Solutions must go deep

For the past 23 years, I have worked in Florida’s child-protection system as a front-line case manager, investigator, supervisor, manager, policy director, deputy and district administrator.

I currently serve as CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care, a nonprofit community agency responsible for foster care, behavioral health and related services in 18 counties stretching from Pensacola to Tallahassee.

I can say unequivocally that the “system” is starkly different than when I started — and mostly for the better. However, we continue to fundamentally struggle with operating a competent statewide system, meeting the public’s expectations and securing the necessary resources to meet the needs of our children.

I am convinced that the only way for us to succeed is to expand local ownership, define success and advocate for the necessary resources to treat the root causes of child abuse and neglect.

As Florida becomes the third largest state in the nation, the responsibility for caring for children who are abused and neglected should be placed in the hands of local communities. The Department of Children & Families does not possess the requisite capacity or workforce to credibly operate a competent statewide system that includes the delivery of direct services, and I would argue that as a government entity that is not its role. However, DCF should maintain a general oversight and contractor role while serving as Florida’s chief child advocate. Divested of all direct services managed at the state level (Florida abuse hotline, child protective investigations and child legal services), DCF would be in a prime position to provide appropriate oversight.

Communities, after all, have ownership and the ability to achieve greater success by tailoring services for their specific populations. They have the advantages of a smaller span of control and direct knowledge of their strengths, needs and resources while controlling their own labor pool. They are the best stewards to determine local priorities, establish standards of care and partner with critical stakeholders.

Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders was famously quoted as saying, “Just win, baby!” The Florida Legislature could help immensely by defining success in child protection. Ninety-nine percent of the people I’ve worked with are highly motivated to succeed — but what constitutes a win?

Child abuse and neglect is, unfortunately, a high-volume business with no room for error.

Imagine a business responsible for tens of thousands of daily transactions that could ultimately result in loss of a child’s life. The responsibility is immense, and the risk is immeasurable. This work demands a clear and effective game plan and a team where everyone is competent in their position from top to bottom.

The Legislature will never be able to craft the perfect statute that ensures public confidence or legislates competency in child protection. It can, however, provide the policy framework to define measurable and meaningful success for child protection.

To prevent and eliminate the root causes of child abuse and neglect in Florida, one must understand and address the underlying intersection of child abuse and the often co-occurring instances of domestic violence, substance abuse or mental-health issues. The majority of our cases involve these complexities, and addressing them requires resources, diligence and willingness to create a new blueprint for comprehensive service provision to children in our care. Child protective investigators in Florida are fact finders, and case managers are scorekeepers determining when abused or neglected children can remain safely at home with or without ongoing services.

Despite the fact that Florida is routinely ranked 49th states in funding for child protection and behavioral health services, DCF did not request any additional child protection funds for the 2014-2015 legislative budget. However, Gov. Rick Scott,

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have recently committed to providing additional resources for child protection. While funding for case management is important, it is equally critical to dedicate funding for substance abuse, mental health and domestic-violence services to reduce and eliminate child abuse.

While I commend the Florida Legislature for its commitment to reform child protection, I urge lawmakers to delay any action during the 2014 session that doesn’t materially change the treatment of child abuse and neglect, or rights of children. Instead, I recommend a joint legislative committee to engage input from our communities, stakeholders and substantive experts to develop a comprehensive policy, not a Band-aid.

Finally, I’m always asked why I continue to work in a profession that sees the darkest acts known to our society and persecutes the very men and women that do the work. Each time, I am reminded of the little faces I’ve seen, not unlike my own children, and of Nelson Mandela’s quote, “Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”

Michael Watkins is CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care, a nonprofit community agency in North Florida.

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