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NOTE: Ashleigh's case began years before Jeb Bush's administration lost track of little Rilya Wilson, a deplorable mess. This report and others show that the symptoms of DCF's abuse were known, and ignored.

The plight of Florida's children reveal a grave ineptitude and deplorable system run amok. During the nearly 4 years spent in state facilities, away from her father who had raised her from birth, Ashleigh was denied visitation from her father, molested while in state care, even denied a birthday party. While Ashleigh's childhood was stolen and her life remains in tatters, Rilya's whereabouts remain unknown.


Published Thursday, February 22, 2001, in the Miami Herald

State child services worsening, report says

Two years after Kayla McKean was murdered by her father and memorialized in a state law designed to protect Florida's children from harm, investigators say the state's chronically troubled child protection system has gotten worse.

In virtually every category studied by state watchdogs in a report that soon will be released, performance by the state's child protection agency, the Department of Children and Families, declined during the last two years while the amount of money spent doubled.

According to the report, the agency did a poor job of quickly visiting reported child abuse victims, closing investigations and returning children to their parents. The agency also is criticized for failing to ensure that children are not abused again after returning home and protect children in its care.

``It certainly confirms what those of us who work in the child welfare area already know: the state is not doing a good job for our children, and if something doesn't change soon more children will be harmed and more children will die,'' said Carolyn Salisbury, associate director of the University of Miami Law School's Children and Youth Law Clinic.


Among the findings:

*  Tens of thousands of cases remain open for more than 45 days.

The backlog of open child abuse cases, or cases open longer than 45 days, increased by nearly 10 percent from July through November 2000 -- from 44,600 cases to 48,529 cases. Between July 1998 and June 2000, the backlog increased by 665 percent.

*  In about half of all cases, investigators take more than 24 hours to respond to abuse complaints.

For fiscal year 1998-1999, investigators met face to face with alleged child abuse victims within 24 hours of receiving a report -- as required by state regulation -- in 54.9 percent of 87,421 calls. The next year, 53.6 percent of 95,951 calls resulted in meetings within the 24-hour period.

*  Foster children continue to be abused at alarming rates.

The legislative goal is that no more than 3 percent of foster children be abused while in state care. In 1998, just less than 4 percent of children in state care were abused. Last year, that figure climbed to more than 8 percent.

``That's horrifying,'' said Howard Talenfeld, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents 1,430 Broward County foster children in a pending 1998 federal class-action lawsuit. ``Unfortunately, statistics don't tell the individual horrors that these children experience behind the veil of confidentiality. ``This is not a very good report card,'' Talenfeld added.

Said Chris Zawisza, who heads the Children First Project at Nova Southeastern University's Shepard Broad Law Center: ``I think it's shocking. It's hard to explain why they can't get better.''

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, which wrote the draft report, independently audits and evaluates state policies and services for the Florida Legislature.

At a hastily called 5 p.m. Wednesday news conference, Children and Families Secretary Kathleen Kearney issued a statement criticizing the ``premature'' release of the report.

Kearney said the audit's latest figures are 8 months old and that it often takes up to two years for increased spending to achieve results. Kearney said the agency is performing much better and would provide further details today.

``There has been significant improvement in the past six months that [the accountability office] does not have the benefit of,'' Kearney said.

Kearney protested that her office has been denied the 10-day period in which to formally respond to the findings. But state accountability officials said it gave Kearney's office the report Feb. 9, more than 10 days ago. Kearney said the agency received an extension of the 10-day period to give auditors more time to interview child welfare supervisors and other staffers.

In 1999, the Legislature overhauled the state's child protection laws, making 30 significant changes. The law was named after Kayla McKean, the 6-year-old Lake County girl beaten to death by her father after investigators botched several previous reports of child abuse.


Lawmakers also doubled the Department of Children and Families' child protection budget, adding scores of abuse investigators statewide and upgrading salaries in an attempt to improve hiring and retention. But the yearly turnover rate for family service counselors statewide increased from 19.2 percent in fiscal 1997-1998 to 24.2 percent last year, the report added.

Although performance has improved slightly in the four counties where sheriff's departments have taken over child abuse investigations from the Children and Families, progress has come at a high cost. Sheriff's offices spend almost 40 percent more per investigation than the agency, the report says.

Herald Capitol Bureau Chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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