Report: More work needed to fix child protection system

By Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A new report from the Florida Institute for Child Welfare -- created last year as part of a wide-ranging reform law -- calls for state leaders to go well beyond their previous efforts to fix the state's troubled child-protection system.

The 50-page report, submitted Friday to Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, focused on "the need for a statewide, system-wide child welfare strategic plan" that pulls together the disparate parts of Florida's response to the abuse and neglect of children.

"Over the past decade, Florida's child welfare system has been plagued with significant changes, challenges, and choices," the report said. "There has been an unprecedented increase and dynamic shift in the complexity of child welfare cases involving substance abuse, mental health, and family violence issues."

Following a scathing review by the non-profit Casey Family Programs of 40 child deaths in Florida, lawmakers last year sought to fix problems that have repeatedly occurred in the state's programs to protect children from abuse and neglect.

Lawmakers concluded, in part, that Florida needed its own research arm to better advise the Department of Children and Families and privatized community-based care organizations that provide adoption, foster care and case-management services.

As part of a major reform bill, the Legislature established the Florida Institute for Child Welfare at Florida State University's College of Social Work.

In the new report, Patricia Babcock, the institute's interim director, and Nicholas Mazza, dean of the university's College of Social Work, wrote that "Florida's child welfare system is unique in that its case management services have been privatized."

Under the state system, the Department of Children and Families is responsible for staffing an abuse hotline and for conducting child-protective investigations in 61 of Florida's 67 counties, while sheriff's offices conduct investigations in the remaining six counties.

At the same time, the department contracts with 17 regional community-based care agencies, known as CBCs, to provide many day-to-day services. Those services are designed to protect children, whether by helping to stabilize their families or by placing them with foster or adoptive families or in group homes. To do that, the CBCs subcontract with other organizations.

Babcock and Mazza wrote that the system leaves the Department of Children and Families to absorb the blame for situations over which it has little control.

"This type of approach puts the burden on DCF for ensuring that entities not under the jurisdiction of child welfare statutory requirements and/or court orders prioritize children and families who are in need of child welfare related services," they wrote. "Unfortunately, children are 'falling through the cracks' because this approach does not hold the entire system accountable. DCF has the burden of accountability without the authority to meet that responsibility."

Additionally, the report criticized Florida's process, known as a "practice model," for assessing risks to children. That process is designed to help child-protection workers make sound decisions but hasn't been put in place statewide yet. It is expected to be complete in the late spring.

"Currently, there are areas of the state where only (child protective investigators) are trained and utilizing the practice model, yet cases are being passed for ongoing case management without the necessary training or capacity to continue services based on the model," the report noted.

The report also addressed the fact that in most parts of the state, quality services for troubled families are lacking. Those families are generally grappling with substance abuse, mental illness or domestic violence -- or a combination.

The University of South Florida and the Casey Family Programs last year mapped the availability of such services statewide. For instance, they examined programs that oversee the safety of kids whose parents are undergoing substance-abuse treatment. They also looked at prevention and early intervention, assessment and treatment.

After surveying more than 1,000 professionals in the child-welfare system, they concluded that just 11 percent of the family services available in Florida were based on what are known as "evidence-based practices."

Babcock and Mazza argued that the state should adopt such practices wherever possible, and they recommended that the Legislature conduct its own analysis to see where quality services are lacking.

The report, if adopted by state leaders, would open the child-protection system to more legislative scrutiny -- which Babcock welcomes.

"I worry that we don't lose momentum, that we keep moving forward," she said. "I think the Legislature needs to help us do that, by keeping everybody accountable."

Babcock last month briefed House and Senate committees and the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet on the need for a 5-year strategic plan that would better integrate services to families within the child-welfare system.

"We hear a lot about integration, but it's not really happening," Babcock told members of the Children and Youth Cabinet on Jan. 20. " 'We work in silos' -- that's been the buzzword."

"We're all serving the same families, and either tripping over each other or unaware of the others," agreed Children and Youth Cabinet Chairwoman Wansley Walters, the former secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

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