Byline: Paul Pinkham, Times-Union staff writer
********** CORRECTION November 6, 2001
The rate of children abused and neglected in Florida's general population is 18.9 per 1,000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Because of a reporter's error, the rate was incorrect in a story on Page A-1 Sunday.
She was a millennium baby, arriving amid all the hopes and dreams a new century brings.
In reality, Latiana Nakia Hamilton never had a chance.
Born Feb. 2, 2000, into Jacksonville's dark underbelly of homelessness, domestic violence and crack cocaine, she was dropped into an overworked foster care system plagued by abuse, overcrowding and neglect.
Latiana was 17 months old when she was beaten and drowned in an Arlington bathtub in July. Barely old enough to walk. Not old enough to talk. And far too young to understand the implications of her death.
"The death of this toddler must be a wake-up call to the citizens of Florida about the dangerous conditions facing all children who enter foster care in our state. . . . Other tragedies like Latiana's death are waiting to happen throughout the state," said Deborah Schroth of Florida Legal Services' Jacksonville office.
Schroth is one of two dozen attorneys working on a proposed class action lawsuit filed last year on behalf of Florida children they say were mistreated in foster care.
Indeed, Florida's rate of maltreatment in foster care -- about one in every 11 children -- is 15 times higher than the national standard and three times the state goal, according to hundreds of pages of government documents and reports analyzed by the Times-Union. It has increased each of the past three years; at the same time, the state's child welfare budget has risen $180 million.
State officials call Latiana's death a "tragedy" but say government can't be expected to fix all that's wrong with child protective services in Florida.
"You can't solve the problem entirely," Gov. Jeb Bush said in August, shortly after Latiana's foster mother was charged with murder. "There is no way for the government to replace wholesome family life. By its very nature, it's a tragic area."
Mike Watkins, family safety director for the Florida Department of Children and Families, said the abuse levels are misleading because of the way they are counted.
No level of abuse in foster care is acceptable, but "there will always be some small percentage of children that are harmed by caregivers" and Latiana's case "is a horrendous example of that," Watkins said.
"We have a tremendous number of dedicated foster parents that do a good job every day," said Watkins, who has ordered a review of every foster care abuse or neglect case in the state. "Nine out of 10 -- they're doing extraordinary work."
But Schroth and others say Latiana's brutal slaying is symptomatic of a flawed system. Her foster home was one of hundreds across Florida listed as being over capacity by the DCF, and there were indications of prior problems with the foster parents that weren't caught in the screening process.
Even in the best of systems, maltreatment occurs -- including physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect -- "but not at the rate it happens in Florida," said Rose Firestein, senior litigator with Children's Rights, a New York non-profit group that seeks child welfare reform through legal action around the country.
"The level of safety in Florida foster care is remarkably and unacceptably poor," Firestein said.
Latiana Hamilton had spent most of her few months of life living in Jacksonville's homeless and battered women's shelters.
But when her mother didn't pick up Latiana and her 3-year-old brother at day care last fall, the state stepped in. The siblings became two of the 1,200 Northeast Florida children in foster care. …