TALLAHASSEE — As Florida’s wide-ranging new child welfare law takes effect, with more emphasis on reporting child deaths, the panel charged with reviewing those reports is undergoing changes.
The state Child Abuse Death Review Committee, which plays a key role in preventing fatalities from child maltreatment, is now required under the law to “review the facts and circumstances of all deaths of children from birth through age 18 which occur in this state and are reported to the central abuse hotline of the Department of Children and Families.”
The law, which went into effect July 1, came after a series of media reports about child deaths due to abuse and neglect. It expands the scope of the state’s annual review of child fatalities — but not as much as many experts recommend.
“Florida has what we consider to be the most restricted criteria in the country in terms of what they review,” said Teri Covington, executive director of the Michigan-based National Center for Child Death Review Policy and Practice. “And it’s been that way forever.”
It’s not for lack of trying. Since its first report, in 2000, the Child Abuse Death Review Committee has recommended that the state expand its process to review all child deaths, not only those verified by the Department of Children and Families.
“Identifying the causes of and developing strategies to reduce avoidable child deaths is the essence of prevention,” the committee noted in its 2013 annual report. “Regrettably, the state of Florida has not made much progress in accomplishing this goal.”
“When you open it up to allowing reviews of more deaths, you’re going to find more child-abuse cases,” Covington said. “But you’re also going to find more prevention strategies that you can identify in all cases.”
For example, the two biggest causes of child deaths in Florida are drowning and what are called “co-sleeping” deaths, in which infants suffocate while sleeping with adults. On the state and national levels, public education campaigns to prevent drowning and co-sleeping deaths grew from the work of death-review panels like Florida’s.
But critics say the expanded reporting in the new law doesn’t go far enough to prevent child deaths.
The law’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said last week she would sponsor a measure in the next legislative session to expand the reporting to include all child fatalities.
Her remarks came as the Child Abuse Death Review Committee held a July 31 conference call to discuss the new law.
The committee was established in 1999 and is housed at the Department of Health. Surgeon General John Armstrong, who serves as secretary of the department, appoints the members for staggered two-year terms. They include medical, legal, law-enforcement and social-services experts.
But the panel has lost many of its most experienced — and passionate — members, who were not reappointed over the past two years.
For instance, Armstrong did not reappoint then-committee chairman Terry Thomas of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Thomas, who trains police officers in how to conduct child-abuse investigations, had served on the committee since its first year. Armstrong also did not re-appoint Maj. Connie Shingledecker of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, one of six sheriff’s offices in Florida that conduct their own child protective investigations; she had served on the committee since 2002. Also cycled off were Pam Graham, associate professor of social work at Florida State University, and forensic pathologist Barbara Wolf, the committee’s incoming chair.
All four were known for pushing the state to report all child deaths. None would comment.
Covington called their departures a loss of institutional memory for the state.
“A lot of those people have been involved at the national level in our work for a very long time,” she said. “I regret we will be losing their perspective at the national level.”