Legislature to attempt to fix state’s broken child welfare system

Florida’s child welfare system needs an overhaul, and repairing the cracks that allowed more than 20 children to die this summer will be the focus of legislation next spring, the head of the oversight committee of the Florida House of Representatives said Tuesday.

”I’m looking for concrete ideas, solutions,’’ Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, told the House Healthy Families Subcommittee at the conclusion of what will be the first of several hearings on the issue. “Let’s take this on as a major challenge this year.”

Since mid-April, at least 20 children known to the Department of Children & Families have died, mostly from abuse or neglect, some of them in particularly brutal ways, a review of state files by the Miami Herald found.

After four children died over a stretch of six weeks, DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned and was replaced by interim secretary Esther Jacobo.

Harrell said the goal is to find ways to “change the culture” of the child welfare system as well as examine the need for additional funding and eliminate the counterproductive laws that “create bottlenecks.”

Harrell’s counterpart in the Senate, state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, who conducted a legislative hearing on the child deaths in Broward County in August, is also expected to pursue legislation during the regular session that begins in March.

Jacobo, who had previously been DCF’s regional director in Miami-Dade County, told the House committee Tuesday that she has embarked on a sweeping change in the way the agency handles abuse cases. The goal is to shift from an incident-driven review of reported threats to children to one that provides a comprehensive assessment of a family’s needs and gets them immediate assistance.

In the department’s review of the recent child deaths, she said they have found a recurring theme: “There are chronic issues that we’re not addressing that may leave a bad result later on.”

Jacobo said she hopes to have in place a new safety framework at the agency by December. But her optimism was dashed by a more harsh critic of the system: Judge Larry Schack of the 19th Judicial Circuit in St. Lucie County.

A 23-year veteran of the bench, Schack serves as the sole dependency judge in his county and, during that time has been responsible for the fate of 707 children, he said, “as though they were my own.”

He called the dependency system in Florida broken because “no one is in charge,’’ resources are “woefully inadequate,” assistance is illusory and those factors breed a “cycle of tragedy.”

“In the 33 years I’ve lived in Florida, I have observed the repetitive cycle of child injuries, disappearances and deaths and the resulting well-intentioned changes to the system that never cure the problems,’’ he said.

While other speakers told the committee that Florida’s community-based system is a model for the nation, Schack described it as a fragmented system that deprives the DCF secretary with the authority he or she needs to keep the system accountable.

For example, in some counties, sheriffs investigate child abuse cases, in others the secretary controls it, he said. In some counties, DCF controls the attorneys who prosecute abuse and neglect, while others rely on the attorney general. The secretary, he said, doesn’t control adoptions and doesn’t control who gets what service — because it is contracted out with community-based care organizations.

“So if there is a problem with case management, adoptions or services and the Secretary wants to act — he or she has to ask the CBC (or managing entity) to make a change and hope that it does,’’ he said. “…The bottom line is that there is no vertical control over the system.’’

But in a signal of how difficult it will be to find consensus, Kurt Kelly, a former Republican legislator from Ocala who now heads the Florida Coalition for Children and believes the system needs improvements, said he disagreed with Schack’s assessment that DCF needs more control.

“DCF is in charge,’’ Kelly said after the meeting. “You can’t say they can’t make decisions. Hogwash. They have made a lot of decisions in that respect. They are constantly involved in the process.”

He said the community-based care organizations are accountable to their local boards and the Legislature. “Can we improve that?,’’ he said. “Certainly.”