|Posted on Wed, Mar. 13, 2002
DCF got early alert of problem
Fired firm warned agency in 2000
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
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.
ABUSE HOT LINE
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