JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
I'm Jennifer Ludden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Now we're going to discuss a disturbing new report that focuses on Florida's Department of Children and Families. Over the past 6 years, nearly 500 children died after being in contact with DCF according to the new Miami Herald investigative report "Innocents Lost." In all the cases, children were left in homes and returned to families who'd been accused and sometimes convicted of child abuse and neglect. Joining us now to discuss "Innocents Lost" is Audra Burch. She's the enterprise writer on the investigative team for this Miami Herald report. Audra, welcome.
AUDRA BURCH: Thank you for having me.
LUDDEN: Tell us what led to this investigation and how your team arrived at these numbers.
BURCH: Well, my colleague and I had been looking at child deaths and started to see some trends. And so back in 2011, we asked the DCF to give us every child death review in which there was prior contact with the family. And what we began to do is to enter this into a database, and the more we got, the more we put in. And we realized that the numbers were growing. We started thinking that we were going to end around 300, and as you see, we came up with about 477 children who died. And they are now part of our database.
LUDDEN: And that's died since 2008. How does that number compare to other states?
BURCH: One of the issues with child welfare in general is that every state measures differently, and they are all self-reported to the federal government. So there's no real one way to count. But one of the things we did look at is a series that had been written in Denver. And they had 72 child deaths that had the same criteria as we did. They have three times less children, and we had six times more deaths.
LUDDEN: I'd like to read just a bit from your story to give a sense of how disturbing these cases are. You are describing the deaths of some of these children. You write, quote, they tumbled into canals and drowned, baked in furnace-like cars, were soaked in corrosive chemicals, incinerated, beaten mercilessly and bounced off walls and concrete pavement. One was jammed into a cooler posthumously. Others were wrapped like a mummy to silence their cries, flattened by a truck, overdosed and starved. An infant boy was flung from a moving car on an interstate. A two-year-old girl was killed by her mom's pet python. Now these things are almost too gruesome to imagine. What cases stand out for you, Audra Burch?
BURCH: One in particular was Kyla Joy Hall. And in her case, when she was 8 weeks old, she was beaten. And she was left with a brain bleed and several fractures. And she healed in a medical foster home, and within months, she was returned to her home. And at that time, they did not know who had actually inflicted the assault on the baby. And yet, she was returned. And months after that, she was killed by her father. And when we looked at the records, it showed that she had been beaten with the force of a horse kick.
LUDDEN: And these cases where the families had been reported, sometimes multiple times, right?
BURCH: Correct. They're - you know, it runs the gambit. You have cases where, you know, the initial prior is not nearly as serious as what ends up happening to the child. But then you have cases that are on the other end of the spectrum in which there were multiple, multiple reports that indicated that, you know, in assessing it, you would think that the child was at risk.
LUDDEN: And you kind of looked at how the Department of Children and Families makes a decision on how and when to intervene. And what were their options in some of these cases?
BURCH: Well, the first thing that an investigator is charged with is of course trying to get the facts of the case. But then they have to do an assessment and that is, you know, deciding what is the amount of risk that is in the home if the child remains in the home. And they have a number of options. You could run the gambit from signing a safety plan in which the caretaker or the parent says they won't do whatever the infraction is or they can have the judge order protective services or, in the most severe cases, they can ask for the child to be sheltered.
LUDDEN: And in that process did you find that it works well?
BURCH: One of our findings was that the safety plans in particular were not effective and it's something that actually DCF agreed with, and that's one of the things that they're working on improving.
LUDDEN: This is where instead of ordering a parent to, say, have drug rehab, they just have the parent say I promise I'll do something, right?
BURCH: Correct. And what we found in too many of the cases there was not the meaningful follow-up or the monitoring to make sure that the services were going to be engaged, which is what you need. All of those services that we talk about - domestic violence counseling, anger management, substance abuse - those are the kinds of services that we know mitigate the risk to the child.
LUDDEN: Now you found some common threads as well in terms of trying to figure out what was going on. Tell us about that.
BURCH: Well, one of the most shocking and sort of disturbing things that we found was that the majority of the children were young. They were 5 and under. And in 70 percent of the cases, they were 2 and under. And here's what we know, is that at that age they can't ask for help. They're not - they don't have the capability to let you know that they are in danger.
LUDDEN: Within this agency, you write about how there was this tension between protecting children and really trying to keep families together. What does the agency say?
BURCH: Well, they embarked upon a philosophy called family preservation. And in and of itself it can be effective, but what we found here is that at the time they did it - roughly 10 years ago - they were also slashing the very services that you need to make sure that these families are safe.
LUDDEN: Looking ahead, what are state officials doing to address this problem?
BURCH: Well, in January, the governor committed roughly $40 million to Child Protective Services in his proposed budget. And in addition to that, they have outlined some of the reforms that they're trying to get accomplished, including making the safety plans far more verifiable. They're doing additional training and standardizing their investigative techniques. And in addition to that, the great hope of course is that even more money is given to the budget. This is an overwhelming problem and the caseworkers, the protective investigators, they have their hands full, they're strapped with a very, very strong task. They have to make life-and-death decisions. And so we need to make sure that they have all the tools available to them.
LUDDEN: Audra Burch is an enterprise writer on the investigative team for the "Innocents Lost" report published by the Miami Herald. She joined us from member station WLRN in Miami. Thank you so much.
BURCH: Thank you.
LUDDEN: We reached out to Florida's Department of Children and Families to respond to this report. Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo will be joining us for an interview next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.