Broward County

Broward’s child welfare system failing, report says

Burdened with high caseloads and mired in millions of dollars in debt, the lead agency in Broward’s child welfare system is failing.

That’s the gist of a 15-page state task force report obtained by FloridaBulldog.org about ChildNet Broward, the nonprofit that received $67 million from Florida’s Department of Children & Families (DCF) this year to provide community-based child welfare services.

Underscoring what the report called the “urgent” need for corrective action, about 80 leaders from various agencies and other community stakeholders met on June 7 to review the current system of care and begin to figure out how to fix it. The meeting and the report, however, were not publicly announced.

The state’s 11-member “Risk Pool Review Committee” began its review of ChildNet after it sought additional state funds last winter to cover a $7.6 million deficit. ChildNet’s deficit grew to $8.2 million by the time the report was submitted to DCF Secretary Mike Carroll on March 28.

“The analysis identified several factors that are placing considerable strain on Broward County’s child welfare agencies which must be addressed quickly,” Carroll said in an email announcing the June 7 meeting at the department’s Broward office at 1400 West Commercial Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale. The meeting’s goal: to “reach agreement on a comprehensive action plan,” Carroll wrote.

Carroll declined to be interviewed, but State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said Monday that no comprehensive action plan was adopted at the meeting.

“They’re reviewing everything,” said Sobel, who chairs the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs. “The real problem that came into focus at this meeting was the judiciary. They don’t have enough judges to go through these cases in an expeditious and efficient manner.”

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, however, announced at the meeting that he would add two child dependency judges in the coming weeks, Sobel said.

Judge Hope Tieman Bristol, chair of the juvenile dependency division, did not response to repeated requests for comment.

The task force recommended ChildNet be given the extra funds, “contingent on their agreement to develop a corrective action plan,” including making sure abuse cases are appropriately entered into the Florida Safe Families Network database to improve state oversight.

Report ‘absolutely accurate’

ChildNet President/CEO Emilio Benitez, who called the task force report “absolutely accurate,” said Tuesday that Secretary Carroll approved $6.1 million, but the money has yet to be disbursed.

“It reduces the deficit significantly,” Benitez said.

The grant funds are to come from a $13 million state Risk Pool established by the Legislature to mitigate the financial risk to eligible “lead” child welfare agencies in communities around the state.

ChildNet Broward operates under a five-year contract with DCF. In its application for Risk Pool funding, ChildNet cited “staggering increases” in the number of at-risk children entering the county’s child welfare system. There were 3,601 dependent children in the system on Jan. 10, 2016 — the most since 2004 — and 1,287 more than on January 2014, ChildNet said.

“A major contributor has clearly been similarly record-setting increases in the number of children removed (from at-risk homes) by the Broward Sheriff’s Office Child Protective Investigators,” the application says. Nearly 1,400 children were removed in 2015.

Curiously, the task force reported that the removal rate in Broward, a county where the rate of child poverty is below the state average, was 7.8 per 100 children investigated last summer, compared to the statewide rate of 6.4 per 100 children investigated.

The committee, comprised of 11 child welfare experts from around the state, concluded that ChildNet’s ballooning caseloads are the result of both increased removals and fewer discharges from care, “leading to a significant increase in the number of children in out-of-home care.”

The background to those trends has been a decline in core services funds between 2010 and 2015. The result: “higher costs and declining quality,” the task force report said.

The report cited a “robust array of both governmental and private organizations” exist to address child welfare, including the Children Services Council that spends millions in tax dollars on prevention and diversion services targeted to children in the system. “But ChildNet needs to develop in-home services for unsafe children and for safety management to help alleviate some of the removals,” the report says.

Splintered child welfare system

The report was also critical of the splintered structure of Broward’s child welfare system.

“The responsibility for essential components of the system of care is spread among several different entities including the Broward Sheriff’s Office for the Child Protective Investigation function, the Office of the Attorney General for the Children’s Legal Services function and the Lead Agency (ChildNet) for child welfare functions,” the report says. “Unless there is a strong sense of community ownership of the child welfare system of care, different organizations may be accountable for part of the system but effective management of the overall system can suffer.”

Current trends “indicate that ChildNet is not on a path of longer term sustainability,” the report says. Risk Pool funding will avoid service disruptions this year, but without a “significant infusion of resources” ChildNet “is likely to experience a significant deficit next fiscal year.”

Still, Benitez was optimistic about ChildNet’s future.

“We have made a tremendous impact since the report and I think we are now heading in the right direction,” he said. “All the partners are now working together to find a solution.”

Florida Bulldog is a not-for-profit news organization created to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. Contributions are tax-deductible. www.floridabulldog.org

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