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Child neglect deaths: Can Florida’s count be trusted?

In 1964, a U.S. Supreme Court justice wrote that, while pornography may be difficult to define, “I know it when I see it.” Many might argue that the same can be said about domestic violence.

The abuse that one person may suffer at the hands of another can be dished out in many forms. Physical harm is what is perhaps most commonly understood to define domestic violence, but verbal or psychological abuse could be added to the definition, as well.  

Those who fear for their safety have the means under Florida law to get special levels of protection from the courts through either a temporary injunction or a restraining order. A request for that kind of help doesn’t depend on a long history of such activity. It can be sought after one instance of violence.

Some might attempt to argue, at least where children are concerned, that there is a clear difference between domestic violence and what might be considered simple negligence on the part of a parent or a caregiver. But it becomes hard to make such a distinction when there is evidence of recurring negligent behavior and a child winds up dead.

The divide on this subject has been placed in stark relief in the past year by a Miami Herald investigation that looked at every death in the past six years of a child in the state from families with child welfare histories. What it concludes is that the state’s Department of Children & Families is, at the very least, inept in fulfilling its mission of protecting children in at-risk home environments.

At worst, the paper suggests that DCF officials have purposely adopted methods of counting deaths in families with histories of child welfare issues in order to show that the numbers are declining.

DCF officials deny the accusation, but it seems apparent that the system in place allows for great differences in interpretation about what conditions deserve intervention. The result seems to be that deaths due to clear child neglect are being undercounted.

One example offered contrasts Broward and Miami-Dade counties. In 2008, records for Broward counted 51 child deaths in families with DCF histories. Meanwhile, Miami-Dade, which has 30 percent more children, recorded just 25 such deaths.

It begs the question: Is there a point at which negligence constitutes abuse worthy of court protection?

Source: Miami Herald, “Florida’s undercount of child abuse deaths,” Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, March 22, 2014