The question before the Senate committee was simple: Why did Florida’s child welfare system fail to protect the more than 40 children who are known to have died under its care between January and July?
Six experts, including the secretary of the Department of Children and Families, had theories, but no answers, at the three-hour hearing of the Senate Children and Families Committee.
Child protective investigators and caseworkers are ill-equipped and over-worked, was a common conclusion. The family safety plans —programs designed by the department to keep children safe —are inadequate, ineffective or unused, others said. And all concluded that Florida does little to break the recurring cycle of abused kids becoming abusive parents.
The committee’s goal is to convert those theories into legislation “to create a culture of safety for our most vulnerable children,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, the committee chair.
The experts made recommendations: from hiring skilled social workers, curbing turnover, drastically reducing worker caseloads, restoring budget cuts to providing more resources for mental health and substance abuse programs.
“There are no silver bullets,’’ Sobel concluded. "But I really believe there might be a silver lining if we all work together.”
Christina Spudeas, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Florida Children’s First, chastised the DCF for reducing its quality assurance staff by 72 percent and allowing agencies to contract with each other to provide the required third party review.
“In order for us as a community to put in place the proper system is to No. 1, have an awareness that these things are happening,” Spudeas said. “This recent rash of child deaths is alarming but how do we know this is unusual. If it weren’t for the Miami Herald and that series of reports, I don’t know that we would be here today.”
Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, 365 children have died because of reported abuse in Florida, said DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo, as horrendous as this sounds, she said, it’s lower than in recent years.
DCF asked the Casey Family Programs to study 40 of those deaths in which families had interactions with the child welfare system.
The scathing report, delivered Monday, found that when the agency was warned that children in high risk situation were vulnerable to abuse, it rarely intervened in a meaningful way, botched its investigations and left children in a troubled homes without a plan to protect them.
Jacobo summarize the findings of the Casey Report to the Senate committee and, at a hearing before the House Healthy Families Subcommittee, she outlined her agency’s response. Neither committee had seen the report and did not discuss it.
"We’ve seen these for many years,’’ Jacobo told the Senate committee. “These are not something new.”
Jacobo said a principal focus of her agency will be on training child protection investigators in new safety plans that, she said, will be a “national model.” While there is no additional money set aside the for the program, she was confident there would be more resources in the future.
"We’re already I discussions with the governor’s office about additional resources in child welfare,’’ she said. “So yes, we are going to be talking about more resources.”
Jacobo acknowledged that Gov. Rick Scott has asked her agency to cut its budget next year despite these needs and has acknowledged that if hundreds of positions are not restored the ability of the agency to protect children will be hurt. But, she said, she is confident the cuts won’t come from child welfare programs and is hopeful that previous budget cuts will be restored.
“Less positions in the field or less positions in quality assurance are big issues for us and we are definitely talking about how to restore those things,’’ she said.
She said that protecting children is “a top priority for the governor.”
"We’re going to ask for what we need,’’ she said. "I’m very confident that with the kind of information that we now have, and the kind of analysis, we will get what we need and the governor will be happy to champion that for us."
She added, however, that she cannot predict there will not be another child death.
"What I can assure everyone is we are working towards making the system better. We are putting in safeguards,’’ she said. "... but can I guarantee it to you and the public? I can’t guarantee what people are going to do to children but we will do our best to keep them safe."
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, asked why the agency did not follow up on safety plans, as recommended by agency policy.
Jacobo said case workers too often “weren’t educated on what a real safety plans is and what that means.
“You can’t walk away from a family and understand that the loop is closed,’’ she said. “That has been a problem for many years.”
Katherine Essrig, a judge from the 13th Judicial Circuit, said that the vast majority of families she deals with have mental health and substance abuse issues but “we have such a dearth of good services and we really aren’t solving that problem.”
Sobel asked Jacobo what recommendations she had for legislation to fix the problems.
“I will think about it and get back to you, but I’m not prepared to do it today,” she replied.
That brought a scolding from Sobel, who said a summer of bad publicity should have given her time “to formulate legislation so we don’t have the 25 deaths.”
“We could study ideas and philosophies to death,’’ Sobel said. “But its time for us to change the system…I expected from you more of a definitive answer.”
The Senate panel also spent much of the meeting discussing the governmental structure in place to protect children and whether the privatized model that has created local Community-Based Care organizations in partnership with the state is still the best approach.
Kurt Kelly, CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children, the advocacy group for the community based care organizations, lauded the arrangement as so innovative that other states want to model it.
"Under no circumstances, do I want to come in here and say we have arrived,’’ he said. “Florida has done amazing work in this area. Is it perfect? Of course not.”
But Pam Graham, associate professor at the Florida State University School of Social Work, and Spudeas said the system is clearly in need of work.
"I don’t know that one system or the other is better or worse,’’ she said. “It’s looking at what the end results are.”
Graham said the privatized model is fragmented, lacks consistency and inefficiently uses and deploys resources.
Spudeas spoke of the heartwarming story of 15-year-old Damien Only who put on a ill-fitting suit and walked into a Pinellas County church in September and asked to be adopted. Born to a mother in prison, he had been in the child protective system since birth, lived in multiple foster care homes, attended numerous schools and only learned that his mother had died when he asked for a copy of his own birth certificate and looked it up online.
“I know it’s a wonderful story for the rest of the nation, but to me it’s alarming,” she said. “No, we don’t have a perfect system. We do need to look at it. I think the jury’s out.”