Thursday, October 15, 2009

Child Homicide and Public Policy

There is very little one can say about the deeply appalling and grotesque facts behind the death-by-neglect of 18-month old Myleahya Woods of Pensacola. Although known facts are few and dribbling out only slowly, to its credit the Pensacola News Journal, so far, has given just about as much ink to this case as it did, earlier, to the more sensational Billings murders.

Good for the newspaper. Keep it up.

In an important respect the two cases strike us as worlds apart. In one case, there are no deeper public policy implications we can see. In the other, there is ample reason to conclude that the crime itself was enabled by a great many public officials, from the lowest county caseworker to the Governor of the State.

The Billings murders to all appearances were committed by a hapless gang of misfits, stumblebums, and rock-stupid crooks. The perpetrators relied on erroneous information about the loot; developed a criminal burglary plan hardly worthy of a third grader; incompetently reconnoitered the planned crime site; overlooked a number of video security cameras which later caught them on tape; made a dozen idiotic mistakes as they pulled off the heist -- not least of which is they stole the wrong safe; and then the parents were wantonly murdered for no apparent reason that would have advanced the dastardly criminal design.

Afterwards, these criminal geniuses tried to disguise the get-away vehicle by re-painting it from red to... red. That tells you just about everything you need to know about the murder case. Even Jimmy Breslin could not have invented a more incompetent bunch of thugs.

The Billings murders may make for sensational copy, but even if persistent rumors about a bigger conspiracy to assasinate Mr. Billings ultimately bear out, it's hard to find any larger lesson for public policy in this crime. Unless, that is, you are inclined to use the case as further evidence for an indictment of the local public school system for turning out people so stupid they don't even make good crooks.

The death of the infant child, Myleahya Woods, is another matter. To be sure, it also has what some may consider sensational aspects: six Jello cups left for three infant children with which to sustain themselves over three days; electricity cut-off, leaving the kids in the dark; the mystery of where the mother really was over that 3-day weekend; the near-death of Myleahya's twin sister; the trashy, over-grown yard and the cockroach-infested home, and so on, and on, in a litany of terribles that describes the very bottom of the poverty ladder.

More than that, however, the Woods case raises very serious questions of public policy that need -- indeed, practically shout out for -- wider and more intensive investigative reporting. The first clue for this was buried deep in the thirty-sixth paragraph of yesterday's news story by Thyrie Bland and Rebekah Allen:
The Department of Children and Families has visited the house in the past. There was a complaint of neglect filed concerning the boy, said Janice Thomas, circuit administrator for the Department of Children and Families.

Thomas could not provide details of the case, citing privacy laws. But she said the department did not recommend the child be removed from the house nor any court action.

There's been no follow-up on this tantalizing bit, yet. If there is to be any, it will take a truly skilled reporter to do it.

Do not suppose that this is the first time an Escambia County DCF worker has blown the investigation of a child abuse complaint. It happens far too much of the time. One of the more persistent, if least publicized, rumors about the Escambia County DCF office is that it is staffed by an over-abundance of incompetent, lazy, credulous, and stupid case workers and supervisors. Not every Escambia worker may fit that description, to be sure, but enough do that the local agency has earned a terrible reputation among both DCF caseworkers in neighboring counties and professionals who see them at work every day in Pensacola courtrooms.

Certainly, a part of the problem is the state agency itself. It is woefully underfunded, grossly understaffed, and almost always over-politicized. Over the years, an increasing crescendo of voices, statewide, has called out the agency for repeatedly neglecting dependent children, inappropriately placing them in life-threatening environments, and even losing track of dependent children entirely. Judges, lawyers, law enforcement officers, independent child development specialists, psychologists, social workers, parents, and even children themselves have complained of shoddy DCF investigations, inadequate follow-up, failure to provide promised support services, and chronic agency cover-ups of its own malfeasance.

In fact, state-wide Florida currently ranks 41st out of the 50 states in "child abuse fatalities per 100,000 children." There's plenty of blame for this to go round: the legislature that starves the agency, the agency that tolerates incompetent employees, judges that give agency recommendations excessive deference, lawyers who stay silent when they know the agency needs radical reform, and so on.

Getting at the evidence won't be easy, though. Typically, as in the case of Myleahya Woods, DCF pleads "privacy laws" whenever it declines to disclose the names of caseworkers who placed a child a risk or failed to identify and provide needed protective services. If there are any such laws that shield negligent caseworkers from public exposure, they need to be changed immediately. Given the proclivity of our state governors to paper over embarrassing DCF gaffes, how other than through public exposure will caseworkers and their supervisors be held accountable for shoddy work?

Locally, an even more delicate problem needs to be mentioned, however uncomfortable it may be. That problem is racial, although not in the way you may think. It is something mostly whispered about, and rarely discussed openly. But one very experienced lawyer we know who specializes in dependent child cases told us not long ago, "To be blunt, the problem in Escambia County DCF is that black supports black. If you quote me by name on that, I'll deny it."

What the lawyer meant is that the race of the child and its parent or guardian often determines how skeptical or forgiving -- that is, how credulous or critical -- an Escambia County DCF worker will be when confronted with a risky home environment for a dependent child. Caseworkers are more forgiving of same-race adult child caregivers and more critical of opposite-race caregivers. The child's welfare becomes secondary.

That's disgusting, if true. Race, of course, should play no role in any of this. Yet, the rumors persist and can be heard -- almost always "off the record" -- both locally and from other DCF or former DCF caseworkers in neighboring counties.

Doubtless, there is a myriad of other problems facing the local DCF office as well as the state DCF department. Some of them may help to satisfactorily explain why "the department did not recommend" that Myleahya Woods and her siblings "be removed from the house nor any court action" be taken before she died. Some may not.

The public, whose taxes pay for the DCF agency as well as for the politicians who oversee it, needs to know what those problems were so that they can be fixed and more children like Myleahya Woods don't die in the dark.

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