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DCF official explains agency's efforts to prevent child abuse deaths at Senate hearing

A top official for the Florida Department of Children & Families told senators at a hearing Tuesday that the state was no longer relying on a “promise” from parents that they would do right by their children, a practice that left some members of the Children, Families & Elder Affairs Committee shaking their heads.

In a domestic violence case, for instance, “we would get the mom to promise that if she and her boyfriend, whoever, engaged in domestic violence that she would leave,” said Stephen Pennypacker, DCF’s new assistant secretary for programs. “That’s not a safety plan. That’s a prescription for disaster … So we don’t do that anymore.”

He said the agency is addressing several other measures to improve its efforts, many of them recommendations from a recent report by the nonprofit, Seattle-based Casey Family Programs.

Committee chairman Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said “lots needs to be done” in the aftermath of at least 40 children dying while under state care between January and July.

“We’re looking for solutions,” she said, noting that legislators also need to determine “what can be done administratively and what do we need to pass by law.

"I think we're digging deep to find out why so many kid died and making improvements," she said, noting that more of a team approach, staffing and re-evaluating assessment tools would "make the system work better."

Sobel said she agreed with the findings of the Casey Family report, which pointed out many issues in Florida’s child welfare system, and said those suggestions should be implemented.

Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo requested Casey Families conduct a comprehensive review in order to identify potential improvements and shortcomings in the agency's protective investigative process after the Herald catalogued the stories of children from families with DCF histories who had died over the spring and summer.

The Casey Family report provided "tangible recommendations regarding policies and practices that can potentially reduce future child maltreatment deaths," Pennypacker said.

 DCF went through all the Casey Family recommendations, he said, to determine what can be done immediately and what will take more time.

Since Nov. 10, the state has made a significant change regarding its safety plan and assessment, Pennypacker said. Under the new system, if a child is at risk, a child protective investigator has to complete a safety plan template which addresses issues like “What is the risk, what is the danger to the child, what can you do for the child in the home during the investigation?” The safety plan has to be reviewed by a supervisor within 24 hours “so you have someone else addressing it.”

Another “huge change,” said Pennypacker is that an investigation cannot be closed while a safety plan is still open. In the past, he said, a case may have been closed without followup. “A case can not be closed unless it’s handed to case management.” He said there were cases that were dropped “and that resulted in some deaths.”

Sen. Charles Dean asked Pennypacker “What specific factor could you point out to us that would be the criteria to remove a child immediately from the environment?” Pennypacker said the state first has to explore all options for a child staying in the home but if nothing can remedy the situation, a child can be removed.

DCF has also started a pilot project in Miami-Dade and Polk counties to send two child protective investigators to cases involving suspected abuse of particularly vulnerable children under age 3. And the agency is going to do “real-time” quality assurance while the investigation is still going on to catch mistakes.

Sobel stressed the need to address issues including training, professionalizing staff, caseloads, salaries and high turnover.

Sen. President Don Gaetz stopped by during the nearly two-hour meeting and listened to part of Pennypacker’s presentation, but didn’t comment. “He attended only to listen and observe,” said Gaetz’s spokeswoman Katie Betta.

The panel also heard a report from the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, which looked at child welfare systems in other states. New Jersey, for instance, had the lowest turnover of case workers in 2012. Florida’s turnover of child welfare case managers, was 30.4 percent. Florida is also one of the few states that has privatized elements of its child welfare system.

In other action, the Senate committee passed a bill (SB 0498) that aims to stop illegal adoptions, known as "rehoming." People adopt a child from overseas and give the child up by finding new parents on the Internet, a practice documented in a Reuters article that described a path of hardship and abuse for these children.

Sobel called it a form of "human trafficking" of children.

Pennypacker, who previously served as the deputy compact administrator for the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children in Florida has been a force behind the bill, which increases the criminal penalty for advertising or offering a child to the public from a second degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony. 

The bill would require a licensed child-placing agency or an entity that conducts intercountry adoptions to meet certain requirements.