Child-welfare workers falsified data

ORLANDO — More than 70 Florida child-welfare workers falsified records in the last two years, leaving 14 children in unsafe homes and causing the state Department of Children and Families to temporarily lose track of at least six other children, a newspaper reported Sunday.

The falsified records included reports about mandatory monthly visits with foster children and reports about child abuse investigations, according to a review of state and county records by the Orlando Sentinel. Caseworkers questioned about their phony paperwork repeatedly complained they had been assigned too many children to watch, the report said.

The newspaper said it found:

n Police discovered four foster children living in tents in a yard of a Wildwood house with no running water, food or clean clothing, the day after a caseworker reported she had inspected the home.

n A child wound up living with an uncle awaiting trial on child-rape charges after a Hardee County caseworker lied about making home visits.

n Two Hernando County children living with a grandfather who had been arrested for allegedly abusing his own child.

n A caseworker dropped a girl off at her aunt’s for a weekend visit but never returned, stranding the girl there for three or four months.

No child was hurt because of the falsified reports, DCF said. But an investigation into the 2007 death of a neglected Jacksonville newborn revealed that his caseworker had falsified records in four other cases.

The number of confirmed falsifications amounts to about half a percent of the department’s total caseload, said John Cooper, acting assistant DCF secretary for operations.

Half the caseworkers who falsified records in 2007 and 2008 were DCF employees, while the others worked for private contractors hired by the agency to supervise child-safety cases.

Nearly half were prosecuted, according to state and court records. Almost all were fired or quit.

The Child Welfare League of America recommends that social workers handle no more than 15 foster children’s cases at any one time.

DCF does not cap the number of cases its contractors and employees handle, though Judi Spann, the agency’s deputy chief of staff, told the newspaper that the statewide average workload was 14 to 22 foster care cases per caseworker.

Florida overhauled its child-welfare system and began outsourcing much of its child-safety workers after authorities discovered in 2002 that a Miami foster child, 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, had been missing for 15 months without DCF knowledge. Her caseworker had stopped making face-to-face visits. The child has never been found.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon said the agency plans to police workers more closely.

Those efforts include hand-held global-positioning units that allow caseworkers to write up notes in the field — and confirm that home visits took place.

Hundreds of the units are being tested in Miami, though a dispute over who should provide software for the system has stalled the effort.