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State lawmakers pushing government secrecy bills in Tallahassee

There’s a Florida state agency whose mistakes are buried in child-size coffins.

If some legislators have their way, the reasons might stay buried too. We’re speaking primarily of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), which is supposed to protect children from abusive families and other untrustworthy caregivers.

In fairness, its successes don’t make the news. Its failures often do because they involve human tragedy and have happened far too many times.

In 2014, the Miami Herald’s extraordinary, prize-winning series “Innocents Lost,” told the stories of 477 children killed during the previous six years by their parents, drugs, and other forms of abuse. The article laid much blame on DCF’s policy of preserving families by putting fewer children into state care even when there were red flags of abuse.

More recently the Herald described how 22-month-old Rashid Bryant of Miami died in November 2020 after months of beatings by his parents and siblings. There had been 26 warnings to DCF’s child abuse hotline, the last coming after his death.

To uncover damning facts like those, the newspaper spent two years successfully suing DCF over its refusal to release the relevant documents. Autopsy reports obtained from the medical examiner were “integral” to winning the lawsuit, according to Carol Marbin Miller, one of the Herald’s reporters.

“Virtually every accountability story I’ve done involving DCF required access to autopsy information,” Miller explained in an email to FLCGA News.

If bills under consideration this legislative session in Tallahassee become law, those autopsy reports will be much more difficult, and in some cases impossible, to obtain, which would only further hinder public oversight of DCF and its tragic mistakes.

Senate Bill 404, sponsored by Sen. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville), and a companion House bill aim to exempt autopsy reports on child victims of domestic violence from public disclosure.

Both bills authorize a judge to release the documents only “upon a showing of good cause” that  disclosure is “necessary for the public evaluation of governmental performance.” Under the bills, parents not responsible for the deaths would be notified and given the opportunity to object to public disclosure.

It means that, if the bill passes, the Herald, and any other public watchdog, will have to spend time and money in court to try to obtain those crucial records with no assurance of success.

And the costs could be considerable. In the Rashid Bryant case, the judge awarded the media’s attorneys $376,665 for their efforts to uphold the existing public records law. The amount was actually less than was incurred by lawyers after DCF fought zealously to keep the details of baby Rashid’s death from public view.

As often happens, this potential erosion of Florida’s public records law has been prompted by a single anecdotal incident – a questionable basis for any legislation. The Senate’s staff report on the bill cites the tragedy of a May 2021 murder suicide in which a Gainesville man killed his two sons and himself, apparently in retaliation for an impending divorce.

The man’s widow tried unsuccessfully to prevent the media from describing her children’s injuries. As the staff report describes, “autopsy reports of minors whose deaths were related to acts of domestic violence may describe the deceased nude, bruised, bloodied, broken, with bullet or other wounds, cut open, dismembered, or decapitated.”

That is true, but those grisly details, in cases of child abuse, can be crucial in documenting the shortcomings of those responsible for protecting the victims. Practically speaking, most media will refrain, properly so, from gratuitously publishing such details in the first place. Access to autopsy  photographs are already restricted by similar legislation.

This unwise legislation is among more than 50 bills introduced in the current session to create or renew exemptions from the public records and open meeting laws.

The Florida Constitution requires all such bills to pass by a two-thirds vote in each house, but sponsors rarely have trouble getting that supermajority.

Some  of those bills would exempt all information revealing the home addresses of former judicial assistants, current and former city and county attorneys and current or former Armed services personnel without any showing of individual risk.

These would put an enormous number of people into the shadows without any apparent necessity.

And then there’s House Bill 397, by Rep. Kaylee Tuck (R-Lake Placid), who is a real estate and land use attorney. Her bill would allow local governments to meet in secret with their lawyers to discuss claims under a law passed in 1995 known as the Bert Harris Act.

Harris was the sponsoring legislator, a farmer by profession. His law, easily one of the worst ever enacted in Florida, entitles land owners to claim compensation for government regulations that prevent them from using their property as they wish. It has been a bonanza for lawyers, an obstacle to growth management, and has been used to intimidate local officials into decisions against their community’s best interests.

Among other things, it precipitated 12 years of litigation between the town of Ponce Inlet and developers who had sued over blocked plans to build townhomes, boat storage and a marina on a riverfront parcel.

The case was eventually settled – a victory for the town – with each side making no claim against the other for legal expenses. That meant the town had spent nearly $5.5 million in legal fees on account of the Bert Harris Act.

The Legislature should be repealing the Bert Harris Act. Instead it is looking to make it easier for developers to use it to extort questionable damages or obtain project approvals from local governments. Secrecy makes every wrong thing easier to accomplish.

About the author: Martin Dyckman retired in 2006 from the St. Petersburg Times, where he wrote primarily about government and politics for 46 years as a reporter, state capital bureau chief and editorial writer. He lives in Asheville, NC, where he continues to observe Florida politics and writes editorials on assignment from the South Florida Sun Sentinel.