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Innocents Lost: The 477 Children Who Died On The State Of Florida's Watch

Emily Michot
Miami Herald

This story originally ran on March 17, 2014. This week, we'll dedicate an hour on-air during the Florida Roundup to the Innocents Lost investigation. Tune in Friday, March 28 at noon.

Last week, the Miami Herald launched a series on a history of failures at DCF -- Florida's Department of Children and Families. But these are failures with a body count: Over six years, nearly 500 children died after DCF had been warned, sometimes repeatedly, that they or their siblings could be in danger. There were many missed opportunities for the state to protect the children. 

Ashton Arnold died of an accidental drug overdose while in the care of her addicted mother. The grandmother, Stacey Molinelli, blames DCF.

"Had they done what they were supposed to do," she says, "this wouldn't have happened."

Little Torey Dymond of Davie was beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend. And another grandmother, Loretta Young, blames DCF.

"They were responsible. They could have prevented my grandson's death," Young said.

Joseph Gilkerson's drug-addled former fiancee, who had custody of their daughter, took up with a fellow drug user. They had an 8-foot pet python. The python escaped one night and killed the 2-year-old girl, Shaiunna Hare, in her crib. Gilkerson says he, too, blames DCF. "They knew that the snake was there. They could have stepped in and protected her."

In a series of reports that began last week, the Miami Herald documents the deaths of 477 children. They were beaten, starved, run over by cars, mauled by dogs, strangled by snakes and smothered as they slept with drunk or drugged parents. In every single case, DCF had been warned -- sometimes repeatedly, about safety issues in the homes. But, following a policy of family preservation laid down in laws and agency rules, DCF elected to leave them in the homes where they would ultimately die.

"You look at these death reviews. It's appalling! They're no-brainers!" said Miami Circuit Judge Jeri Cohen.

'You look at these death reviews. It's appalling! They're no-brainers!'

Cohen hears a lot of child-welfare cases. She thinks the quality of DCF personnel is a fundamental problem.

"We are sending people into these complex environments that don't have the training, the skills or the knowledge to make these complex decisions they need to make," Cohen said. "They are completely over their head."

Pending bills in the legislature would require higher skills and better training for DCF caseworkers. And Gov. Rick Scott says he's proposing to hire 400 additional investigators. But another basic problem remains: DCF has much more responsibility than authority. It can ask problem parents to take drug tests or sign agreements to improve their behavior. But acting DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo says it can only ask.

"Unless you take it to court, everything is voluntary. We have no ability to make anyone do anything unless the court orders them to do it.," Jacobo said.

And Judge Cohen says all of those parenting agreements and drug test orders would totally swamp the court system. But Stacy Molinelli says the alternative to that, in the case of her own family, was death for her granddaughter, Ashton, who had been living in the care of her addicted mother, Elizabeth Rydbom.

"Had they done their jobs, making sure that Elizabeth had taken the drug classes, making sure she had taken their parenting classes, then Ashton would have been taken out of her care, put back with us and she would have been safe," Molinelli said.

Jacobo says her hands are tied, to some extent, by state and federal laws that make family preservation a priority. She says DCF should get better at making the decisions about whether an endangered kid is removed from a problematic home or not. But she says Florida is not alone with its preference for keeping families.

"All child welfare systems have that as their tenet and the reasons behind that are several. One is, the trauma of removal many times is more traumatic than the abuse."

In any case, says Jacobo, judges decide -- not DCF -- whether to take children into state care or leave them with their parents at home.

See the Miami Herald's "Innocents Lost" series.

How can DCF improve? Are family preservation policies hurting DCF? Tell us your thoughts.