Gov. Rick Scott has a life-or-death decision ahead as he selects a new leader for the troubled Department of Children & Families. And those whose lives are affected are thousands of Florida’s children at risk of abuse.
DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned last week, done in by a rash of toddlers’ deaths — one more in Miami-Dade came to light this week — complaints from the local service providers and, there can be no doubt, Mr. Scott’s desire to keep his own job in 2014.
Mr. Scott now must get it right, and the only way to do that is to appoint a new DCF secretary who is committed to transparency, accountability and truly making children’s wellbeing the priority. Of course, that will only happen if the governor values these qualities, too. Unfortunately, judging from his unqualified support of Mr. Wilkins, even faced with back-to-back children’s deaths, that hasn’t been the case.
Mr. Wilkins systematically chipped away at the safeguards that had made a positive difference in the lives of vulnerable children and their troubled families. Where there once had been constructive collaboration between DCF headquarters and the local service providers, there grew tension and resistance because of Mr. Wilkins’ attempts at a power grab.
Where there had been supervisory oversight over the reports filed by child-protection investigators, there now was little supervision, eliminated under the Wilkins administration.
Where parents incapable of caring for their children were offered social services first, they now were left to fend for themselves. Children bore the brunt of the lapse.
Under previous — and smarter — DCF administrators such as George Sheldon and Bob Butterworth, the number of children in foster care dropped to about 15,000 from about 45,000. Why? Troubled families were treated holistically. Parents received help up front for substance abuse, anger issues, parenting challenges, unemployment. As they healed, they were able to keep their children, safely. DCF not only had stringent risk-assessment processes to prevent tragedy, but also quality assurance practices to make sure that the lead agencies in communities around the state were getting the job done.
Now, DCF depends upon the agencies to self-administer quality assurance. That makes no sense.
Under Gov. Scott, DCF could brag that more families were staying together. But that’s because children were being left in dysfunctional, dangerous homes. Little Bryan Osceola’s family was well known to DCF investigators. His mom was arrested three times on drug or alcohol charges. She was found passed out drunk behind the wheel of a car — Bryan was with her, unrestrained. DCF not only left Bryan in her care, it never, ever referred the mother for substance-abuse services.
Bryan, not yet 1, died when his mother left him locked in a car on a hot, sunny day.
Gov. Scott must choose a leader who will restore sanity to how DCF does a near impossible job. But his unqualified praise of a DCF chief, a former consulting executive with a technology vendor with no experience in dealing with the messiness of people’s lives on so grand a scale, is cause for concern.
Maybe Mr. Scott was just being diplomatic, and not heartless, when he said in June after the deaths of four children that, “I think Secretary Wilkins is doing a very good job.”
In truth, Mr. Wilkins’ undoing centered on his embrace of ideology over the documented proof of what works to keep children safe. Gov. Scott must do better for Florida’s children.