Once again, the Legislature must tackle reform of the state's child-protection services when it meets next year. If lawmakers fail to get it right, Florida’s children will pay the price, as they’ve been doing for years.
The Department of Children & Families has been overhauled before after deaths of children under its supervision brought public outrage. But this time the reforms must have lasting effects for the sake of Florida’s at-risk kids, and that means whatever changes are implemented need adequate funding from state lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott.
Ever since a string of deaths of children already known to DCF occurred this past spring and summer, the agency has been under increasing pressure to improve its investigations and treatment programs for children endangered in their own homes or in foster homes. The agency’s chief, David Wilkins, was forced to resign. His interim replacement, Esther Jacobo of the Miami DCF district, wasted no time in seeking solutions. She hired a Seattle-based foundation, Casey Family Programs, to review the deaths and the agency’s handling of the children's cases.
In many instances, the agency simply dropped the ball, allowing endangered children to just disappear off DCF’s radar, sometimes with case workers merely taking a parent’s word for it that everything was OK. That kind of bureaucratic neglect has to be eradicated, period.
At a meeting of the state Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee this week, DCF Assistant Secretary Stephen Pennypacker outlined reforms recommended by the Casey group. First of all, DCF would put two child-protective investigators on each case instead of one. That makes good sense — two sets of eyes and ears to determine if a child is in a risky situation and what should be done about it.
The use of technology has been increased to prevent investigators from closing cases without making sure of proper follow-up. A safety-plan template has been incorporated into the DCF’s computer system that doesn’t allow a case to be closed if the safety plan is incomplete or unless it has been handed off to a case manager responsible for the next phase. The enhanced technology and use of two investigators per case are being tested in pilot programs in several counties already.
Another crucial change is that investigators and case managers won’t be allowed to just take a parent’s word that a threatening environment will improve, such as when a battered spouse promises to take the children and leave home if another domestic-violence incident occurs.
Another reform is actually a restoration of the agency’s quality-assurance department, from which former Secretary Wilkins cut 72 staff members. Called the rapid-response system, the department will provide feedback in real time during investigations and follow-up case management. Mr. Pennypacker said the agency has trained more than 1,000 people in the new safety-plan requirements.
Interim Secretary Jacobo, who plans to take a position with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office after the legislative session, wants the Legislature to add more positions, an obvious need if case investigations are to be double-teamed and monitored by the quality-assurance staff in all 67 counties.
These reforms, if strictly enforced and sufficiently funded, could save and improve many kids’ lives. But it’s tragic that so many children had to die before DCF sought to reform itself.