Miami-Dade County

Fix child welfare mess, Miami-Dade lawmakers told

Speaker after speaker told Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation Monday that fixing Florida’s broken child welfare system requires more resources and better training for those on the frontlines. They asked lawmakers to do something.

In a two-hour meeting headed by Rep. Jose F. Diaz, vice chairman of the delegation, legislators were told more money is needed to create a stronger safety net for children facing risks — even if it means tapping the state’s budget surplus.

“I would like to put this back on you — this is about funding,’’ said Walter Lambert, the chief doctor of Miami’s Child Protection Team, who made a similar plea at a meeting in Broward last month.

The Department of Children & Families has had at least 20 children die while on its radar since the spring — a number that has placed the agency under intense public scrutiny.

The panel of child-welfare experts described a world in which low-paid investigators with insufficient training were saddled with high case loads and required to make critical decisions about the care of a child. They said more funding is needed to support or expand services that address the triggers that create some of the riskiest environments.

Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, appointed amid the cluster of deaths, said the agency has already launched three pilot programs in which child protective investigators are teamed up in pairs on cases involving young children under 5 and the risk factors of substance abuse, mental health issues and domestic violence.

“We don’t want the investigators to be isolated when making those risk decisions,’’ she said, adding that an independent national organization was studying the deaths and would have a report and recommendations soon.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, who presides over child protection cases, said the state’s family intervention program was “a colossal failure” — underfunded, plagued with too few specialists to handle the case loads and uneven in its follow-up.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, who presides over juvenile court in Miami-Dade, said the investigative component of the system — which determines the risk the child is facing — should be privatized.

“The kids are left in the homes way too long. They have been looking for present danger. They are not looking at how the family is functioning, the history. No bruises, no case,’’ she said. “It needs to be removed from the DCF.’’

The meeting, which drew dozens of children advocates, community-based organizations, social workers and foster parents, was held days after another Florida child died in a case in which DCF was involved.

Tamiyah Audain, a severely disabled Lauderhill girl, died last week in what appears to be a case of starvation or neglect. Diagnosed with autism and a genetic condition, Tamiyah was taken into state care in December after her mother died and her father declined to be responsible for her care. She was sent to live with a cousin under the care of ChildNet, Broward County’s privately run child welfare agency under contract with DCF.

Both DCF officials and Lauderhill police have declined to discuss the case, which remains under investigation.

She is one of at least 20 children living in Florida who have died since the spring and whose families were or had been under the watch of the DCF. As the number of child deaths increased, the head of DCF, Secretary David Wilkins, resigned in July. Jacobo is serving as the interim secretary.

In August, legislators, judges, city officials, children’s advocates and foster parents met in Broward to discuss changes they believe need to be made — including stiffer child welfare laws — to save lives.