FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – About 200 children were fatally abused in Florida in 2008, a roughly 20 percent increase from 2007. Unemployment rates and drug use also increased in the state — a factor in many of the deaths, according to a preliminary report.
The number of kids fatally abused who had involvement with the state child welfare agency also increased 20 percent, the State Child Abuse Death Review Committee determined in a report obtained by The Associated Press. In 2008, 79 children were killed who had some type of involvement with the Department of Children and Families in the past five years, compared with 66 children who died in 2007.
"The numbers should be a call for careful scrutiny and accountability, especially when so many of the children were already known to the department or the hotline," said Andrea Moore, child advocate and Broward County attorney who represents foster children.
The investigation verified 198 child abuse deaths in 2008 and six deaths from previous years that weren't verified until 2008. That's an increase from 163 child deaths in 2007.
Florida has one of the highest per-capita rates of child deaths reported to the state abuse hotline in the country, partly because its figures count such events as car accidents, drownings and suicides, which aren't included in most other states.
Twelve of the children died while in foster care, the Department of Children and Families said. Eighty-six percent of the deaths could have been prevented by a state agency like DCF or a caretaker. Seven percent were not preventable, according to the report.
But DCF officials said most of the children came into state custody as a result of abuse or with a pre-existing illness that led to their death, not because they were abused while in state care.
"The more I know about child abuse and domestic violence the more convinced I am that the roots are in substance abuse and mental health," DCF Secretary George Sheldon told The Associated Press. The agency has begun focusing more resources on treating those problems in adults and educating caseworkers on recognizing the symptoms.
Experts say the sour economy also contributed to the problem. Florida's unemployment rate jumped from 4.1 percent to 6.2 percent in 2008, accounting for the loss of about 339,600 jobs.
Unemployed men between 18-30 who watch the children while the mother is at work are the most common abusers, according to the report. Crying, toilet training and feeding are the most common triggers of physical abuse in young children.
"The fact that many of these males are unattached, non-biological fathers contributes to their inability to cope with crying and they very often lack appropriate knowledge of child development and parenting skills," the report says.
Many of the men also have criminal records and histories of substance abuse and domestic violence.
Among the deaths was a 3-month old boy who was thrown out a car window by his mother's irate boyfriend in Tampa in May. Jasmine Bedwell told caseworkers Richard McTear Jr. beat her on two occasions and threatened to harm her son. DCF determined caseworkers didn't take the threats seriously because she promised to get an injunction against him.
Sheldon said he's troubled by an increase in the number of violent child deaths, especially shaken baby deaths. He gets an e-mail alert on his Blackberry every time there's a report of a child dying from abuse.
The number of traumatic injuries increased from 45 physical abuse deaths in 2007 to 59 deaths in 2008.
About 465 deaths were reported to the Florida Abuse Hotline in 2008. Of those, 201 were verified as child abuse or neglect, according to the report.
The report comes after a newspaper investigation showed thousands of calls to the hotline each month aren't forwarded for investigation. Agency records show DCF screened out allegations of physical or sexual abuse, medical neglect and inadequate supervision of very young children. Calls from judges, social workers, school counselors and hospital workers are among those that have gone without investigation, according to The Miami Herald.
DCF has said they would review referrals from the hotline to prevention workers within 24 hours among other changes.