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Reforms Seek to Save Florida's Abused Children

March 18, 2013 | WMFE, Orlando--Hundreds of children die of abuse or neglect in Florida each year. Others suffer routine beatings or turn to the sex trade to survive on the streets. The Department of Children and Families is charged with saving these kids, but even DCF admits it's failing. Reform proposals are in the Legislature this month, and 90.7 looks at whether they will actually help.

[Photo courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt]

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About 50,000 children and some young adults are engaged with Florida’s Department of Children and Families each year. 

One Victim's Story

Kathy, who declines to give her last name, is one of them.  After months in a domestic violence shelter, her mother returned the family to her abusive boyfriend.  The Department of Children and Families got involved when Kathy’s Girl Scout leader, Mariana Ordaz, reported what she saw in the family home.  Ordaz says, "The mom’s boyfriend would abuse the mother and then blame problems on Kathy, so, as a result, the mother would then hit Kathy to make him happy."

Kathy says DCF didn’t help.  "And, I told [DCF] the situation," she says.  "I told them why I didn’t want to go back home, and they just refused to take anything into action."

Kathy ran away her junior year, and Ordaz says the authorities … sent her back.

The next time Kathy escaped, she drifted between the homes of friends who would keep her secret.  She was missing and homeless for over two months – while under the care of DCF.  Eventually, DCF let Kathy stay with Ordaz without official guardianship.  Kathy’s younger siblings are still with their mother despite reports to DCF and photos of her little sister’s cuts and bruises.

DCF Aknowledges the Problem

A Florida State University professor who testified before a House committee last month says 432 children died of abuse or neglect in Florida in 2012.  She says about 40 percent had contact with DCF.  Casey Family Programs is the nation’s largest foundation for child welfare.  In its recent report on Florida, it estimates about 200 children with DCF contact died last year.

Neil Skene is the former special counsel for DCF, and state lawmakers are using his research to craft reforms.  He says Kathy’s story is frustratingly typical.  "You’ve got, in the case you’ve described with Kathy, a person who’s motivated to improve the lives of herself and her family and just somehow can’t get the level of support that is needed from the state system," he says.

Skene says, even children who survive in dangerous homes can endure abuse and neglect – or go missing. 

DCF has a legal obligation to try to keep families together.  It’s supposed to teach parents proper discipline and home safety – and remove children from danger.  The Casey Family report shows a failure to meet that goal – and DCF is not denying it.

"Oh, I think it’s definitely accurate," says DCF Programs head Stephen Pennypacker.  "I was actually part of the group that went through the reports before we gave them to Casey to make sure we had a sufficient sample."

Proposed Solutions

Pennypacker says DCF wants to protect children.  He says it’s voluntarily studying gaps in services, upgrading technology, and improving response times and safety. 

Here’s the catch … 90.7 asked Pennypacker, "How can a worker go into a home and say, ‘wow, until this situation is better, this child needs to not be here for a while?  How empowered are people to make those decisions quickly and effectively?"  He responded, "They’ve always been empowered to do that." 

So, DCF could have helped Kathy.  It could have removed children from known abusers before caregivers killed them.  It could have protected infants who suffocated instead of asking addict parents to sign notes promising to provide safe beds.  These are real stories from the Casey report.

Neil Skene says, "It’s just hard to imagine some of the decisions that get made by people in the face of the reality that these young people are facing in their homes or in their living conditions, whatever they are."

Skene says the reform decision for DCF is the governor’s appointment of the next secretary.  The person could create a culture of common sense that gives workers knowledge and confidence.

Senate President Don Gaetz is driving DCF reform bills in the Florida Legislature.  He praises Skene’s research but disagrees with giving workers freedom.  He says, "Accountability is the first step toward remedying a problem, finding out what went wrong, diagnosing the weaknesses in the system and then fixing them." 

Senate bills heading for floor votes seek to improve certification and oversight of DCF workers, intensify investigations of child deaths, and help “medically complex children.”  They have support in the House.

Governor Rick Scott wants $31 million to hire more DCF investigators.  That’s a turnaround from 2011 when he proposed a $179 million cut.

Kathy and Ordaz say they just want kids who need help … to get it.


To find out more about the Legislature’s plans to reform Florida’s Department of Children and Families, listen to this week's Intersection.  Intersection will air an interview 90.7’s Amy Kiley conducted with Senate President Don Gaetz.


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