WCTV Update: Blind Services Offers Family New Help

By: Andy Alcock Email
By: Andy Alcock Email

The parents of a visually impaired girl have now been promised new help.

The parents of 11 year old Victoria Parson tell us Florida's Division of Blind Services refused to honor an agreement to fix a reader machine.

The machine allows Victoria to magnify and read school work.

But it hasn't been working for months.

Following our report on the issue Monday night, a Blind Services representative called Victoria's mother Tammy to tell her the agency will fix the machine.

Tammy says she was told a case worker will call her to arrange for repairs this week.

Tallahassee, FL - The parents of a visually impaired girl are raising new concerns about Florida's Division of Blind Services.

They say they're not getting the help for their daughter DBS promised.

They're so concerned, the family drove all the way from St. Augustine to Tallahassee to talk to us about it.

Victoria Parson is an 11 year old sixth grader.

Visually impaired since birth, Victoria only has limited sight in her left eye.

She says it makes school work especially difficult.

"I do stress a lot keeping up with work and stuff and finding proper ways to do things," said Victoria.

To help with that school work, Victoria and her parents entered into a verbal agreement with Florida's Division of Blind Services to have Victoria use a machine.

The reader or CCTV machine scans and magnifies pages to help Victoria read them.

Tammy Parson says as part of the August, 2010 deal, DBS agreed to take care of the reader's maintenance for three years.

But Tammy says it's broken down twice, hasn't worked for months and despite her best efforts to get DBS to fix it, it hasn't happened.

"They haven't called to say let's try something else, let's see about getting another one, let's take another route," said Tammy. "They just called and said they weren't fixing it or paying any more money and that's it," she said.

What also troubles Tammy is she was told by her DBS case worker the machine was new, even though she gave it to her without a box.

However, when she checked after it broke a second time, she found an invoice showing DBS bought the machine in 2008, more than two years before it was given to Victoria.

"I don't feel they were honest," said Tammy.

Additionally, the vendor listed on the invoice is not the same one who Tammy says she was directed to contact after the machine broke down.

She says that vendor told her she used to work for Blind Services, but quit her job to start her business.

As we reported last month, four DBS employees, including former Director Joyce Hildreth either resigned or were fired in the wake of a private vendor scandal.

The bottom line for Tammy is getting Victoria the help she needs.

"I've called numerous times asking questions, never get any answers," Tammy said. "I get the runaround or I'm told I ask too complicated questions," she said.

"I think they should help me considering that I am visually impaired and my needs are going to be different from everybody else's," said Victoria.

A Blind Services Spokeswoman tells us the agency can't comment on individual clients.

However, she also says DBS is investigating the buying process for Victoria's machine.

Tallahassee, FL - There's a new leader at Florida's troubled Division of Blind Services.

Aleisa McKinlay is now the new interim director.

McKinlay is also the director of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Both divisions are part of the state's department of education.

McKinlay will work both jobs on an interim basis and get a ten percent salary increase until a permanent director is named for Blind Services.

It's expected that decision won't be made until new Education Commissioner Tony Bennett takes over in January.

McKinlay takes over for Joyce Hildreth.

Hildreth resigned Tuesday in the wake of a scandal.

An investigation revealed state law was broken after Caroline McManus left Blind Services.

She immediately tried to come back as a contract employee in the same job for nearly $100,000 more money per year.

Another investigation involving a similar accusation against a former Blind Services employee is still open.

Four people including Hildreth either quit or were fired.

Two more employees were suspended.

Tallahassee, FL - December 18, 2012 - There's been a major shake up at Florida's Division Blind Services.

Two people have been fired, two others including DBS Director Joyce Hildreth, have resigned and two more employees have been suspended.

The division is part of the state's Department of Education.

A new report from that agency's Inspector General concludes Blind Services Information Technology Supervisor Paul Harbin deliberately procured a contract for one of his employees, Caroline McManus.

The plan was for McManus to resign her $59,000 dollar a year job at Blind Services and then do the same job as a contract employee through her company for $156,000 per year.

The report shows Blind Services Director Joyce Hildreth ultimately approved the plan.

Hildreth told investigators she asked Harbin to get clearance for the contract from Human Resources, Labor Relations and the General Counsel.

Harbin later told Hildreth the contract was approved by all those sources.
Hildreth told investigators because of what Harbin said, she saw no reason to stop the contract.

However, the report notes McManus' business was not listed in the contract as a pre-approved vendor as required by Florida's Department of Education.

The contract was terminated prior to its execution, so no taxpayer funds were spent on it.

The Inspector General in the report recommends Blind Services take corrective action against Harbin.

Harbin has been fired.

McManus is no longer with Blind Services.

The report says a similar accusation claiming another Department of Education employee resigned his job and came back to work as a contract employee is under investigation.

Tallahassee, FL - December 7, 2012 - It provides critical help for blind and visually impaired people to live independent and productive lives.

The Division of Blind Services is part of Florida's Department of Education.

An internal audit obtained exclusively by Eyewitness News raises several issues within the division.

It all started with a genetic disorder first appearing when she 12.

After a slow progression, five years ago, Toni King became completely blind.

"Tallahassee high 75 degrees fahrenheit, low 55 degrees fahrenheit," chirps Toni's phone.

Thanks to help from "Lighthouse of the Big Bend", Toni has learned to use sound prompts for her phone and computer.

And with her service dog Schepus, she's able to get around and lead a very productive life.

"This training is absolutely essential for someone who's visually impaired or blind to return to an independent lifestyle," said Toni.

Eighty percent of the funding for Lighthouse comes from Florida's Department of Education.

In particular, it comes from DOE's Division of Blind Services.

DOE's management survey obtained exclusively by Eyewitness News raises numerous issues with Blind Services.

The survey says an unusually high 40 percent of staff don't support management.

It also says not all vacancies are made public.

"Seems to me that's problematic and probably violates Florida's statutes," said Joyce Chastain, the incoming president of the Human Relations State Council.

And Chastain says the most troubling finding in the report is the trend of staff voluntarily leaving Blind Services.

Twenty-seven left in 2009, 56 in 2010 and 62 last year.

"That's very telling," said Chastain. "Of everything that's contained there, that's the red flag, people are leaving and people don't leave when they're happy," she said.

An anonymous letter from a staffer sent to the Ethics Commission places the blame on Division Director Joyce Hildreth and her management team.

The letter claims there's a hostile and unfair working environment resulting in poor morale and productivity.

While Hildreth has been unavailable for comment, DOE sent a statement.

It says, "We take any claim that affects our core mission seriously and will review the items in the letter to be certain that we are doing the best job we can for the people who need our help."

The statement goes on to say, "We will continue to work to find ways to improve and enhance services for those we serve."

Dan Krassner, director of the government watchdog group Integrity Florida, is concerned.

"Let's Hope the Inspector General with the Department of Education gets to the bottom of this," said Krassner.

Toni King is also interested.

She's gone from a former client to working at Lighthouse.

She knows any issues with the Division of Blind Services could have a direct effect on her ability to help other people like herself.

"It's such a gift to come to work everyday and know that I'm able to help other people the same way the Lighthouse helped me," King said.

The Ethics Commission didn't take up the issues in the letter because it was sent anonymously.

We're told as a result of the management survey, Blind Services is conducting team building activities.

They're designed to contribute to a positive work environment.

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