Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Calling DCF to account


OUR OPINION: Secretary Wilkins must explain why children in the system continue to suffer

Only the name on the letterhead seems to have changed, unfortunately. But the sound bite echoes with disturbingly familiar regularity. In light of the deaths of four children under the supposedly watchful eye of the Department of Children & Families, agency secretary David Wilkins has replaced his chief of staff.

However, the replacement, Jane Johnson, told the Florida Times-Union: “When a child dies, it’s not because DCF dropped the ball. It’s because their families failed to protect them.”

Keep in mind, before her latest appointment, Ms. Johnson was the agency’s child abuse prevention coordinator. And therein lies DCF’s seemingly intractable problem. Its mindset — that parents’ problems won’t bring harm to their children; that a family together, no matter how dysfunctional, trumps removing a child.

Last week, two heavy hitters called out DCF for its flawed institutional thinking. The agency’s leaders, including Mr. Wilkins, and Gov. Rick Scott, who continues to give the secretary his unqualified — though unmerited — support should listen closely. There is something fundamentally, systemically and dangerously wrong with DCF. Four dead children in less than two months make it abundantly clear. The horrifying condition in which a fifth child was found recently only affirms that assessment.

A livid Miami-Dade County child-welfare judge lashed out at DCF for not recognizing the danger a child, not named by authorities, was in, and failing to act before it was too late. The baby, not yet 1, was taken from his mother earlier this month, but not before he suffered an almost-fatal lacerated liver. Judge Rosa C. Figarola said: “The checks and balances are not working.”

As usual, investigators delivered unpersuasive excuses similar to those that came after the deaths of Bryan Osceola, Antwan Hope, Fernando Barahona and Ezra Raphael, all tots, all dead at the hands of those who should have cared for them. In one case, the investigator was not even certified for the job and falsified reports.

DCF learned of this latest abused child three months ago when he was hospitalized for a broken thigh bone. The DCF investigator bought the mom’s story that her son fell out of a chair. An unreported cracked rib was found only when the child was hospitalized for liver injury. Police are investigating; no charges had been filed as of last week.

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood is so perturbed that, as head of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, she plans to call a hearing on DCF’s most serious lapses. She rightly has questions about DCF’s newest initiative to track abused children and retrain investigators. Mr. Wilkins especially must explain the decision to eliminate “second-party reviews” by administrators within 72 hours of receiving an investigator’s child-safety assessment.

Doesn’t this speak directly to Judge Figarola’s spot-on observation of broken checks and balances?

Ms. Sobel, too, should explore Mr. Wilkins’ contentious relationship with community-based organizations that, by and large, have done a superb job providing services to at-risk and foster children. They say he is seeking to consolidate control in Tallahassee, surely to the detriment of how the locals tailor their programs to their communities’ needs.

Mr. Wilkins must explain publicly why, when children in DCF’s system died “because their families failed to protect them,” DCF failed to protect them, too.

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