Fix Florida's broken child welfare system

Current weak policies don't hold parents accountable

March 21, 2014 

Esther Jacobo, interim secretary of the Department of Children & Families, admits her department has failed hundreds of Florida children.

Not long ago, the director of Florida's Department of Children and Families confronted the issue of hundreds of child deaths by stating the agency wasn't "broken," just "challenged." Under the unspeakable circumstances in many of those preventable deaths, that tone deaf remark sounded dismissive.

Today, Esther Jacobo, DCF's interim secretary, still defends policies that failed the agency's primary mission -- to protect children from abuse and neglect.

In an exhaustive investigation that brought a series of reports titled "Innocents Lost," the Miami Herald exposed an agency riddled with deficiencies. The Bradenton Herald's sister newspaper chronicled the deaths of 477 children -- including 15 in Manatee County -- over the past six years whose families had been involved with DCF. More than 70 percent of those children were just 2 years old or younger.

Change policy, save money

The state changed course on child-welfare policy and family intervention almost a decade ago -- basically, veering off the road.

The state adopted a doctrine of family preservation instead of at-risk child removal, thereby reducing the number of children absorbed into state care by a significant number.

Since 2003, that figure plunged from 30,200 to 18,185, an improbable drop during a time span that featured the Great Recession and increased family stress and difficulties.

The state also saved money by slashing services and family monitoring, resulting in more children left with substance abusing, neglectful and violent parents.

While Florida's overall state spending soared by $10 billion from 2005 to 2013, child-welfare resources absorbed an $80 million reduction. In the current fiscal year, DCF's budget suffered an $88 million reduction.

The Herald probe discovered that the number of children who perished from abuse or neglect jumped after these new policies were implemented, an indication of a broken system.

This unwarranted and shameful situation finally caught Tallahassee's attention -- thanks to the Miami Herald's year-long coverage of DCF's child-protection failures which spurred town-hall meetings and legislative hearings. The current in-depth exposé -- published this week -- provides additional ammunition for change.

Last month, Gov. Rick Scott recommended an almost $40 million plan to hire more investigators, a fraction of the lost resources over the past 10 years.

DCF's 'challenges'

These are a few of DCF's "challenges":

• Either drugs or alcohol came up in 323 of the child deaths, but the state reduced funding for drug treatment.

• Parents were granted numerous opportunities to improve. In one troubling case, DCF took 26 calls about an endangered infant before the 1-year-old's death. The mother, with 18 arrests, also had a record of numerous DCF reports of chronic drug abuse yet the agency failed to remove the infant in an abundantly clear case of wanton neglect.

• Florida appears too loathe to terminate parental rights. DCF's own lawyers often presented obstacles by citing the lack of "legal sufficiency" -- even when investigators and doctors trained to recognize abuse sought the child's removal.

• The state focused on "safety plans" to keep families together rather than seeking court orders for treatment or counseling. These written promises by parents carried little oversight, and in more than 80 of the child deaths, their parents signed one or more of these pledges. Sometimes parents wrote there own safety plans, with DCF apparently hoping for the best outcome.

Reform state law

This week Jacobo defended DCF's policies concerning family preservation and safety plans during a House Health Families Subcommittee meeting. She did admit the agency needs more money and service to stitch up the safety net. That sounds like throwing more money at a poorly performing system instead of reforming it.

The House and Senate have the right idea, rewriting state child welfare laws with upgrading safety plans among the proposals.

Florida's child welfare system desperately needs major changes -- before more children are lost to both parental and state neglect.

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