If ever an agency needed limitless oversight, it’s the Department of Children and Families

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If an agency is under fire for failing to live up to its statutory responsibility, it can respond in one of two ways. It can take immediate steps to fix the problem and swing the doors wide to public oversight to make sure it won’t happen again.

Or it can do what the Florida Department of Children and Families did as evidenced by the Miami Herald’s front page Friday. That is, make it exponentially harder to check up on the agency’s performance.

The Herald’s front-page graphic makes the point eloquently. On the left is a document the Herald reviewed last year. It and hundreds like it allowed Herald reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch to disclose that 477 innocent Florida children died of abuse or neglect since 2008 — all under the scrutiny of DCF. The document contained a few minor redactions.

On the right is the same report asked for a year later. The entire document is blacked out. Not a single word escapes the censor’s black ink.

The Herald’s “Innocents Lost” series was three years in the making and, even with access to the reports, digging out the truth was time consuming and difficult. But the payoff was a series whose facts were unchallenged and that won immediate promises of reform.

Transparency would be one of the key components of that reform, said DCF chief Esther Jacobo. That was when the agency’s failure was so well documented that it had no choice but to accept blame and pledge openness. But even as it took the pledge it was working to hamper potential critics in their effort to provide oversight.

Both by internal policy and by legislative action the agency is fighting to shroud its activity in secret. Massive redaction of critical documents is one tool. Delay in responding to record requests is another. Flat out refusal to surrender documents is yet another.

Bureaucratic stonewalling is nothing new, of course. Self-preservation is imbedded in the DNA of most governmental organizations. And the best tactic to achieve it is to keep your potential critics in the dark. They can’t hurt you if they don’t know what you’re doing, they reason.

None of this obfuscation and wagon-circling behavior is surprising to anyone who routinely tries to check on bureaucratic inaction. What’s shocking about the DCF behavior is its cynicism. The agency pays lip service to transparency while it cuts off access. It justifies its behavior out of “sensitivity” to the child. The very child killed by the agency’s mismanagement.

Responding to Herald inquiries on DCF’s records policy a spokesperson said: “In many cases explicit detail regarding siblings is included in (reports). As the law instructs, the department will always err on protecting those children from further harm that can result from public disclosure.”

Harm from public disclosure? Is that greater than harm by a drug addicted parent? By being beaten to death by a drunken boyfriend? By gross neglect? By the kind of harm that killed 477 children?

Only by the Alice-in-Wonderland logic of the DCF would that be an acceptable tradeoff. If ever an agency needed limitless oversight it is this one. The Herald graphic says it all. What does DCF think the public has a right to know?

Nothing.

Doug Clifton is the former executive editor of The Miami Herald and the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Fort Lauderdale. Column courtesy of Context Florida.