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Friday, Jul 20, 2018
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Editorial: Saving a child is more important than preserving a family

Life was neither long nor joyous for William Hendrickson IV. In the eight months he was given, his mother was jailed after a domestic violence call, the Department of Children and Families received multiple calls concerning his welfare, both parents failed drug tests and 911 was called 14 times from his home. The day before he died in his father's sweltering bedroom in a Largo mobile home, a social worker visited, a police officer showed up and a crisis hotline was called. The death of William Hendrickson IV was not just a tragedy, but a fundamental failure by the state of Florida to protect him.

This is not pointing an accusatory finger at anyone other than the person largely responsible, and that appears to be the child's father. Instead, this is a plea for the appropriate authorities to recognize that Florida's system for saving at-risk children needs to be streamlined, better funded and err more often on the side of caution.

This baby's horrific outcome, despite the many red flags, was not unique. An 11-month-old died in Palm Beach earlier this year after caseworkers placed him with a woman with 11 abuse allegations whom they mistakenly thought was a relative. A woman in Miami who had a disabled son removed from her care after she viciously beat him was allowed to keep twin siblings and later admitted throwing the body of one of them into a McDonald's dumpster. A Bradenton child once in protective custody had seven broken ribs, a skull fracture and other injuries when he died in November after being reunited with his mother and stepfather.

These are among the sickening examples of the more than 500 cases of children who have died while on DCF's radar since 2008, based on a Miami Herald investigation. Clearly, mistakes by case workers have contributed to some of these tragedies. But Florida also has a systemic problem that must be confronted.

Earlier this year, the federal Children and Family Services Review was critical of the funding levels for child services in Florida. There is tremendous turnover among DCF employees on the front lines, and that leads to too many inexperienced workers and case loads far too heavy to manage. And all of that can be traced back to the meager resources provided.

The state also has vacillated over the years between quickly removing children from potentially dangerous homes and striving to keep families together, depending on which solution seems more politically palatable at the time. This is not a strategy that should be in dispute. While it is preferable to keep families intact, that decision must be made on a case-by-case basis and not be influenced by some predetermined policy dictated by state legislators.

William Hendrickson IV should be alive today. There should be scrapbook photos waiting to be taken of him with his first birthday cake smeared on his face. From the number of calls and visits to that home, it should have been abundantly clear that the child's health and welfare were at risk. While courts may ultimately have to make the call in some of these cases, police and social workers on the scene should have the ability to operate under this simple mandate: If that was my child, what would I do?

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