minor tweaking.

The agency is also moving forward with a changes in its own. It has a new way of evaluating families. The new program begins in October. The plan is supposed to consider the whole family and not just one or two incidents.

"The major difference in this model is that it requires a great deal of critical thinking, not only on the part of the investigator but also our supervisors and case managers," DCF administrator Traci Leavine said.

Abuse and neglect take dozens of lives in Florida each year.

New reports from the agency also show it had contact with the Cherish Perrywinkle family. Investigators said Cherish was kidnapped and killed by a known sex offender who had befriended her mother.