Stonewalling by agency heads and private corporations caring for Florida’s most vulnerable children is raising serious questions about transparency in the aftermath of violent sexual abuse of a girl at Miami Girls Academy, regulated by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, and the brutal death of a Jacksonville child in kinship care, regulated by the Florida Department of Children & Families.

Appearing to Hide Behind Confidentiality

The questionable application of confidentiality guidelines raises suspicion, as well as magnifies the serious problems caused when expansive private corporations have no real ties to the state or voices of local citizens at their table.

In Miami, the Miami Girls Academy, a residential juvenile justice program, was operated by a for-profit enterprise: TrueCore Behavioral Solutions. This program had been moved after problems emerged in another county. The corporation operates in several Florida settings without a local board of directors or local advisory board. There’s virtually no way for the citizens in any of those communities to understand the services being provided or to share in any oversight capacity.

Upon hearing rumors that the facility had closed, The Children’s Campaign contacted the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) for answers. Specifically, we wanted to know if there were other victims, did any of them receive trauma related psychological services, the results of their investigation into the incident, and where the girls were placed. We had heard some had returned to detention centers awaiting their next destination, a horrible situation.

While DJJ admitted in an email that the Miami Girls Academy was recently closed for “convenience reasons”, our other questions remained unanswered for those pesky “confidentiality” reasons.

Lack of Florida Citizen Oversight

In Jacksonville, four-year old James Reese was reportedly beaten to death just three months after being placed in a kinship placement with relatives, one of whom was required to register as a sex offender. Family Support Services of North Florida is the lead community-based care child welfare agency in the Jacksonville area, and National Youth Advocate Program (NYAP) was identified as the contractor that handled the placement.

NYAP is headquartered in Ohio, with eight offices in Florida. On its website, NYAP lists no Florida board members and, according to the NYAP attorney we contacted, there are no local advisory boards for any of its Florida locations. While Family Support Services lists its board members on its website, it doesn’t provide biographical information or even photos. Emails to their CEO went unanswered.

The NYAP contract was controversial when first entered into during the fall of 2019.  It replaced a long-standing contract with Children’s Home Society, which has a long history of service to Jacksonville’s children, and robust community oversight at the governance level.

Sadly, James Reese’s death does not fall under the narrow definition that would require DCF to conduct a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team (CIRRT) investigation into his death. It could shed light on further system improvements to keep kids safe – and is a missed opportunity. The more information that is uncovered when children die under such circumstances, the better the system can prevent such needless serious injuries and deaths from happening.

Currently, Florida statutes don’t require CIRRT investigations into child deaths unless the family had a VERIFIED abuse allegation in the 12 preceding months. Child deaths appear to be falling through the cracks of receiving the scrutiny needed to keep kids safe while in state care. On DCF’s child fatalities website, there have been four other child deaths in Florida in just the last 6 months that didn’t qualify for an in-depth CIRRT investigation.

James Reese’s Death Needs CIRRT Investigation

James Reese Jr. GoFundMe/Garcia Family

We encourage DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris to use her authority to summon a CIRRT investigation into James Reese’s death, as well as the other deaths of children in recent months.

As Florida has recently been the subject of national media scrutiny for the abuse of children in out-of-home care, as profiled in the series of articles in USA Today, it is more important than ever that in-depth data is gathered on these tragic incidents to help keep children entering Florida’s child welfare system safer. It is also abundantly clear that a range of contacts and services to children who were in those homes when abuse took place be identified and provided.

“It’s as if Florida is turning a blind eye on its own children, assuming they are well taken care of, and ignoring the principles of local governance, citizen engagement, and oversight and accountability,” said long-time child advocate Roy Miller, president of The Children’s Campaign headquartered in Tallahassee. “For community-based care to rise up to the level envisioned and required for quality, neither the Department of Juvenile Justice or Department of Children and Families can manage from afar without local citizens being directly involved.”

An explicit connection exists between transparency and public accountability. These tragedies should be used as a pathway to a better system for other vulnerable children. Both DCF and DJJ should actively search for ways to bring more Florida citizen oversight into their systems that in many ways remain so closed to outside scrutiny that problems escape public notice until tragedy strikes.

Without a firmer path to accountability, Florida is risking leaving children at the mercy of their abusers. The walls of secrecy that remain must be torn down.    

 

 

 

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This Top Story is brought to you by Roy Miller and Karen Bonsignori

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