Lawmakers discuss spike in child deaths
Published: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 1:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 1:37 p.m.
PEMBROKE PINES — Despite the recent deaths of nine children monitored by the Department of Children and Families, more than a dozen state lawmakers and hundreds of child advocates have offered few new proposals aimed at improving the agency's track record.
Judges, advocates and law enforcement authorities met Tuesday to talk about how to move forward, but ended up reiterating many of the same problems that have been discussed following other high-profile child deaths in the past decade: high caseloads and staff turnover rates, lack of accountability between DCF and its private contractors, poor funding, and missed red flags by caseworkers and child protective investigators.
"We have a moral imperative to move forward to save lives," said Democratic state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chairwoman of Florida's Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, who called the town hall gathering during which she read the names of each of the dead children.
Among the recent deaths are those of two 2-year-old boys: one whose father was charged with throwing him against a bedroom wall and killing him just a month after investigators removed the boy from his mother's care; and another whose mother's boyfriend was charged with first-degree murder and child abuse.
In the second case, DCF officials said the child's mother had left the boy with a caregiver in Gainesville in 2012 because she couldn't care for him. In February, DCF asked the caregiver to call the hotline if the mother tried to get her child back. DCF said the caregiver never called, but the toddler went back to his mother, who was charged with neglect after the boy's death.
In May, DCF fired a child-protective investigator who they said forged documents about substance treatment for a mother months before she left her 11-month-old baby in a sweltering car. The boy had a 109-degree temperature when he was found dead in the car outside their home.
DCF Secretary David Wilkins abruptly resigned last month as the number of deaths increased and fights with the agency's private contractors escalated. Esther Jacobo replaced him as interim secretary and immediately directed the agency to review all cases in which a child was abused or killed after previous reports of abuse had been filed. In South Florida, where many deaths involving children under 3 have occurred, Jacobo is piloting a team approach to investigate all such cases.
"We want to get this right just as much as you want to get it right," Jacobo said.
The agency has been under intense scrutiny for nearly a decade after foster child Rilya Wilson made national headlines. The girl is missing and presumed dead after a caseworker lied about visiting her for more than a year, while filing false reports and telling judges the girl was fine.
Several advocates Tuesday said lawmakers held some responsibility for the recent child deaths because the Legislature had cut funding and eliminated key positions over the years.
The agency slashed 76 family-safety positions in 2011 as part of statewide budget cuts, including 17 quality-assurance posts, leaving DCF with a "fuzzy picture" of the work performed by child-protective investigators and private, contracted caseworkers, said attorney and longtime child advocate Howard Talenfeld.
The role of quality-assurance staff is to randomly review cases around the state recently closed by child-protective investigators. Among the red flags they look for are whether investigators have filled out the required safety-risk assessments after visiting homes. More than 70 percent of quality-assurance positions have been eliminated since 2008, according to Talenfeld.
"It is the Legislature's responsibility to fund the system appropriately," said Dr. Walter Lambert, who evaluates children for abuse and neglect.
DCF and its private contractors have drastically reduced the number of children in foster care in the past several years, keeping children in the home when possible and offering the family services. But several child advocates stressed that with more children left in potentially dangerous situations in the home, it's imperative that DCF and its contractors keep a closer watch over those families.
Child-protective investigators, who visit a home when an abuse allegation is reported to the state hotline, are typically required to close cases within 60 days.
"In these last years, there's been an obsession to close cases," Lambert said.
Other advocates accused DCF and its contractors of putting numbers ahead of safety by reuniting children with parents when they should have been removed from the home.
Kurt Kelly, who heads the coalition of private contractors, bristled at the accusation.
"If there's been a shining success, it's been the community-based care," Kelly said.
DCF has struggled to oversee its contractors since Florida became the first state to fully privatize its child welfare programs in 2005, inking multimillion-dollar contracts with 20 child welfare contractors that care for the more than 17,000 foster children in the system. Wilkins attempted to add more penalties for poor performance to the contracts, but the contractors pushed back, saying he was overstepping his role.
"The (contractors) have taken over without anybody managing them and so the department is doing its job in the dark," Talenfeld said. "The only way this privatized system can work is if somebody is in charge."
Most advocates agreed the privatized system has produced better outcomes, but some suggested an ombudsmen or independent monitor.
"I would never want to go back to the dysfunctional system that we had prior to community- based care," said former state Sen. Nan Rich.