Active Link to Miami Herald
Posted on Tue, May. 28, 2002
Foster care 'successes' not always clear-cut
Looser standards boost numbers
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER AND PETER WALLSTEN
Gov. Jeb Bush and the leaders of Florida's child welfare agency often boast that they have succeeded in moving troubled children out of foster care and into loving homes at a faster rate than ever before -- and achievements were cited in at least one recent state audit.
But a Herald review of records indicates that such a conclusion is not so clear-cut. In fact, according to a footnote in the audit, those ''exits'' from foster care are often calculated by including children who leave because they die, run away or wind up in juvenile lockup.
The review also found that other aspects of the administration's record are open to interpretation. For example:
The agency was unable to meet a requirement to investigate and ''close'' abuse reports in 30 days in a majority of cases. So it persuaded lawmakers in 2000 to move the goal post, allowing a looser standard of 60 days to close reports. But even now, the agency still fails to meet that new goal most of the time.
The DCF has significantly reduced its backlog of unresolved cases, in part by contracting many of them out to a private company. But the agency was forced to reinvestigate more than 13,000 of those cases after learning that the company had failed to properly carry out the required investigations.
The department successfully urged lawmakers this year to change a requirement that children alleged to be the victims of abuse or neglect be seen by an investigator within 24 hours of a report to the state's hot line. Now, the investigators are required only to ''commence'' work on a case -- a looser standard that allows the agency to declare success far more often.
The department's record has come under increased scrutiny in the weeks since the agency reported the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, who has been missing from foster care for perhaps as long as 16 months. Her caregiver has told police that a woman claiming to represent the DCF picked up the child in January 2001, but neither the agency nor police can find the child.
With Rilya's disappearance raising questions about Gov. Bush's leadership on child welfare in the midst of his run for reelection, both Bush and Department of Children & Families Secretary Kathleen Kearney have taken pains to defend their record.
Facing criticism from political opponents who argue that he has not fulfilled his 1998 campaign promises to rehabilitate the system, the governor and Kearney often reel off accomplishments that range from doubling funding since taking over from Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles to lowering the workload for DCF caseworkers.
They have called Rilya's an ``isolated case.''
Indeed, a legislative auditor wrote in March that the agency has improved its ability to ensure that 30 percent of the department's children exit foster care within 12 months -- a legislative mandate. In fiscal year 2000-2001, 30.9 percent of foster children exited within 12 months, an improvement over the prior year's 23.2 percent.
In footnoted fine print, though, the auditors said the figure given for children ''exiting'' care included runaways, delinquents in juvenile lockup or adult prison, and children who had died. Moreover, the audit said, the 2000-2001 numbers included 467 children who also were included in the prior year's data.
Mike Watkins, the DCF's director of family safety programs, says the number of deaths, runaways and jailed children is so small that it has no serious effect on the statistic.
RECORD ON ADOPTIONS
What's more, Watkins says, the agency has had great success in moving more children into adoption.
The proportion of foster children available for adoptions, according to Watkins, has risen from about 58 percent during the year Bush took office to more than 64 percent last year.
Another indicator that seems to have improved is the department's effort to close child abuse investigations. But that is at least in part because the agency has changed the standard it uses.
In 1999-2000, when lawmakers required the department to conduct and ''close'' all child abuse investigations within 30 days, the goal was met in only about 38 percent of cases that year, according to the March 2002 legislative audit.
''Historically, the program has had difficulty closing investigations within statutory time frames,'' said the audit, which was conducted by the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
In 2000, department officials convinced lawmakers to change the time given to complete investigations.
Now, a case is considered in ''backlog'' if it remains unresolved for 60 days. Yet, even under the more generous standard, the department has been able to meet the legislative goal only about 42 percent of the time during the first half of this fiscal year -- ''far below the legislative standard'' -- auditors wrote.
The DCF's Watkins says agency officials asked for the change to 60 days because law enforcement officers believed the 30-day standard was too strict.
''They thought we should have thorough investigations,'' Watkins said.
The state's backlog of unresolved cases has soared since 1999, when lawmakers passed the Kayla McKean Act overhauling Florida's child protection laws. By January 2001, the number of unresolved abuse and neglect reports reached an all-time high of 51,310.
CREDIT FOR REDUCTION
In the May legislative audit, DCF administrators were credited with greatly reducing the backlog to 30,183 cases by February. But the accomplishment was short-lived.
Of 21,000 cases that were closed, 13,752 had to be reinvestigated by the department after officials discovered that the private company hired to resolve the backlog had closed many cases without performing thorough investigations.
The company, Florida Task Force for the Protection of Abused and Neglected Children, is now in litigation with the DCF in five counties, including Miami-Dade. At stake is $4.8 million the company was paid between June 2000 and March, when officials abruptly terminated five contracts.
Kearney has sought to downplay the significance of leaving tens of thousands of cases in backlog. In comments before the governor's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Child Protection earlier this month, she said the case-closure requirements were ``artificial.''
Many experts disagree.
As unresolved cases pile up, the ramifications are severe for an already-strapped agency and the children it is supposed to protect, they say.
''The backlog is problematic,'' the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability report said, 'because high caseloads may adversely affect investigators' ability to initiate new cases in 24 hours and may place children in danger of future harm.''
Already, the backlog question has haunted some of the agency's claims of success.
In audit reports and even a presentation to a state House committee earlier this month, DCF officials reported that they had reduced the load on frontline child abuse investigators down to an average of 12 cases each.
But when the lingering unresolved cases are factored in, each worker is actually responsible for an average of 44 cases, according to figures released later by the department to The Herald.
In Miami-Dade County, the state's most urban county, the average number of open investigations, including backlog, was 73 per investigator.
The department asked lawmakers to loosen another requirement in fiscal 2001-2002: that children alleged to be the victims of abuse or neglect be seen by an investigator within 24 hours of a report to the state's hot line.
According to the March legislative audit, DCF staff insisted that ``it was not feasible to see all alleged victims within this time frame primarily because some families are difficult to locate.''
Indeed, investigators have never been able to see more than about half of alleged victims within 24 hours, according to the legislative audit. The success rate has actually fallen slightly since the start of Gov. Bush's administration, from about 55 percent in 1998-1999 to about 52 percent this year.
So, at the agency's urging, lawmakers replaced the requirement that children be seen within 24 hours with a looser standard: that investigators ''commence'' investigations within 24 hours. The department defines ''commencement'' as ``the point [at which] the protective investigator attempts to make contact with the alleged victim.''
The new standard brought the agency something to boast about: Under the new goal, the department has achieved success 95.7 percent of the time this fiscal year.
Watkins said the DCF continues to ''make every effort'' to see the children within 24 hours. But, he said, it is simply impossible to assure that an investigator sees a child right away in every case.
But child welfare experts say that simply ''commencing'' an investigation does very little to protect children who may be experiencing abuse.
The new measure, said University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work interim dean Richard Gelles, ''is a bureaucratic threshold, not a safety threshold.'' Gelles has performed three contract studies of the DCF within the last three years.
''For children who are in danger, initiating an investigation is a whole different order from seeing them to determine whether or not they are injured, or failing to thrive or whether there are other strong indications that they are at immediate risk,'' Gelles said.
© 2001 miami and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
Active Link to New York Times
May 29, 2002
Florida Governor Backs Most Proposed Child-Welfare Changes
By DANA CANEDY
MIAMI, May 28 Gov. Jeb Bush vowed today to carry out most of the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel for fixing Florida's troubled child welfare system in response to the disappearance of a 5-year-old girl in the state's care.
The proposals, presented today to the governor, were immediately attacked as superficial and unimaginative by critics of the system.
The panel, which was appointed by Governor Bush, suggested 20 short-term improvements that it said would reduce the likelihood that another child could disappear undetected from the Florida Department of Children and Families' system. Among the changes sought over the next 90 days are criminal background checks for new foster parents, fingerprinting and quarterly photographing of all children in the state's care and the immediate notification of law enforcement when a child is believed to be missing.
The task force also proposed 15 longer-term, more costly changes to be put into effect by 2003, and issued 13 recommendations for action by the Legislature. Those include increasing the pay for state welfare workers, investing in more programs to prevent abuse and neglect and urging the governor to "use his White House connections" to waive certain restrictions on the use of federal money for child welfare initiatives.
"By early next year most of what we have recommended would come into being," said the panel's chairman, David Lawrence Jr., who is the former publisher of The Miami Herald and a longtime child welfare advocate.
Governor Bush called the report "a blueprint" for change. "I have read this document and concur with almost all of it," he said. "My guarantee is that we will comply with the recommendations within the time frame that you have established."
Critics argued that the task force offered little that would make a difference in the care provided by the state to its most vulnerable children.
State Representative Fredericka Wilson of Miami said that the panel was just the latest of many to study Florida's child welfare system and that its proposals "have been made before."
Ms. Wilson said the governor hastily convened the task force under political pressure following the discovery of the disappearance of the 5-year-old girl, Rilya Wilson, and then gave the panel too little time to draft solutions to what she says are systemic problems within the Department of Children and Families.
The panel, which Governor Bush convened on May 6, conducted a three-week investigation, during which it heard from 61 witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of documents.
"You cannot come up with a justifiable report in the time limit that was given to this panel," Ms. Wilson said.
Child welfare advocates also criticized the composition of the panel because two of its four members have ties to Governor Bush. One, Carol Licko, is a former general counsel to the governor; the other, Sara Herald, was on his transition team when he took office.
The critics suggested that had political influences not come into play, the task force would have recommended that the governor replace Kathleen Kearney, the official in charge of child welfare as the secretary of of the Department of Children and Families.
Howard Talenfeld, a lawyer and an advocate for children in Fort Lauderdale, said the panel's composition "certainly detracts from the independence of any report."
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said the department "cannot begin to reform until it changes direction, and that will require a new D.C.F. secretary."
Ms. Kearney has refused to step down and insists that the Rilya Wilson case is an unfortunate but isolated incident. Governor Bush said today that he stood solidly behind Ms. Kearney, whom he called "passionate in support of children."
The governor and Ms. Kearney have been bombarded with questions about the state's handling of the case since the Miami-Dade police disclosed last month that Rilya disappeared in January 2001, but the authorities did not learn she was missing until 15 months later. The girl was in the care of her guardian, Geralyn Graham, when she vanished. Rilya's disappearance was noted only after a caseworker went to check on the girl last month.
Ms. Graham contends that a state caseworker took the child for evaluation and never returned her. The state child welfare agency has accused the caseworker, Deborah Muskelly, of filing reports of monthly visits to Rilya that never took place. The agency said it has no record of Ms. Graham having inquired about the girl, as she says she did after she disappeared.
Through their lawyers, the guardian and caseworker have denied any wrongdoing in the case. The girl's child-welfare records, released under court order last week, show that the police are investigating Ms. Graham and Ms. Muskelly for possible criminal wrongdoing.