Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Heal thyself, DCF


OUR OPINION: Too many children have died; DCF can’t blame local community providers for its own failings

Something is horribly wrong with the Florida Department of Children & Families’ investigative process. Four children have died in the past six weeks alone. Their troubled parents all were known to DCF. But all four tots died while in the custody of supposed caretakers.

In each instance, DCF had the chance to remove the child from potential danger. Instead, the agency’s overarching priority of keeping families together (too often without adequate resources or supervision) is putting kids in harm’s way. Since May, Bryan Osceola, Antwan Hope, Fernando Barahona and Ezra Raphael have paid with their lives.

DCF Secretary David Wilkins acknowledges that mistakes were made in some of those cases. But where’s the urgency to stop returning children to abusive households? Why does this keep happening?The problems lie within DCF itself. Its investigator training lacks accountability, the quality of investigators’ work and their judgment-making ability remains hampered by Mr. Wilkins’ top-down rigidity.

The community-based-care organizations (CBC) responsible for securing the services to help kids who have been removed from high-risk situations say that Mr. Wilkins has instead targeted them, threatening to terminate contracts and doing some heavy-handed meddling — a “my way or the highway” approach.

Mr. Wilkins told the Herald last week that the accusations are baseless. He will roll out a new accountability system this week, he says.

Yet he is forcing CBCs to include a “bait and switch” clause in their contracts that in effect gives him veto power over the hiring of top CBC executives. Mr. Wilkins said this provision is intended to prevent local groups from identifying one person but then introducing someone else as the top officer after the contract is signed. It’s curious that Mr. Wilkins could not cite to the Herald any instances of this happening. He should drop this useless quest for control.

The CBCs are the “boots on the ground.” Civic leaders who serve in this capacity are far better situated to gauge the needs of at-risk children in their communities and can tailor services to meet them.

The community-based-care model first was implemented by Gov. Lawton Chiles in the1990s and honed under Gov. Jeb Bush. In the early years, a few CBCs were dismissed due to inept management, but these were the exceptions. When the organizations were under threat from the Legislature, Mr. Bush wrote for the Miami Herald:

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for families in crisis. Communities, like children, are diverse and have different needs. . . . Community-based care has always been about local ownership, community input, transparency, accountability and solution-oriented responsiveness. Tallahassee-based care does not work. . . . We’ve been down this road before — remember another tragedy: the disappearance, and likely death of Rilya Wilson?”

Now add to Rilya’s name Bryan Osceola, roasted to death before his first birthday because his mother, who had a drinking problem, left him locked in a car; Antwan Hope, 4, found dead while on an unsupervised visit with his mentally ill mom, who had tried to smother him before; Fernando Barahona, 1, who was found dead in Cape Coral, two weeks after DCF was informed that he had sustained skull fractures; and Ezra Raphael, 2, brutally belt-whipped to death by his prostitute mother’s boyfriend.

Mr. Wilkins can’t keep blaming others for his agency’s failings. Gov. Rick Scott, who just last week praised the DCF secretary, must stop excusing mediocrity and put children’s welfare first.

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