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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.”