Two states have led way in reforming child-welfare agencies
June 3, 2002
Illinois has been there.
The state suffered through the shame of gruesome child deaths, wrestled with class-action suits and court-ordered decrees, staggered under the weight of massive child welfare caseloads and struggled to find places for the scores of children taken into state care.
"We were in as much of a hole in the early '90s as Florida is right now," said Jess McDonald, director of Illinois' Department of Children and Family Services.
Then, within a month of coming on board in 1994, McDonald announced Illinois would be seeking a national stamp of approval from the Council on Accreditation for Children and Family Services -- one of the nation's first big states to do so.
That set in motion a strategy to better train workers, educate supervisors, reduce workload and establish statewide quality standards for any private provider wishing to do business with the public agency.
It also stopped the vicious cycle of tragedy, outrage and knee-jerk reaction that child welfare experts say currently plagues Florida.
"Every few years it looks like it looks right now," Linda Spears, the Child Welfare League of America's vice president of program operations, said of Florida. "That causes me concern, that the kinds of changes that generate out of each one of these crises isn't deep enough to hold very long."
Florida's latest crisis is Rilya Wilson, the 5-year-old Miami girl who vanished, possibly as long as 16 months ago, while under the watch of the state's Department of Children & Families. The scandal has spawned a media frenzy, an investigative panel, an edict from the governor that all 44,000 children in the system be checked on immediately and a few calls for DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney's head.
Spears doubts any of that will make a difference for children in the long run.
"I look at Miami and I look at the governor's call for quick action and he's right, politically in terms of what the community wants, demands and needs," Spears said. "But all the quick action I could give him, that's still not creating a system where this isn't going to happen again."
But it is possible to make a system that works better for children, provided state leaders develop clear plans for reform and have the political will to stick to them. Child welfare experts say Illinois and Alabama are among states that have done just that -- albeit under pressure from class-action lawsuits -- and both offer programs that Florida can emulate.
Lessons from Illinois
Illinois' McDonald has been on the job for eight years now, infusing his child welfare system with the stability necessary to implement such a massive reform.
Within four years, his state was accredited. That established a consistent standard followed by everyone involved in the system. It also opened the state up to the scrutiny of outside experts and let the public know how serious officials were about accountability.
But most importantly, McDonald said, it forced the state to reduce its caseloads significantly for both child abuse investigators and caseworkers by demanding low children-to-worker ratios be met.
McDonald said that was accomplished by making sure the state legislature placed child welfare on the top of its funding priority list.
His agency also committed to sending hundreds of workers back to school to get master's degrees in social work, which improved worker morale and training. And it reduced the number of children coming into the system by diverting those families with financial and housing problems, rather than child abuse and neglect issues.
In the end, the number of children taken into state care was 62 percent lower last year than in 1995. And McDonald expects that by next year, the number of children in care will drop below 21,000. As a result, caseworkers' loads fell from about 40 children per worker to on average 15, he said. Investigators, who toiled under a 6,000-case backlog of open reports, now have no backlog and work on about nine active cases at a time.
"Unless you invest in human resources, it's not possible to get outcomes," McDonald said. And your outcomes are obviously safety."
Like Illinois, Alabama faced a child welfare class-action lawsuit that eventually was settled.
Within a decade, and with cooperation from the children's lawyers and state officials, everyone employed by the state's system was retrained, said Paul Vincent, the former head of that state's child welfare system and now director of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group based in Montgomery
Experts from outside the state headed to Alabama to work directly with caseworkers and their supervisors. The Alabama staff learned to build on families' strengths and address their immediate needs, rather than harping on their faults.
"Whereas every family once got parenting classes, counseling and a threat that unless they comply we take their children, [now] a family might get a very specialized mentor or coach," Vincent said. "And if instruction in parenting were needed, instead of parents having to take time off from their job to go to all these classes they were assigned, a way might be to bring in a peer coach ... who would help them develop some hands-on parenting skills in their home."
Vincent said that when the state was first sued in 1989, 4,600 children were in foster care (which doesn't include the number of children living with parents or relatives but under the state's watch). By the time Vincent left the system in 1996, the number of children in foster care dropped 20 percent.
"The success of better practice tended to reduce the workload some," he said, which made the whole system that much more manageable. And the state began drawing down more federal funds to pay for its initiatives, including an additional $12 million to $15 million in the first stages of reform.
Ironically, what has helped reform blossom in Alabama, Vincent said, was the lack of attention the system got from the legislature and the governor.
"We had a couple of years in the pilot stages to really do some experimentation and make some mistakes that helped us design the rest of the system," he said. "It made a huge difference in making the right changes as the reform evolved."
But while Florida has doubled the child welfare budget from $413 million to $850 million in recent years, the workforce deficit and high caseloads remain.
The bigger budget led to a 63 percent boost in caseworker positions -- on paper. Yet a third of the now 2,700 positions currently are vacant because of high turnover, which statewide remains above 20 percent, or are filled by people in training.
That means on average caseworkers must keep track of 26 children at a time -- twice the national standard by the Child Welfare League of America.
The number of child abuse and neglect cases swelled to 183,000 between April 2001 and March 2002, a 43 percent increase from 1998 to 1999. The reason: the high-profile death of Kayla McKean, which led to major child welfare legislation that shortened the timeframe for workers to investigate allegations of abuse and expanded the definition of what would require an investigation be conducted.
The inflation of caseloads following Kayla's death led to the inevitable backlog of open child abuse investigations, with those open longer than 60 days peaking in January 2001 at more than 50,000. The backlog has since dropped by 40 percent to 30,000.
While the number of abuse investigator positions has increased by 60 percent to 1,400, some of those workers now tackle as many as 160 open cases at a time.
Child advocates say court-ordered services, such as parenting classes and counseling, remain a standard template for every family -- no matter what their individual problems. But all too often, there's a lengthy waiting list for even the most basic assistance.
Meanwhile, advocates say it's not an anomaly when overwhelmed caseworkers tell the court everything is fine in a case, even if they haven't seen a child for months. Nor is it rare for a child's case to get lost between workers in different counties or in numerous units within the department.
Charlotte McCullough, a child welfare consultant based in Washington, D.C., who has worked extensively in Florida, said the intense scrutiny Florida's Department of Children & Families operates under is part of the challenge in reforming its system.
"Most states that have a major crisis and then needed to come up with a response, they were given the time, the tools and the support and resources by their legislature to be able to fix systemic problems incrementally, test them out," she said.
While different states take different approaches, what remains vital for reform is a clear vision from leadership on what the child welfare agency's goal is -- and a willingness to take risks to reach that goal.
That's something Florida has lacked, experts say, partly because of the high turnover in leadership.
Now the state is gearing up to privatize its child welfare program, which means handing over the day-to-day responsibility for abused and neglected children to community non-profit organizations.
The jury remains out on that plan, particularly when local leaders fear the state is passing the buck -- and the bill -- for child welfare onto their laps.
It's all pinning its hopes on a new computer system, which costs millions and has led some to question whether it will do anything to create accountability among workers.
The other problem that's plagued Florida is the ongoing debate about the state's seesawing child welfare philosophy: Some people think troubled families should be given more help in holding on to their children; others have pressed for the removal of children rather than risking injury from abuse or neglect.
"You're always going to have conflict and problems because you're putting everybody in the middle of this dilemma," said Paul DeMuro, a child welfare expert who's done consulting work in Florida.
That, plus Florida's aggressive media and eager Legislature -- which catch every hiccup within DCF -- has left Florida's child welfare officials hopping from one fire to another, experts say.
"When you're constantly in a crisis-driven mode, you don't have time," McCullough said. "You're so busy shoring up the system's crisis of the moment that you can't step back long enough to put a comprehensive plan in place to fix the system."
But somewhere along the way, Florida has to find the fortitude to not just create a plan and implement it, but stand by it -- regardless of politics or news reports.
"It really takes perseverance to get this job right," said Spears of the Child Welfare League. "There are no quick hits."
Shana Gruskin can be reached at email@example.com or 561-243-6537.
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