Opinion: Autopsy reports must remain public to hold state's DCF accountable

Open government advocate Bobby Block writes that autopsy information ensures a responsible child welfare system.

A view of the old Capitol from the portico of the new Capitol in Tallahassee.

A view of the old Capitol from the portico of the new Capitol in Tallahassee. Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Currently under consideration by the Florida Legislature, a new bill (HB 273) would exempt autopsy reports for minor victims of domestic violence from public scrutiny. We acknowledge the grief and pain of Minde Reinhart and all parents who lose a child to abuse. But there is a compelling and important reason why autopsy reports of minors must remain public: They actually help protect children in the child protection system and permit public oversight of the Department of Children & Families’ efforts.

Let me tell you a story: On Dec. 13, 2018, a little boy, R.B., was born. During his mother’s pregnancy alone, there had been multiple reports to DCF’s abuse hotline alleging that the mother smoked marijuana with her older children, did not send the children to school, did not have running water and let her children go hungry. They were losing weight. Not long before R.B. entered the world, his eight siblings were removed from the home and sent to live with relatives or in foster care. R.B. was taken into state care at birth. Clues to the 1-year-old’s death – and whether DCF failed him – remain hidden.

R.B., a precious baby with big eyes, a round face and chubby cheeks, never made it to his second birthday. He had been reunited with his parents several months before his death. In their care, he suffered a fractured femur, a broken rib and multiple fractures to his skull, an initial autopsy report would reveal. R.B.’s last months were spent in agony.

Later, we would learn that R.B. was ruthlessly beaten by his parents. The day he died, R.B. was seizing and unresponsive. His mother refused to obtain medical treatment until it was too late. The last time his sister saw him days before his tragic death, she described him as tinier, throwing up his food, limp on the right side of his body, and propped up against a wall in a seated position. His eyes looked in different directions at the same time. R.B. died just two weeks after DCF supervision was terminated. His parents were soon charged with criminal neglect, which later was upgraded to homicide. The charges remain pending.

When a child dies as a result of abuse, abandonment or neglect, otherwise secret DCF records about children in state care are automatically opened. But when those records were requested in the wake of R.B.’s death, DCF refused to provide access. Unable to obtain records from DCF, a news coalition and the First Amendment Foundation sued DCF for access and ultimately prevailed.

The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s autopsy records provided initial critical pieces of the puzzle on how R.B. died and what he suffered in his short life. The Medical Examiner stated that R.B. died as a result of “Complications of Acute and Chronic Blunt Force Injuries” and that the contributory cause was “Parental Neglect, Withholding Appropriate Medical Care.” In a subsequent report, the Medical Examiner further classified the manner of death as “homicide,” stating that R.B. was “subjected to acute and chronic blunt for injuries for which his parents” failed to seek appropriate medical treatment.

The autopsy information alone served as proof that little R.B. was never safe with his parents and should never have been returned to their home. Autopsy reports are often central to understanding child domestic violence deaths. Autopsy reports only arise in the most extreme cases of abuse and violence where the public interest is at its highest: the death of a child. DCF involvement is routinely triggered by domestic violence situations, so HB 273 would insulate from swift public scrutiny information about child deaths in the most egregious circumstances.

A good cause provision in HB 273 is not a sufficient safety valve. Timely reporting on tragic deaths like R.B.’s would be hampered by delayed access to autopsy reports while a costly and often lengthy battle to show “good cause” ensues. Wholesale exemption of autopsy records in the manner contemplated by the bill does not serve the interest of children under state supervision, like R.B. who die tragic deaths as a result of domestic violence. Nor would it protect siblings and other children at risk themselves. The legislation also would damage the public’s ability to scrutinize the care DCF provides to our most vulnerable.

For these reasons, the First Amendment Foundation opposes HB 273.

Bobby Block, formerly the managing & watchdog editor of the Florida Today newspaper, is executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in 1985 to safeguard free speech, free press, and open government in Florida. 

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