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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