Fla. Lawmakers Furious Over Performance of Child Welfare System

By: Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida
By: Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida


New Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins introduced himself to the Senate committee that oversees his agency Wednesday, and found lawmakers furious about the recent performance of the state’s child welfare system.

In the wake of the murder of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona, the near-fatal abuse of her twin, Victor, and the killings of two young children whose bodies were found last week, stuffed in luggage and dumped into a South Florida canal, members of the Senate Committee on Children and Families demanded answers from the agency head on the job just since mid-January.

Wilkins was explaining that an independent review of the Barahona case, conducted over the past three weeks, would be out Monday – when Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon and the committee chairwoman, broke in.

“Mr. Secretary, I appreciate what you’re saying, but what I want to know is: How will this be different?” she said. “How many more investigations, how many more death reviews do we have to do?”

Wilkins acknowledged that DCF – a long troubled agency that has seemingly annually faced questions about child deaths - faces a systemic failure.

“I’ve worked for years in call centers, and I know what world-class is,” he said, “and we don’t have anything close to that.”

Wilkins retired recently from Accenture, a worldwide management, technology and operations company, after 29 years. For the past five years, he oversaw the global sales organization of Accenture’s health and public service arm. Since taking the reins at DCF last month, he said, he’s been going with the agency’s child protection investigators on their rounds, based on calls from the state’s abuse hotline.

“We put those individuals in harm’s way,” he said. “In a lot of cases, we do not empower them with the necessary training.”

Of Florida’s roughly 1,000 child protection investigators, Wilkins said, more than 56 percent have been on the job less than two years. In the worst-performing DCF districts, the annual turnover rate is 64 percent.

What’s more, he said, caseloads have increased during the recession, without a corresponding increase in staff.

“Our state average is about 30 percent higher than the Child Welfare League standards on caseloads,” Wilkins said. And in South Florida, he added, the caseloads are 48 percent higher.

“What is happening in South Florida that makes their caseload higher?” Storms asked.

“It’s retention,” Wilkins replied, citing the high staff turnover. He also said Broward County has a lower turnover than Miami-Dade.

Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, the Senate Democratic Leader and a longtime children’s advocate, has been in the Legislature since 2000. She recalled that when she served in the House, lawmakers passed a measure to lower the state’s caseload standards to those of the Child Welfare League.

“Since then we’re backsliding, and that’s why we’re now getting these caseloads,” Rich said. “And we’re not keeping up with the salary levels, not increasing the pay – what would you expect?”

Wilkins said he knew Floridians were angry, “particularly in Miami. I know people are asking, ‘How could (the Barahonas) ever become foster parents in the first place?”

Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, directed a series of questions at Wilkins about recent child abuse cases, including the deaths of 10-year-old Jermaine McNeil and 6-year-old Ju'tyra Allen, whose bodies were found last week, and their mother, 25-year-old Felicia Brown, whose body was found in August. He also said DCF habitually neglected to inform the committee of such high-voltage situations.

“”Why do we have to read about these cases in the paper?” he asked Wilkins. “I’m tired of getting calls from reporters when I’m on the committee and don’t even know what’s going on.”

With the independent review of the Barahona case expected in a few days, Storms said she was willing to withhold judgment. But she also said the failures are system-wide, belonging not only to DCF but to the community-based care organizations, or CBCs, that contract with the state to provide children's services.

“I’m tired of throwing the caseworkers under the bus. It isn’t just them,” Storms said. “How about we start looking at the CBCs? They need to get their fannies up here and explain….We are still having little broken bodies – and it’s not just because evil people will do evil things. It’s because people – competent, professional people who are paid to do their job – are not doing their job. And it’s not just state workers.”

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  • by DTH Location: Tallahassee on Mar 11, 2011 at 08:43 AM
    When you Cut 5%, 10% of the Jobs Yearly in the States Deprtments, this is what you get.
  • by been there Location: tallahassee on Mar 10, 2011 at 08:24 PM
    i was offered a CPI position about 2 years ago, because i had 7 years of experience in LA as a county social worker(pay is comparable to the job duties and expectations; police are present when you detain; judges will back you up for the safety of the child), dont get me wrong, LA is perfect and an average day would go about 10 to 12 hours if you were lucky(i did spend a couple of nights at the office looking for placements or completing paperwork)...burned out, so i left....one month as a CPI in florida, i immediately found another job...i saw the writing on the wall of low pay, no support for the higher-ups, and the out-sourcing of case management (once a child is placement is complete by the state social worker, the case is transferred to a private agency)...i knew that the accountability would not be there...for my own sake, i had to help children and their families in some other venue...so sad for florida
  • by A Loving Mother Location: Lake Worth on Mar 10, 2011 at 05:42 PM
    By the time Gov Scott is done with this state we'll be ALASKA! Tell that to his mother.
  • by Frances Location: TAllahassee on Mar 10, 2011 at 04:23 PM
    Who cares if they're furious? What are they going to DO about it??
  • by Anonymous on Mar 10, 2011 at 02:49 PM
    Brokenhearted in Tally. A passionate ans skilled worker in this case would not have made a difference.
  • by KC on Mar 10, 2011 at 01:49 PM
    Law makers sure are furious a lot these days. Most of it has to do with the mess they are busy making. They pass laws they don't really understand. Sick of stupid. If what we have running are country are the best we are in bad bad shape.
  • by Anonymous on Mar 10, 2011 at 01:46 PM
    To be honest I don't think social wokers should be investigating. Abuse investigations should be done by the police and neglect should be investigated by public health. Everyone would be safer.
  • by Voice of Reason on Mar 10, 2011 at 01:44 PM
    "this field takes a skilled passionate individual not someone's friend who needed a job" Right and skilled, passionate individuals don't grow on trees. You have to pay for quality to get quality. I'm sure Florida will become more familiar with that concept in the next few years, though.
  • by bon Location: tally on Mar 10, 2011 at 01:29 PM
    welcome to the future of less government.
  • by Brokenhearted in Tally Location: Tallahassee on Mar 10, 2011 at 12:37 PM
    There is definitely breakdown in the system. I say this because it was disturbing to hear the evident lack of concern in the hotline call that the DCF worker exemplified "Nothing will be done today" This is negative and there is no reason for this attitude when the well being or continued existence of a child's life is dependent on their actions. I can appreciate being overwhelmed with work but this field takes a skilled passionate individual not someone's friend who needed a job and there happened to be an opening. Sadly most times this is what has happened. There are far more qualified passionate individuals knowledgeable and capable of doing this work the right way. The clean up needs to start at the top and work through the entry level staff.
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