It sounds almost too cruel to be real. That the state of Florida would punish families reeling from domestic violence by whisking their children away into foster care, setting onerous conditions for their return, even handing custody off to the accused abusers.
But – as a team of USA Today reporters investigating Florida’s child welfare system discovered – the system is too often “stacked against women who are abused,” treating them as if they were at fault for being beaten into unconsciousness or trapped by poverty in an abusive relationship. Their children are traumatized, torn away from their mothers when they most need their comfort. And in case after case, the USA Today reporters documented a system dead set against reunification – even when records reflect that the children were never physically harmed.
The USA Today team uncovered 22 cases where victims were willing to be interviewed and provide court documents that would usually be hidden from public view. We suspect there are many, many more: Domestic violence was cited as the main reason in 25 percent of all cases where children were removed from their parents’ custody; using 2020 figures, that could translate into as many as 5,000 cases.
It’s important to note that, while all the cases USA Today was able to review involved mothers, it’s easy to see how fathers (who are far less likely to report domestic abuse, even when they sustain serious injuries) could be caught in the same trap and separated from children they never abused.
The potential for injustice doesn’t sink home until the stories of individual families are told. Leah Gunion told reporter Suzanne Hirt about a night when an ex-boyfriend came to her New Smyrna Beach apartment and attacked, beating and choking her into unconsciousness, inflicting internal injuries and leaving her with severe bruises, a black eye and a split lip. Her two sons – one toddler, one still nursing – were in the apartment as well. The morning after the attack, she was just settling her boys down when a woman wearing a shirt with the logo of the Florida Department of Children and Families knocked.
Like many of the women interviewed for the series, Gunion thought the investigator was there to offer help. Instead, incredibly, Gunion found herself accused of leaving her boys “unsupervised” while she lay unconscious on the floor. Gunion says she was told she could never be alone with her children, or they might be taken into foster care. It was weeks before the investigation was closed.
Women in other cases did lose custody – often over minor offenses that would never warrant removal in most circumstances. Some were penalized or threatened simply for expressing frustation that they were being investigated.
Some saw their children handed over to the man accused of abusing them.
In a prepared statement, DCF Secretary Chad Poppell was right to say that domestic violence and child abuse are often linked – and that the state has a duty to do whatever it must to keep children from being neglected and abused. But he should be aware of the national research showing how badly children suffer when they are separated from their parents – and be wholly committed to ensuring that doesn’t happen to parents who never abused or neglected their children. He criticised the USA Today team for basing its reports on a “handful of difficult cases.” The reality is that DCF has no idea how many cases similar to those 22 there are.
And that’s where the department should start – by pulling a random sample of child-abuse investigations that cite domestic violence as a leading cause and assigning an experienced team (preferably made up of people who don’t currently work for DCF) to review them. It should also look into allegations thassigned blame to victims of domestic violence and looked for any reason to take their children into foster care.
Finally, the state should also compare Florida’s system to that of other states like Alabama and Michigan, which focus on supporting and strengthening families after domestic violence.
Florida can’t justify inflicting further anguish on mothers and children already reeling from the trauma of domestic violence. DCF leaders, state lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis should take the USA Today investigation as an appeal to justice and call to action.
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