TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A report by a team of child-welfare professionals has identified major problems throughout a system of care that is struggling to protect children in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

The team of experts, which Department of Children and Families Interim Secretary Mike Carroll recruited in June, found that a sharp rise in the number of children coming into care has strained every part of the network of agencies and service providers.

The report said that between May 2013 and July 2014, the number of children receiving in-home services in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties increased more than 63 percent, compared to a 1 percent increase statewide. The number of children in out-of-home care increased nearly 36 percent, compared with a 6 percent rise statewide.

“My concern is that folks in that system are tired, they’re burned out, they’re stressed — and we have to find a way to reduce that and get folks working together,” Carroll said. “You can see it not only in the number of kids coming into care, but the turnover rates.”

Staff turnover was high across the board for 2013-14, Carroll said. For the department’s child-protective investigators, who respond to reports of abuse or neglect, turnover was nearly 32 percent. For Children’s Legal Services lawyers — who also work for DCF, representing dependent children in court — turnover was 38 percent. For case managers, who oversee foster care, adoption and family services for private agencies, turnover was 32 percent.

Among the report’s other findings:

— “An absence of genuine partnership and trust among all parties appears to exist.”

— “(There is) an absence of ongoing leadership collaboration across the system of care. There is a perception that the system lacks transparency while operating in what can be described as a high pressure and critical environment.”

— “The (case management agencies) … appear to be under financial strain as a result of the increase of children into out-of-home care. This also appears to affect their ability to deliver services.”

Taken together, these factors mean judges must take more time on each case, said Judge Cindy Lederman of Miami-Dade’s 11th Judicial Circuit. And that means children stay longer in legal limbo.

“We judges are ultimately responsible for every child,” Lederman said. “We have to question decisions. That is our job. But in the past year, the work required to oversee these cases has increased.”

For instance, Lederman said, four lawyers left Children’s Legal Services last week. “Many are inexperienced and overwhelmed,” Lederman said. “They need better leadership and training and support.” She also said the quality of casework has declined. “While we have many excellent case workers, there is too much turnover, lack of adequate supervision and follow-through,” she said.

Some of this is due to the increase in cases, Lederman said, but the upshot is that the cases she and other judges see have grown more complex.

“Children are more harmed when we see them,” she said. “It is as if the courtroom has become an emergency room. And we are in the midst of a hurricane.”

Carroll is mapping a series of steps out of the storm. He’s asked Miami-Dade child-welfare leaders to create a steering committee that includes all parts of their system. He said the Department of Children and Families would assist as much as possible, but that the plan had to be local.

He also plans to send some of his most experienced people from across the state to Miami to provide technical assistance, mentoring and training to the mid-level managers there. A second team is examining the financial distress of the case-management agencies that provide direct services to children and families.

Carroll said the department also would look inward for solutions.

“We will be looking at making some significant changes internally, through our leadership, and we’ll announce that later this week,” he said. “I think together we’ll get it better, but it’s going to take some time.”

Meanwhile, Our Kids, the privatized community-based care lead agency that oversees the contracting of case management and other services for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, has a brand-new chief executive officer, Jackie Gonzalez. As the former director of the Children’s Home Society of Miami, however, she’s a veteran of the local system.

Gonzalez said in an email that her agency is grateful to DCF and the peer consultation team for their “thoughtful recommendations. I look forward to working with all of our system partners to identify ways we can address the recommendations and better collaborate while working towards one common goal — to provide the best services and support to children in foster care.”

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.

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