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DCF head asks to spend money to beef up child protection program

After months of receiving report after report blasting the Department of Children and Families for a botched child protection system that allowed two foster parents to adopt and abuse Victor and Nubia Barahona, the head of the state agency provided his progress report to lawmakers Tuesday. 

DCF Secretary David Wilkins said he will ask the Legislature for $60 million in additional spending next year to improve the state's child protection system. About $35 million will pay for mobile devices to help consolidate information for child protection investigators and another $25 million for retention, recruitment and training of those workers. The money will come from scaling back existing programs, consolidating technology and human resources offices and finding efficiencies and would not be a budget increase, Wilkins said.

The case exposed “a lot of operations problems within our agency,” Wilkins acknowledged. It’s a statement he is accustomed to making since Nubia’s decomposing body was found in garbage bag in the flatbed of her adoptive fathers’s truck in February 2011, and Victor was discovered doused with deadly chemicals in the cab. 

Since then, a grand jury released a scathing report, criticizing the agency for a raft of troubles that echoed many of the same complaints made by Miami grand juries in 1989 and 1995 after children died in state custody.

Among concerns also raised by previous panels: the state’s child-welfare system is fragmented; poor information sharing and inadequate technology prevent workers from seeing the “big picture;” the agency places too much trust in foster or adoptive parents, and it is unable to centralize information gathering.

Wilkins said he has made 19 major agency wide changes to address the problem, including hiring 100 additional child protection investigators, most of them in Miami. As a result, the agency has reduced the caseload of its case workers by 33 percent but “we need to reduce our caseloads by another 35 to 40 percent to really get where we need to be,’’ he said.

“Our caseload volumes were really at the catastrophic level,’’ Wilkins told legislators. “Our individual case workers had too much on their plate.”

But members of the Senate Children and Families Committee were clearly rattled by the scathing report, which detailed the breakdown of the system that allowed the Barahona children to live unprotected and in danger. 

“Normally I would say maybe we don’t need legislation but, to me, something is dramatically and drastically wrong if all of these red flags are not seen’’ said Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, the Senate Democratic leader. “This to me is crying out for us to do something here…I still think we need legislation.’’

Wilkins said the “number one symptom of the problem was the case manager was not owning the case.”

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico and the chairwoman of the committee, challenged him: “What the blankety blank does that mean: You’re not owning the case?,’’ she snapped. “You have a these two children. The little girl was practically peeling paint off the wall to eat, she was starving…They were afraid of these people and everybody at the school was saying it -- and the most we can say is the case manager was not owning the case?”

Wilkins tried to explain that the case manager had not gone through the checklist but  Storms said it was a sign that the case manager “had something dreadfully wrong.”

“If we have hired people who are just doing checklists and that’s the most we can say is they’re not following the checklists, then that’s wrong,’’ she said. “If  they don’t feel a moral compulsion to advocate on behalf of these children…something doesn’t add up.” 

Sen. Nancy Detert suggested that psychological screenings should be part of the job selection process when hiring case workers. Wilkins said that is a suggestion made by the grand jury and it is under consideration.

Storms said she plans to demand more accountability of the Community-based Care providers who provide the first line of oversight to the case workers. She said she wants the regional groups with the worst outcomes to be blocked from renewing their contracts with the state. She also believes that many executives at the local agencies are overpaid, receive excessive bonuses and waste money.

 The threat of extinction, she said, “is one of the best tools that we can use.”

Comments

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Can't Take It Anymore

Rhonda Storms is totally correct in demanding substantial oversight of the contract providers that have proliferated in our child welfare system. Privatization has not been the panacea it was touted to be mainly because the providers cared more about salaries for their exective staff than adequately training and supervising their field staff. Also, many of these organizations are politically well connected and any state contract manager quickly learns not to displease them by trying to hold them to their contract requirements for fear of retribution. David Wilkins needs to support his staff and enlist Rhonda and Nan Rich to provide the political cover.

Kristin

And you will have the governor and legislators say we need more corporate tax cuts, so we can't afford to spend any more on protecting children.

ruthiecavitt

The move is a further blow to the country’s already struggling cattle industry.

Deborah Parks

The article in the other paper makes it sound like these are the REAL children of these people,not foster children. WHY NOT STOP TAKING CHILDREN AWAY FROM THEIR PARENTS AND GIVING THEM TO PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT PARENTS! give us back our children. The same thing is happening in courtrooms around the world - taking children from their mothers and giving them to their mother's abusers. What in the world is wrong with this world? "DCF came under scrutiny earlier this year for failing to piece together warning signs from medical professionals and school officials that something was wrong in the home of Jorge and Carmen Barahona in the years before their child, 10-year-old Nubia, was killed. The agency blamed it on a system wide failure, including poor judgment by child protective investigators, overwhelming caseloads and missed opportunities at every turn.

Nubia's decomposing body was found in the back for her father's truck by the side of the road on Valentine's Day. Her twin brother Victor survived, but was badly burned by a toxic chemical. Jorge and Carmen Barahona have pleaded not guilty to a first-degree murder and a slew of child abuse charges. The state has said it will seek the death penalty.

I DON'T KNOW WHY THESE CHILDREN ARE WITH FOSTER PARENTS, BUT UNLESS THEIR REAL PARENTS, GRANDPARENTS, WHATEVER AREA DEAD... why do strange people have these little children? I'm so sad, so at a loss for words... I love my grandchildren and would love for them to be with their mommy, but they have been taken by men with money who have criminal records and who have been paying attorneys for a really long time... they did not want to pay child support, so they just took her children. NO ONE IS PERFECT, BUT MOST MOMMIES ARE GOOD PEOPLE AND GREAT MOTHERS! STOP TAKING OUR CHILDREN AWAY FROM US IN AN ALREADY SCREWED UP SOCIETY!!! lonelynanna in florida, love to all

Richard Wexler

Too bad there is nothing DCF can do about one of the biggest problems plaguing Florida child welfare: grandstanding legislators getting their 15 minutes of fame at the expense of vulnerable children. Storms and Detert are among the worst offenders, offering up the same platitudes year after year, and offering nothing in the way of real solutions.

But it’s Nan Rich who really sends the hypocrisy meter off the scale. A law she sponsored may have contributed to the Barahona tragedy. Details on our Florida website here: http://bit.ly/iwBpyk

DCF made significant improvements during the Crist administration largely in spite of, rather than because of, the Florida Legislature. One independent evaluation after another has found that the reforms initiated by Bob Butterworth and George Sheldon made children safer – not safe enough, but safer - than they were when DCF was dominated by a take-the-child-and-run approach under the failed leadership of Kathleen Kearney and her immediate successors.

Wilkins ought to have the class to acknowledge as much, even as he seeks further reform.

For all the details about what the legislators – and the Miami Herald – keep leaving out, see our Florida website, www.heraldvsfacts.blogspot.com

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
www.heraldvsfacts.blogspot.com

Thomas H Springfield

If DCF officials wanted to, DCF could "save" at least $100 million in state and federal tax dollars within one single calendar year merely by auditing the "community-based contractors" more frequently and effectively, and by micro-managing the leadership teams at every private CBC to make sure there are no more private CEOs at any of the 20+ CBCs earning five to seven times the amount that the governor of Florida is paid. Outsourcing state agency functions like DCF and Dept of Corrections does always ends up enriching a very small number of greedy people who are given these lucrative contracts by their friends in the governor's office. Ask Jeb! about that.

Jennupenn

The only justice for Nubia will be addressing this problem correctly. A community that cannot protect it's animals is a tragedy. A community that cannot protect it's children is unacceptable. I would gladly pay to have Nubia's life back.

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