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Critics Put Florida Child Welfare System Under The Microscope

TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — After a wave of child deaths since the end of the spring legislative session, Florida lawmakers this week started looking for ways to improve the state's child-welfare system — and got an earful from a dependency court judge.

"Something in the system is fundamentally wrong," Circuit Judge Larry Schack told the House Healthy Families Subcommittee on Tuesday. "I submit to you that the system in Florida does not and can't function effectively the way it's structured."

The judge's remarks came as the panel began scrutinizing how the state could have failed the 20 children who died since April, despite having come into contact with the Department of Children and Families before their deaths.

He described case managers who placed children in homes without conducting safety checks or allowed substance-abusing parents to pick the days they would be tested for drugs.

"I experienced lying and deception in court," said Schack, who handles cases in the 19th Judicial Circuit, which includes Okeechobee, St. Lucie, Martin and Indian River counties.

Schack's remarks also put a finger on tensions between the Department of Children and Families, which oversees child protection, and the community-based care organizations, known as CBCs, which are responsible for child-welfare services in 19 areas of the state.

"The secretary doesn't control the case managers — the CBCs control them," Schack said. "The secretary doesn't control adoptions — the CBC controls them. The secretary doesn't control the CBCs, and I think the former secretary was pretty clearly advised that he could not interfere in how the CBCs were being run."

The former DCF secretary, David Wilkins, resigned under fire on July 18 — partly due to criticism over the children's deaths, but partly due to a long-running struggle for supremacy with the community-based care organizations that reached Gov. Rick Scott's office.

Wilkins was replaced by Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, who addressed Harrell's subcommittee before Schack spoke.

The judge's remarks flew in the face of conventional legislative wisdom, which holds that the child welfare system has been greatly improved by the privatized community-based care agencies.

"Stability at the community level is the key to a strong system of care that marches on when leadership changes," said John Cooper, CEO of Kids Central, Inc, the community-based care organization in Ocala and a former DCF assistant secretary.

Cooper told the House committee that Florida was a leader in national outcome measures for child welfare.

Kurt Kelly, CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the community-based care organizations, said people from other states call him for advice because "Florida is doing it right."

But Kelly also acknowledged problems, including high caseworker turnover and a high ratio of caseworkers to children. He said the ratio should be 1 to 12 but is closer to 1 to 20. .

"That will be a commitment, and the Legislature can look at the resources," he said.

The CBCs are expected to ask for a substantial increase in the $769 million they currently receive, although spokeswoman Allison North Jones said the amount hadn't been determined yet.

Jacobo acknowledged that the caseloads for frontline staff are too high, saying DCF strives to have 12 to 15, but "it doesn't always work."

But she said that's not really the issue.

"I think the issue is missing big recurring factors, families that are chronic in our system," she said. "They're safe for the moment, but there are chronic issues that we're not addressing that may lead to a bad result later on."

Harrell asked Jacobo if she was seeing more referrals to the community-based care organizations for services for high-risk families.

"It depends on where you are in the state," Jacobo replied. "There are places in the state that don't even have the service available…It really is incumbent upon us to push our CBC partners to fund those services so we can serve families across the state in that way."

Harrell said she sees some CBCs working, others not. She said her committee would take on child welfare as a major challenge in the upcoming legislative session.

"I want some concrete solutions," said Harrell. "I've heard the sound of money dingling out there. I've heard dollar signs and things— more money in the system. I want concrete solutions, not pie in the sky."