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State Tries To Break Cycle Of Crisis-Driven Reform At DCF

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Gov. Rick Scott has proposed nearly $40 million in additional funding for child protection in the next state budget. Most of the money would go to reduce caseloads for child protective investigators, as blue-ribbon panels and advocates have long advised.

The proposal follows a series of children’s deaths last year, which became controversial partly because a number of the children had come to the attention of the Department of Children and Families before they died. Accounts of horrific abuse and neglect filled media reports, some appearing to show DCF employees violating canons of common sense and sparking legislative hearings that are still underway.

The children’s deaths also sparked criticism of Scott for previous budget-cutting at the agency, promising to become a campaign issue as he runs for re-election this year.

And as the death toll climbed, the names of children at the heart of previous DCF scandals were invoked, including Rilya Wilson, Gabriel Myers and Nubia Barahona. The death of each had been followed by a blue-ribbon panel and a white paper full of best-practice recommendations.

“Contrary to the claims, we learn from each tragedy and make process changes to keep more children safe,” wrote former DCF secretary David Wilkins in an op-ed in the South Florida Sun Sentinel last July. “In no instance is our practice more apparent than following the death of Nubia Barahona. What we discovered in reviewing her case was that we could not fix the current system — it was broken. We took immediate action to repair what could be repaired, but more had to be done. Since then, we’ve made it our mission to implement a full-scale redesign of the child protection system in order to keep kids safe.”

The day after his op-ed ran, Wilkins’ resignation was announced. Critics said his redesign had contributed to the children’s deaths by eliminating 72 quality-assurance positions, half of which Scott and Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo now propose to restore.

“It’s not really rocket science,” said Ed Feaver, secretary of DCF’s predecessor agency, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. “It’s a lack of willingness to invest the money where it needs to be.”

The Wilkins redesign was hardly the first try at fixing the state’s child welfare system.

“Twenty-two times in the past 33 years, the Florida Legislature has mandated that DCF or its predecessor reorganize in ways great or small,” noted the 2002 report on the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson from foster care. “Please ponder that fact, even if just momentarily. It means that Florida’s child welfare system has undergone some form of reorganization — a nip here, a tuck there, a turn-inside-out-and-shake-upside-down over yonder — on average every 18 months! How many private businesses, much less sprawling governmental agencies, could flourish amidst such organizational tumult? There are only two credible answers, both self-evident: None, and Not Many.”

Between 1985 and 2002, the report found, other scandals had prompted Florida governors to appoint 11 special panels, and state attorneys to convene five separate grand juries, to investigate DCF or HRS. The Rilya Wilson panel was the twelfth.

And part of the agency’s recurring cycle of crisis-driven reform is due to a lack of continuity at the top, said Jim Sewell, a retired assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“You can’t get a stable leadership that will continue to do things if you don’t have that,” he said. “FDLE has had, over its tenure, eight commissioners in 40 years, including one that lasted 15 years. That gives you a stability in leadership, that people remember things and make sure we continue to do things right.”

Senate President Don Gaetz said much the same thing last month, telling reporters he wanted to make it harder for Florida to repeat yet another cycle of child deaths and administrative fixes.

“DCF left to its own devices has lurched between crisis, trouble, solutions, crisis, trouble, solutions, whether Democrats have been in charge or Republicans have been in charge,” Gaetz said. “I think we need to make some changes in statute.”

He said protecting vulnerable children should not depend on the “administrator du jour” at DCF, which has had seven secretaries, counting Jacobo, since 1999.

One constant throughout the blue-ribbon panels and white papers is the need for better collaboration among DCF and its partner agencies.

“In every one of the reports we ever did, it was lack of communication,” said Sewell, who sat on the Gabriel Myers Work Group in 2009, investigating the suicide of a 7-year-old boy in foster care. He was also one of the authors of the 2011 “Nubia Report” — so named because its authors didn’t want to dishonor the slain girl with the name of her adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, who were charged with her murder.

Today, as lawmakers examine the most recent child deaths, they say they hope to break the cycle of crisis-driven reform.

But as the Rilya Wilson report concluded, some of the changes had improved Florida’s child welfare system by 2002, when the report was written

“If it achieves nothing else, we hope that this report at least puts to rest allegations that DCF has ignored recommended reforms. Those allegations, simply put, are manifestly untrue. The record proves it,” wrote co-authors David Lawrence Jr., Sara Herald, Carol Licko, and Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin.

“That said, the record also proves that throughout its history, Florida’s child welfare agency has borne the stigmata that stains it today,” the report continued. “DCF is underfunded, understaffed, underappreciated and overworked. So it ever has been. So it remains.

“The search for the culprit, however, rightly should not point only toward DCF. It should also point toward the Florida Legislature, which does not give — and never has given — DCF the resources needed to cope with the enormous burdens that it faces.”

“The News Service of Florida’s MARGIE MENZEL contributed to this report.”

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