Shortly after I became secretary of the Department of Children & Families, the tragic death of Nubia Barahona occurred. It shined a bright light on the systematic failures in our child-protection system that had been going on for years.
The system was broken. The workforce was experiencing rapid turnover; they were inexperienced and did not receive proper training to equip them to do their jobs. There was no consistent standard process for workers to follow, therefore processes and policies varied throughout the state.
We took immediate action to repair what we could in the existing system, but we knew more had to be done. We made it our mission and top priority not just to tweak the system using Band-aid approaches, but to implement a full-scale redesign of the child protection system to keep kids safe. We called the initiative Child Protection Transformation, because it completely changes the way DCF approaches reports of abuse and neglect.
We knew we couldn’t revolutionize Florida’s child welfare system on our own so we sought input from various stakeholders including the National Resource Center for Child Protective Services, ACTION for Child Protection, law enforcement, judges, child-welfare advocates and many others.
As a result of this collaboration, we have developed a new holistic approach to child safety.
Our new approach to child protection centers on two core principles — consistency and safety. We are moving from a risk-based model to a determination of safety — a child is either safe or unsafe. The framework is in use in more than 16 states as a superior method for conducting investigations and keeping children safe.
Using this model, we will work with families to develop solutions on behalf of the child. Our focus will shift to assessing the full family functioning to understand the dynamics and set the stage for identifying needs that will keep the children safe. Regardless of which investigator in whatever part of the state knocks on the front door, the family will experience the same process.
They will follow a common methodology to assess the safety of the child. Our investigators and case managers are being trained to engage the whole family in the process to teach them to make better decisions and, when necessary to keep the child safe, remove children from dangerous situations.
Last week, we began training more than 5,000 child-protection staffers to utilize the new and improved system. We also will be putting new technology at their fingertips, which will assist in information sharing and ensuring accuracy. This training is in collaboration with Guardians ad Litem, judges and contracted service providers.
This is the next stage of the transformation process that we’ve been working toward for more than two years. True transformation takes time, and we knew our process had to be deliberate, transparent and inclusive in order to get it right. I am looking forward to the continued collaboration and support from DCF staff, community-based-care agencies, judges, advocates, providers and law enforcement as we continue the process of transforming the child-protection system, for the children and families who are counting on us.
David Wilkins, secretary, Department of Children & Families, Tallahassee