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Posted on Wed, Mar. 13, 2002
DCF got early alert of problem
Fired firm warned agency in 2000

The vice president of a private company hired to reduce the state's backlog of child abuse cases told the Department of Children & Families it was endangering children by performing shoddy investigations, a warning that came 18 months before the state fired the company.

Documents released to The Herald on Tuesday show that state officials also knew for eight months that the Florida Task Force for the Protection of Abused and Neglected Children was being asked to investigate high-risk abuse and neglect reports -- a task that went well beyond its contract with the state.

''Child safety is being jeopardized,'' Tracy Loomis, the Task Force's vice president, wrote in a Sept. 14, 2000, e-mail to a DCF administrator in Lake County.

The contract also demanded that Florida Task Force workers carry a caseload nearly triple the nationwide standard set by the Child Welfare League of America.

DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney fired Florida Task Force last week following a series of reports in The Herald disclosing serious shortcomings in the company's child abuse investigations. Kearney has ordered that all 13,700 cases the company closed be reviewed by DCF.

''We are going to eyeball all of those cases ... to see if any present a red flag,'' said agency spokeswoman Cecka Green. The agency's inspector general also has begun a wide-ranging investigation to determine whether DCF's handling of backlogged cases contributed to the company's failures, Green said.

''We will take whatever appropriate action we need to to find out what happened,'' Green said.

J. Scott Taylor, the Task Force's lawyer, declined to discuss the ongoing investigation.

In spite of the problems, DCF administrators signed three new contracts in November with Florida Task Force, including one in Miami-Dade County. The Miami-Dade contract set even more stringent demands on the contractor.

In DCF's first contract with the company in May 2000, Florida Task Force was required to hire nine investigators to look into abuse allegations in Central Florida. The caseworkers were expected to investigate at least 72 cases a week -- the minimum number of cases the contract said DCF would refer to the company, records show. In November, the last of three contracts in Miami-Dade specified the Task Force would hire three investigators to close a ``minimum of 40 cases per week.''

DCF was to pay the Task Force $629 for each case it closed, records show.


The result: former Task Force employees say the company set quotas for the number of cases they had to close, which led some investigators to cut corners and leave children at risk.

''Because of the quota system, we did not have the time to put in the services, send in referrals, and get the family the help they need,'' said George Fatolitis, a former Task Force investigator in Central Florida. ``It couldn't be done.''

Two former Task Force employees told a DCF official in December 2000 that 80 percent of the cases they received from DCF ''were inadequate,'' a Sept. 18, 2001, inspector general report said.

According to the report, one child abuse complaint had never been opened before DCF turned it over to the Task Force. In another, the DCF investigator never visited the alleged victim, and the case sat idle for 45 days before it was given to the Task Force.

A second inspector general report completed on Sept. 11, 2001, concluded: 'Many backlogged cases lacked most or all documentation of investigative activity when they were referred to the provider to complete...Management readily admitted that approximately 40 percent of the child abuse cases...had to be `recreated;' in other words, the file contained no documentation.''

As early as September 2000, Loomis, the Task Force's vice president, told a DCF deputy administrator that the department's child abuse investigators were conducting shoddy investigations. Loomis said ''she was seriously concerned for the safety and the well-being of the children in Lake County,'' the inspector wrote.

In particular, Loomis said, DCF investigators were dumping new child abuse allegations into older, backlogged cases after performing no initial investigations. ''These are very creative tactics to reduce workload,'' Loomis wrote.

''Tracy says that since they are under the gun to meet performance requirements in the contract -- and are not getting good cases to close -- this will have a negative impact on their ability to succeed,'' a DCF administrator in Lake County wrote in a November 2000 memo.


In one case in 2000, inspectors found the DCF caseworkers had ignored a child abuse report for three months until new allegations were phoned in to the state's child abuse hot line. Even after the new reports, inspectors said, the agency did nothing.

''This is a very serious case in which there are several areas that need immediate attention to ensure child protection,'' the inspector general wrote Sept. 18, adding that the family had been the subject of several child abuse reports.

Posted on Fri, Mar. 15, 2002

Fired firm handling child-abuse cases had big surplus

A nonprofit company hired to reduce the state's backlog of open child-abuse reports ended last year with a $447,668 surplus -- money a Florida senator is demanding be returned to the state.

The Florida Task Force for the Protection of Abused and Neglected Children also billed taxpayers $488,593 for travel expenses last year, according to a state financial disclosure statement obtained by The Herald.

On Thursday, Task Force Vice President Tracy Loomis said her company was being ''scapegoated'' by the Department of Children & Families and maintained that the state agency was to blame for problems.

DCF officials said their inspector general was continuing to investigate the company, which was fired last week, as well as DCF's own role in the failed privatization effort, which gave rise to allegations that caseworkers falsified records and performed slipshod investigations.

But Sen. Walter ''Skip'' Campbell, a Tamarac Democrat, believes DCF has failed to properly monitor its own private contracts and introduced an amendment to a Senate appropriations bill Thursday requiring independent oversight of all private child welfare contracts.

The amendment passed unanimously.

''The problem we have been seeing throughout state government is mismanagement that is not picked up by anybody -- or is picked up and then swept under the table,'' Campbell said.


Since June 2000, DCF has paid the Pinellas Park-based Task Force $4.8 million to investigate and close 13,752 child-abuse and neglect reports that had remained open for at least 60 days. The company worked in six DCF districts, including Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

Two recent DCF audits in Miami-Dade and another in four counties on the Treasure Coast showed that, among 27 files reviewed by the social service agency, Task Force caseworkers failed in all but one case to thoroughly assess children's safety.

Former employees said the company set quotas for the number of cases to be closed each week.

Loomis strongly defended her company's actions Thursday, saying its investigators helped protect many children who otherwise could have suffered additional harm while the abuse and neglect reports languished at DCF.

''Cases we were closing were 100 times better than sitting on somebody's desk [at DCF] not being touched for two years,'' Loomis said. DCF inspector general reports show Loomis complained to DCF administrators in September 2000 that children in Central Florida were in jeopardy because department investigators performed shoddy work.

Loomis said the travel expenses stemmed from an agreement with DCF that increased costs significantly.

''They asked us to have a gentleman's agreement with them not to hire their staff, or or any staff in the [local] area,'' she said. ``That's why we hired staff from different locations, and they had to travel all over the state.''

LaNedra Carroll, a DCF spokeswoman in Tallahassee, said the agency will await the findings of its inspector general's probe before taking any further action.

''We are not doing business with them anymore. The inspector general is still investigating,'' Carroll said. ``I would imagine that if there is any [problem of a financial] nature out there, they will be looking at it as well.''


In a statement to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates nonprofit companies and charitable giving, the Task Force reported a surplus of $447,668 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2001. The company reported no liabilities.

Christina A. Zawisza, who heads the Children First Project at Nova Southeastern University's law school, said most nonprofits -- including her own -- have to pinch pennies to make payroll. Zawisza laughed when asked whether the law clinic, which provides legal services to children, had a cash surplus.

''We're always scrambling for every penny,'' she said.

Campbell called the surplus an ``unbelievable fraud.''

''At the end of the year, a not-for-profit should not have any money in the bank as profit,'' Campbell said. ``If you do, you are a for-profit organization, and any excess funds should be given back to the [state].''

Loomis said the Task Force routinely kept cash balances in the bank, as do most nonprofits. ''When you close out the month of December, expenses roll over into the month of January,'' she said.

``You can't end December with zero dollars and start January with no money in the bank.''