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Grand jury accuses Florida agency of undercounting child deaths

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - A Miami grand jury has released a damning 30-page report criticizing the state's embattled child welfare agency for hiding the number of children who died following apparent accidents in homes where overloaded case workers knew of existing problems.

"We are at an utter loss to understand how those who labor in the field of child protection ... could intentionally and deliberately find that these deaths were not verified as acts of neglect," it said of instances where deaths weren't tallied.

State officials say the grand jury report, issued on Tuesday, does not require anyone to press charges.

"It carries a persuasive and visionary power but that's the full extent," Miami Dade Office the State Attorney spokesman Ed Griffith said on Wednesday.

In a letter to the grand jury released on Wednesday, Florida Department of Children and Families Interim Secretary Mike Carroll said he valued the "insight" of the report, noting that many of its recommendations are already being implemented.

The report follows a Miami Herald investigation that detailed the deaths of 478 children from families with problems ranging from drug use to co-sleeping, where infant children sleeping with parents were smothered.

Children ranged from as young as 11 weeks old to at least 9.

Two-month-old Cameron Bosch died in 2013 when his mother Kimberly suffocated him after taking a dose of methadone, used to wean opioid addicts off illicit and prescription narcotics.

Nine-month-old Aaliyah Siler died in October 2011 after her mother's boyfriend, 22-year-old Joseph Oliver, repeatedly dropped the infant on the floor.

The report found that the agency deliberately undercounted child deaths by requiring investigators to find that a parent intended to mistreat his or her child before classifying the deaths as due to "neglect."

Governor Rick Scott on Monday signed into law an overhaul of the department, infusing more than $40 million and mandating it to put child safety above parental wishes.

The report praised some changes made since a 2011 report, issued after 10-year-old Nubia Barahona was found dead, stuffed inside a black garbage bag and covered in chemicals in the flatbed of her adoptive father's pickup truck.

Changes included added training for child abuse hotline operators and a command center to fast-track investigations, the grand jury's report said.

Still, it called the $39,000 salary for child welfare investigators "outrageously low for the duties, responsibilities and demands placed on (them)."

(Editing by David Adams and Sandra Maler)

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