Florida DCF is a basketcase. My prayers are with anybody anybody trying to reform this behemoth. You're going to need them.
DCF to formally track prevention efforts
By KELLI KENNEDY
Associated Press Writer
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The state's child abuse hot line got a worried call in May 2008, alleging that a baby's father had passed out snorting cocaine and the boy was chewing on a cable wire.
Jarkevis Allen's father admitted smoking marijuana, but denied other drug abuse and refused tests. The father rejected an offer for drug treatment and the case was closed within the required 60 days. Five months later, 1-year-old Jarkevis was dead. The medical examiner said he had severe liver lacerations indicative of abuse and ruled the death a homicide. His father is awaiting trial on second-degree murder and aggravated child abuse charges.
Child advocates say the Department of Children and Families is spending $208 million a year to keep troubled families like the Allens together by offering them prevention services, but isn't tracking whether the program works and the state's representatives sometimes don't check back with the family until it's too late.
The program is supposed to help families where the problems don't rise to the level of putting the children in foster care, like severe physical abuse or neglect, but their long-term welfare could be at stake. DCF accepted a federal waiver in 2007 allowing unprecedented flexibility in funding abuse prevention services, which include parenting classes, substance abuse and mental health treatment and even emergency cash assistance.
But the agency isn't routinely following up in cases where they could legally remove a child, but instead are working with the family. There's also little tracking for high-risk cases where they can't legally remove a child. Critics say the lack of follow-up makes it difficult to determine if the assistance is helping and the situation hasn't gotten worse unless another report of abuse or neglect is made. Uncooperative parents aren't flagged, so investigators of future problems don't have that information.
Some DCF contractors say they're overwhelmed with families who don't follow through with crucial services, yet they have no way of getting those families back into the system unless another report of abuse or neglect is made.
DCF contractors also disagree about what should happen to families at that point.
Uncooperative families signal a child that's in danger and should be removed, says Gordon Johnson, president and CEO of Neighbor to Family, which works with DCF contractors to provide services to families in Daytona Beach and around the country.
"It's not happening (statewide)," said Johnson, a former head of Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. "If we're providing services and they're not complying then the kids are in danger. It seems cut and dry to me."
There's often a fine line between calls that are labeled prevention or investigated as abuse. A study in Broward County showed nearly 50 percent of abuse hot line calls that were referred for prevention services should have been investigated as abuse.
Services and follow-up vary regionally, said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center, who is on a DCF committee examining the issue. Some organizations contracted by DCF to run the program in their region merely send a letter to families offering services, while others make home visits and offer gift cards to entice families to participate.
Andrea Moore, a Broward attorney and child advocate, says there should be a more diligent effort to link at risk families with diversion services.
"So far there hasn't been because not every family has services," Moore said.
There's also confusion about who is responsible for getting uncooperative families into the next tier of help - local contractors or child protective investigators.
A main goal of the program is to lower the number of Florida children in foster care. Since the waiver, the state has more than 10,000 fewer children in foster care, dropping from 29,255 to 18,583. The length of stay for children who end up in foster care is also shorter. The agency says it hopes to reduce the number of children in care by 50 percent in the next few years.
But the proportion of children entering foster care whose families have received prevention services is no different from those who weren't given services. Of the children who received prevention services, about 20 percent were put in foster care after DCF worked with the family at home after the waiver started in 2007-2008. That compares to 19 percent of children DCF the year before the waiver was granted, according to a University of South Florida study.
The lack of change could be because with fewer children in foster care, DCF is working in homes with families who may have higher risk factors. In the past, those children would have been removed immediately, said Mary Armstrong, a USF child and family studies assistant professor who is studying the waiver.
But child advocates aren't convinced.
"If (the family is) not engaging or everybody keeps coming back (into the system) then we might as well not waste our time with that service," said Cynthia Schuler, CEO of Kids Central Inc., a DCF contractor that provides services in central Florida. She spoke during a committee conference call.
DCF says a committee is looking at ways to improve diversion services. A new policy doesn't allow a case to be closed until an investigator can verify a family is actively pursuing whatever services they were refereed.
Last month, abuse hot line counselors began entering a family's information and what services they may need into a statewide database, allowing the agency to formally track whether families follow through with the services and if the services reduce abuse.
DCF is also retraining hot line workers on which families should be offered services and which qualify for abuse.
"We all agree that we've got to improve access and we need to follow up, said Alan Abramowitz, DCF's director of family safety. "I think we get better and better in tracking cases and being able to offer services."