If investigators from the state Department of Children & Families had reacted more effectively to signs of parental child abuse, 10-year-old Nubia Barahona might still be alive today.
Instead, her body was found in February 2011 inside a plastic garbage bag on her adoptive father's pickup truck. School authorities had contacted DCF repeatedly about signs of abuse and neglect, only to have their concerns dismissed after being told Nubia was suffering from "medical problems.
Sadly, Nubia's death is just one of many child tragedies that could have been prevented with prompt action by DCF investigators. A recent Miami Herald investigation found that 20 Florida children who came to the attention of DCF have died since April, and our firm has been involved in three of those cases.
Based on my experience, there are four fundamental problems with DCF that go beyond the question of political leadership - who's running the beleaguered agency at the moment.
The first issue is structure. More than a decade ago, the state Legislature decided to move to a community-based care model where private agencies handle foster care, adoption services and other aspects of the child welfare system in their communities.
Although it may have seemed like the right approach at the time, the problems with this model become more apparent each day. It complicates the DCF's mission of protecting Florida children from abuse and neglect and placing them in warm and supportive foster care and adoptive homes. Privatization also introduces the profit motive to the potential detriment of children and families. For instance, a private agency may decide to hire fewer investigators or leave vacant positions unfilled in order to improve its profitability.
The second key issue is funding. Despite DCF's immense statewide responsibility, even with the community-based care model, the department does not receive the dollars it needs necessary to operate effectively. The Legislature is now undertaking some of the work needed to improve the system.
A third problem is lack of training and motivation. Members of DCF's child protective teams should be able to recognize signs of abuse and neglect, and use their judgment and initiative to remove children from dangerous family situations. Unfortunately, well-meaning, hard-working investigators may not have received adequate training about how to handle these situations. Their daily schedules are often overloaded as well, which can prevent them from taking the time to have an extended conversation with the child or the parents -- a key step in making a decision on whether to remove the child.
Investigators also need to feel that their jobs make an important difference in others' lives. That requires a strong management and supervisory team at the local agency level, as well as at DCF. Otherwise, it's all too easy for someone to "burn out" and lose that sense of caring.
Finally, far greater central coordination is needed to ensure that the right information gets to the right people -- especially in crisis situations. If a school official calls the DCF hotline about a suspected child abuse problem, that report will pass through multiple hands before it reaches the investigator. Without a central communications system -- along with a robust database -- it's difficult to determine if immediate action was taken, and if any follow-ups steps are necessary.
I believe that nothing is more important than protecting our state's children from harm. Therefore, we need to give our DCF child protection teams the funding, training, supervision and coordination they need to do a good job. Rather than focusing simply on change at the top, we need to look at make meaningful changes at every level in our system.
Attorney Neal Roth, past president of the Florida Justice Association, is the co-founder of Grossman Roth, a Coral Gables law firm whose practice focuses on personal injury and wrongful death litigation, medical malpractice, complex commercial litigation and class actions.