Decrease Seen In Child Neglect Fatalities In Florida After Term Redefined

JACKSONVILLE (CBS Tampa) — The hope inspired by statistics that showed a dramatic decrease in the number of reported child deaths due to neglect or abuse was dashed when it was discovered that new policies were responsible for the change, rather than an overall upward trend in parenting techniques.

The Miami Herald is reporting that the state saw a 30 percent drop in child deaths caused by abuse and neglect – from 197 in 2009 to 136 in 2010. A perceived improvement in families previously dealing with the Department of Children & Families was also seen, with a 40 percent drop in those fatalities.

But the discrepancy was reportedly caused by a change in the way child deaths were documented, specifically in cases involving neglect.

The paper found that in 2010, the definitions of both “neglect” and “abuse” were altered and narrowed, resulting in a near-instantaneous decline.

The language defining abuse or neglect has been allegedly narrowed down to “a willful act by the [child’s] caregiver.” Previously, incidents such as pool drownings and smothering beneath a sleeping parent were also included under the state’s neglect and abuse laws, and accounted for a majority of the fatalities.

A few members of the Child Abuse Death Review Committee, overseen by the state’s Department of Health, took issue with the alteration. One doctor, Bruce McIntosh, called the practice “fatally flawed” in a 2010 memo found by the Herald.

“These … investigations are not intended to stigmatize families, but to identify families who may need services to prevent future tragedies involving other children,” McIntosh said in the memo, according to the Herald. “They are also essential for identifying epidemiologic risk factors that can be used for education and the prevention of other unintended deaths in the future.”

McIntosh is a pediatrician who leads the protection team for the Department of Health as well as working on the committee that reviews deaths.

David Wilkins, the DCF Secretary, told the paper that his agency has nothing to hide, and that they are aiming for increased transparency with those reviewing deaths.

Wilkins additionally told the Herald that governor Rick Scott’s Children’s Cabinet has been discussing the matter at length.

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