The vignettes are stark and the statistics grim, but the depth of a new Department of Children and Families website that tracks child deaths is falling short of some early expectations.


County by county the cases are described and will be updated at, telling of infants who died in their sleep, children who drowned and those dead because of abuse or neglect.

Whether the site encompasses enough information is being questioned by the senator who sponsored the bill that created it and who has raised the possibility that changes could be made in the language.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, said the intent of the bill was to have all deaths of children 18 and younger included on the site. In the existing bill, the deaths posted are those reported through the Florida Abuse Hotline, a system for use by individuals and others who suspect abuse or neglect in a child’s care.

However, that excludes cases such as the 14-year-old gunned down at a Jacksonville community center and a 16-year-old shot and killed a day earlier because no report was filed with the hotline. Cherish Perrywinkle, the 8-year-old abducted from her mother at a Wal-Mart and killed, also isn’t included.

Three siblings and a grandmother who died in mobile home fire are included, in part because of long involvement in their case by the child-protection agency.

“All child deaths should be reported to the hotline,” Sobel said. “The intent was never not to include all child deaths.”

Sobel said part of the purpose of the website was to uncover trends in child deaths and to do so would require all deaths be reported.

“Where else would they report it to a central agency,” she said. “We need clarifying language of intent.”

Michelle Glady, press secretary for the Department of Children and Families, said in an email that the hotline is intended only for cases in which there was an allegation that the incident resulted from an action of a parent or caregiver, not just that a death occurred.

She said in Cherish’s case, suspect Donald Smith was not a caregiver.

Sobel initially called for an investigation into the agency following Miami Herald reports that for a time the department stopped producing incident reports of child deaths. She said Gov. Rick Scott has assigned the inspector general of the department to look into that matter.

The website, she said, could provide a critical overview of child deaths.

“Hopefully, the data will help us look at trends,” she said.

For some child advocates, the website did more than the law required.

“It went beyond what we asked for,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First, a child advocacy group that pressed for changes patterned after a similar website in Arkansas.

The legislation required the age of the child, date of death, allegations of the cause, location, name of any agency that was involved in the child’s care and prior involvement with the child by the department.

In addition, the site includes prevention information that parents and others can use to avoid losing a child’s life.

By knowing how children are dying, communities can come face to face with any trends and seek solutions, Spudeas said. In Florida the leading causes of child fatality are unsafe sleep, drowning and trauma, according to the state.

She said the purpose is not to finger-point, but to see where there may be needs for action such as prevention campaigns.

“You can see areas where it is happening,” she said.

In Florida many services provided by the Department of Children and Families are handled by contractors under the reasoning that local communities know best how to handle local issues.

That tends to isolate those regions from other parts of the state where similar situations have been addressed or need attention.

“Tallahassee doesn’t know what happens in Polk County or Dade,” Spudeas said. “It opens up the information for everyone.”

Glady, the Department of Children and Families spokeswoman, said the site offers advice and assistance. Swimming lessons, ways to access child beds and even how to look for someone who will provide child care are topics on the site.

Primarily, she said, it is aimed at raising public awareness.

“We can kind of see where we need to reach out,” she said. “Where are the places in the community where we need more help.”

Dana Treen: (904) 359-4091