Florida's Children First

Howard M. Talenfeld, Esq. – President


Howard Talenfeld is one of America’s leading children’s rights, injury, and child disability attorneys representing the needs of abused and neglected children, especially in cases of foster child abuse, child sexual abuse, child rape, and other harm and abuse of children in the child welfare system. His work has resulted in multimillion dollar damage awards and has created systemic change in how government agencies and private institutions care for those vulnerable individuals.

Since the 1980s, Howard has focused his practice exclusively on protecting the rights of vulnerable individuals in civil rights cases, personal injury cases and systemic reform litigation. He has litigated cases that have resulted in multimillion dollar settlements and jury verdicts that changed how governmental and private institutions care for children and the elderly.

Among his wins, Howard prevailed against New York City and the Archdiocese of Brooklyn, which together paid more than $27 million in the case of Judith Leekin. The former foster mother ran what the courts called a “house of horrors” that imprisoned, abused and starved 10 disabled foster children.

Employing creative legal approaches, he helped establish funding for child welfare programs and employ a federal civil rights damage statute to recover a damage awards in excess of Florida’s sovereign immunity limits. In Florida, Talenfeld is responsible for many million dollar victories in federal civil rights and negligence claims against Florida Department of Children and Families’ employees and agencies. These also have resulted in landmark decisional law protecting the rights of children and disabled persons.

Howard began his career involving at-risk children, seniors and the developmentally disabled in the 1980s and 1990s, when he represented the state of Florida in its major class-action lawsuits dealing with the foster care system, children’s mental health system, juvenile justice system, state psychiatric hospitals and the provision of Medicaid services to the developmentally disabled, among others.

Nationally, he pioneered defending these cases by advocating for the improvement and reform of human service systems, while protecting states’ rights and avoiding federal over-sight. In Florida, he also represented governors, secretaries of state, state agencies, Florida’s Insurance Commissioner, the Florida Legislature and Florida’s Auditor General in civil rights cases in federal and state court.

Howard soon took his knowledge and skill in defending state agencies to help Florida’s at-risk populations, and his successes in trial courts, appellate courts and negotiations formed the foundation of creative legal approaches that have delivered extraordinary results.

In 1998, he served as lead counsel in the Broward County foster care class action, Ward v. Kearney. The resulting settlement agreement greatly improved child welfare practice and more than tripled the District 10 budget for its child welfare system from $38 million to more than $100 million.

In 1999, he achieved another major victory, this time for the Florida’s developmentally disabled population in Baumstein v. Sunrise Community, Inc., 738 So. 2d 420, (Fla. 3DCA 1999). The case established the existence of a private cause of action for damages for the violation of Florida’s Bill of Rights for the developmentally disabled.

He also was the first attorney in Florida to utilize 42 USC § 1983, the federal civil rights damage statute, to recover a damage award in excess of Florida’s sovereign immunity limit of $100,000 on behalf of a foster child. In the 2002 case, Roe v. Florida Department of Children & Family Services, 176 F. Supp. 2d 1310 (S.D. Fla. 2001), Talenfeld negotiated a landmark $5 million settlement and focused the nation’s attention on the case in an episode of ABC’s 20/20.

Throughout his career, Howard has been a forceful advocate for change. He has argued for systemic reform litigation before many state and national groups, including the U.S. Congress, the National Association of State Mental Health Lawyers, the American Public Welfare Association and many Florida legislative committees. In 1996, he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Youth Law Center, a national children’s advocacy group. He has helped organizations develop into a viable entity that assist at-risk youth and teens.

In 2013, he co-chaired Citizens for Broward Children, the political action committee that successfully advocated for the permanent reauthorization in November of the Broward County Children’s Services Council. He also was on the original steering committee for the initiative, which provides $62 million a year in funding for critical children’s services in Broward County.

Howard has been equally as effective in the state capital. He helped write the law that required mandatory reporting of child-on-child sexual abuse and rape in community facilities. He also advocated in 2014 for and helped encourage passage and the governor’s signature on House Bill 561 (§ 39.01305/ Appointment of an Attorney for a Dependent Child with Certain Special Needs). The new law ensures children who are victims of sexual abuse, sexual trafficking, are on psychotropic medications, or have been committed to a residential treatment facility, have attorneys representing them in all legal or administrative proceedings. Previously, attorneys were not required, and the best interests of such children were not assured.

Howard’s advocacy dates back almost three decades. He was instrumental in passage of such landmark legislation as the Foster Children Bill of Rights, Florida’s pilot project on representation of foster children in Dependency Court, and Florida’s interagency education bill for foster children. He also is founded President of Florida’s Children First, Florida’s premier child advocacy organization.

Professionally, Howard is a member of the American Bar Association, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, and the National Association of Council for Children. He previously chaired the Litigation/Class Action Committee and was a representative for the State of Florida to the National Association of Mental Health Attorneys (1993). He has received numerous awards, including Lifestyle Media Group’s “Leader in Law” in 2014. He has been recognized as a Top Lawyer in the South Florida Legal Guide and he was named the Daily Business Review’s Most Effective Lawyer in the Public Interest category in 2013.

Additionally, he was selected by the South Florida Business Journal as a Key Partners Awards honoree in 2012 and he received The Florida Bar President’s 2006 Pro Bono Service Award for the 17th Judicial Circuit in and for Broward County, Florida. Talenfeld is an AV Preeminent® Top Rated Lawyer by Martindale-Hubbell™ and has been named in Florida Super Lawyers Magazine since 2006.

Among other memberships, Howard chairs the Broward Days Children’s Issues Team (2000-present), was a Director of Florida’s Voice of the Mentally Retarded and sat on the Steering Committee for Citizens for Broward’s Children in 2000. He was also former Director with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, California. Among civic organizations, he was former President and Director of the Cypress Head Club Inc.; and was on the City of Parkland Board of Adjustment and Planning and Zoning Board, which he chaired for many years. He served on the Board of Trustees and chaired the Campaign Committee of Temple Kol Tikvah, was a Board Member of Hurricane Relief for Miami Foster Kids Inc., served as a Big Brother, and has coached various sports teams, including soccer, baseball and softball.

Howard received his bachelors of business administration degree from University of Miami School of Business, and his Juris Doctorate from University of Miami School of Law, cum laude.

Letter from the president of Florida’s Children First

Gerald Reiss, CPA – Treasurer

Gerald Reiss (Jerry) is currently a CPA for Goldstein Schechter Koch in Hollywood, Florida. He joined the firm as a Shareholder in 1988. His areas of practice include general tax, business and financial consulting. He serves professional practices including attorneys, physicians, engineers, architects, real estate developers and contractors.

Jerry earned a Bachelor’s degree in economics and a Master of Business Administration from Cornell University. He became a Missouri CPA in December 1967 and a Florida CPA in June 1978. He was a recipient of the E.W. Sells Award for placing in the nation’s top 15 scores for the May 1966 CPA examination. From 1972 to 1976, he served as Director of Revenue for the State of Missouri. He has also been a tax columnist for the Sun-Sentinel and is a frequent speaker and writer on various topics.

Gloria W. Fletcher, Esq. – In Memoriam

Gloria Fletcher Gloria Fletcher is in private practice in Gainesville Florida. Throughout her legal career, Gloria has taken a special interest in children’s issues. Currently, she is serving on the ABA Bar youth Empowerment Project, Florida Advisory Committee. Long active in her local community, she is a Director of Alarion Bank; is serving her second Gubernatorial appointment on the Board of Governors for the Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, is a graduate of Leadership Gainesville, past Chairperson of Alachua County Juvenile Justice Committee and the Florida Council on Crime & Delinquency:. In 1999, Gloria received the Distinguished Service Award from the Florida Council on Crime & Delinquency.

Hoping to avoid tragedies, state takes more kids into custody

Following intense criticism that too many children have died on the state’s watch, Florida’s child-welfare investigators have added a new layer of scrutiny that’s fueling a steep increase in the number of kids removed from their homes.

In Central Florida alone — Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake — the total is up 17 percent in the past year, to nearly 2,000 children. Some areas are drastically higher than others.

Seminole County, for instance, had climbed 38 percent by the end of June, compared with June 2014.

“There are two things driving this,” said Joe Durso, vice president for public affairs at Community Based Care of Central Florida, the private nonprofit that contracts with the state to manage foster care and adoptions for the area.

“One is the media attention that surrounded a lot of cases last year. The natural human inclination, when you hear those things, is to want to take an extra level of precaution. Essentially, you would rather be safe than sorry.”

But the second factor is a new way of investigating allegations of abuse and neglect — a way that some say requires investigators to be fortunetellers of sorts. Rather than examining the lone incident that sparked a call to the state’s child-abuse hotline, child-welfare workers need to thoroughly assess the odds of it happening again.

“There is a long list of things that they should be trying to evaluate,” said Ellen Taylor, training manager at Community Based Care, where instruction on the new procedures requires eight days of classes. “In the area of how the adults in the family function, for instance, you need to assess how do they feel, think and act on a daily basis? How do they behave in terms of life management, perception, self-control, self-acceptance? What are their employment and criminal histories? What do their relationships look like?”

For years, the prevailing wisdom in child welfare nationwide was that kids are nearly always better off with their own parents, even lousy ones. Only as a last resort should kids be removed.

But in early 2014, a Miami Herald investigation detailed the deaths of 477 children whose families had a history with the Florida Department of Children and Families — children who subsequently died of being smothered, beaten, burned, starved, drowned or doused with acid. More than half involved families with a history of drug use by the children’s caretaker.
One high-profile case was that of toddler Tariji Gordon of Sanford, who had been removed from her mother’s care following the death of her twin brother Tavont’ae. He had been suffocated at 2 months old while sleeping on a sofa with the mother, Rachel Fryer, who would later test positive for cocaine.

After Tariji spent more than two years in foster care, a judge ordered her returned. Two months later, in February 2014, Tariji’s body was found stuffed in a suitcase buried in Putnam County. Fryer has pleaded innocent and is awaiting trial for murder.

The caseworker assigned to Gordon was later sentenced to probation for falsifying records by claiming he had examined the child when he hadn’t. Prosecutors claimed he would have seen bite marks, burns and bruises on Tariji’s body.

If the new protocol were in place, officials say, it may have saved Tariji.

“We know that the highest-risk cases involve children under age 3 and caregivers with a history of substance abuse or physical violence,” said William D’Aiuto, managing director for DCF’s central region. “That scenario fit this family. But we’re still talking about the very challenging work of trying to predict human behavior.”

The higher numbers have strained the department, prompting a renewed push to recruit foster parents. D’Aiuto said the agencies that contract with DCF to manage foster care also are hiring more caseworkers.

But while child-welfare advocates generally welcome the new protocol in theory, there are concerns that it’s a lopsided part of the solution.

“We don’t want more kids in [the state’s] care or fewer kids in care. We want the right kids in care — the ones who need to be there,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the nonprofit Florida’s Children First. “The numbers alone don’t tell you that.”

The skill of child-welfare investigators in gathering information and making good decisions is highly varied, Rosenberg said — especially when turnover for caseworkers is often as high as 50 percent a year. Further, implementation has been uneven, with some counties well ahead of others.

And while the 2014 Legislature did beef up DCF’s budget to hire an additional 288 workers — many of them investigators — and give raises to existing ones, there was no additional money for mental-health and substance-abuse services that could help troubled parents reform and get their children back.

“It’s a big gap,” Rosenberg said. “And the other big gap is that the budget didn’t include more money for the parents’ attorneys.”

Under Florida law, when a parent’s children are removed from the home or there is an attempt to terminate parental rights, those parents are entitled to counsel. Rosenberg said caseloads are soaring.

But the sweeping legislative reforms of 2014, the most dramatic changes in at least a decade, also made child welfare more transparent. The state’s website now lists all child deaths reported to the abuse hotline and notes whether DCF had any previous verified complaints involving the child or the family. If those complaints happened in the preceding year, a team of professionals is dispatched to investigate why the child was left with or returned to the family.

They have to start work within two business days and publish a preliminary report within 30 days. Those reports are also published on the state website, though they’re often heavily redacted for privacy reasons.

“The vision of [DCF] Secretary [Mike] Carroll is that we don’t want to see one child die,” D’Aiuto said. “One child is too many.”


See original article here

EVERY KID NEEDS A FAMILY: giving children in the child welfare system the best chance for success

Every kid needs a family. This, we know. We know it when we look at our own children and think about our dreams for them. We know it in our hearts, in our bones and from our own stories. Whether “family” means a mother and father, a single parent, a beloved aunt or uncle, a grandparent or a caring foster or adoptive family, this bond gives meaning to our successes, cushions our hardships and allows us to be most ourselves. A family loves us at our worst and summons our best when nothing else will. A family provides a compass from birth to death. It is the definition of home.

Read entire article here

DCF Faulted For Oversight Of Privatized Agencies

Two reports presented to lawmakers last week criticized the Florida Department of Children and Families for poor oversight of the privatized agencies that deliver child-welfare, substance-abuse and mental-health services statewide.

The reports arrived as the Legislature is considering further changes to all those services.

The Florida Office of the Auditor General published its findings last month and reviewed them Thursday with members of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

One report faulted the state’s oversight of what are known as managing entities, which oversee the delivery of substance-abuse and mental-health services. With lawmakers focused on improving those services this year, the managing entities could be revamped under a bill (SB 7068) ready for a vote by the full Senate possibly as soon as Wednesday. The House version (HB 7119) is ready to go to the full House.

The other report criticized the state’s oversight of community-based care organizations, known as CBCs, which provide foster care, adoption and family-support services. The agencies have been under legislative scrutiny in recent years for a series of child deaths from abuse and neglect. Now, lawmakers are revisiting a child-welfare reform law passed last year — and the possibility of more funding for the CBCs to provide mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, among other services.

Together, the reports point to shortcomings in the Department of Children and Families’ monitoring of the privatized agencies, which receive hundreds of millions of dollars a year to coordinate and deliver services in their regions.

“The department did not always adequately conduct, document, review, and report the results of (community based care agencies) monitoring,” noted the report on the foster-care services.

“The department could not provide documentation supporting the conclusions reached on cost analyses performed for (managing entity) contracts awarded on a noncompetitive basis,” said the report on mental-health and substance-abuse services. “The department had not always documented that employees involved in the contractor evaluation and selection process attested in writing that they were independent of, and had no conflict of interest in, the MEs (managing entities) evaluated and selected.”

What’s more, department monitoring of the managing entities “did not ensure that all key assessment factors and performance measures were included in the scope of its monitoring activities. Additionally, the department did not always appropriately document that proper follow-up on ME actions was taken to correct deficiencies identified through monitoring.”

Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll, in a response to both reports, wrote, “The department generally concurs with the findings.”

The criticism comes as the House and Senate prepare to vote on whether to alter the way the seven statewide managing entities bid on Department of Children and Families contracts. The House and Senate bills would require those contracts to be performance-based and to include consequences for failing to comply. What’s more, the House proposal would require that at least two managing entities bid on each contract — or the bidding process could be opened to for-profit companies and Medicaid managed-care organizations.

Members of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee questioned Lisa Norman, an audit manager with the Auditor General’s Office, on the reports, and some of the individual agencies objected to specific findings.

For instance, the report faulted Our Kids, the community-based care agency serving Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, for expenditures related to a $28,000 graduation event for young adults in the Independent Living program. The costs included $6,684 for food for 250 guests, which the Auditor General’s report found an inappropriate expenditure under state law.

“We recommend that Our Kids, in consultation with the department, make appropriate funding source adjustments for the unallowable costs related to the graduation event,” said the report.

But in her written response to the report, Our Kids president and CEO Jackie Gonzalez said that the event helps young people in foster care build their self-esteem.

“Our Kids has received approval from DCF for this event since we began acknowledging the success of our students in a ceremony in 2009 and did not think it necessary to receive approval each year,” the response said. “We believe that (the Auditor General) is taking an overly narrow view.”

Committee Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, asked Norman how Our Kids could have done the event differently.

“Use private funds,” Norman replied.

Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First, reminded lawmakers that under former DCF Secretary David Wilkins, the department had slashed most of its quality-assurance positions — which had performed some of the monitoring.

“They went down 70 positions,” Spudeas said. “Two years ago, you gave funding, but only reinstituted one-half of those. We need the rest of those positions to do full quality assurance, quality improvement, for the programs around the state. It’s very important for the children in care.”

As to the managing entities, the chief executive officer of one of them, Linda McKenna of the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, said that the four selected for the Auditor General’s scrutiny “were the newest managing entities in the state and had all recently come up and were developing their procedures.”

Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, agreed, but said it was clear that lawmakers were “redefining their expectations” for the managing entities and their coordination of the services they provide.

“The expectations on the MEs are going to be greater,” Fontaine said. “It’s more like shifting to health-care management: ‘Let’s look at the people we’re serving and figure out how to do better services for those people.’ ”

“The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.”

Original Article

Bills Aimed At Helping Florida’s Disabled Foster Kids Gaining Traction

Sen. Nancy Detert (R-Venice) speaking at the Florida Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee Thursday about her bill.

Sen. Nancy Detert (R-Venice) speaking at the Florida Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee Thursday about her bill. Credit Florida Channel

A bill that would help identify guardians and guardian advocates for children with developmental disabilities aging out of foster care passed its first committees this week.

Gerry Glynn is the Chief Legal Officer for Community Based Care of North Florida. But, before that, he worked as a law professor and child advocate in 2009. In that role, Glynn says he chaired a committee reviewing the tragic death of a young man by the name of Regis Little.

“At 18, he left foster care after many years from foster care, he did not have a guardian. He was not able to make decisions because he had an intellectual disability,” said Glynn, during a House panel hearing earlier this week. “DCF and, at that time, Families Services of Metro Orlando, offered him services, and he said no. APD—Agency for Persons with Disabilities—offered him services; he said no. If he had had a guardian, who could have helped him make better decisions, the tragedy would not have occurred, which occurred when he was 18 and 11 months. Regis was found stabbed to death in a parking lot in Orlando.”

Glynn says Regis would have been helped by a bill that just started moving in the Florida Legislature. It’s aimed at providing assistance to those aging out of foster care. And, Senate sponsor, Sen. Nancy Detert (R-Venice), says that’s her goal.

“Within Florida’s foster care system, a high number of children have mental health diagnosis or disabilities,” said Detert, during a Thursday hearing. “A small percentage may lack capacity to make some or all decisions, concerning their own lives to the extent that some sort of guardianship may be needed upon reaching adulthood. So, as these kids age out of our system, they may need some assistance after the age of 18.”

So, Detert’s bill, which passed the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs unanimously Thursday, creates a system to help these kids.

“So, the strike-all provides a mechanism for identifying guardians and guardian advocates and authorizes probate court to exercise jurisdiction for 17-year-old dependent children, so that children who need a guardian or guardian advocate will have it in place before they turn 18, and leave the foster care system,” added Detert.

Meanwhile, the House companion, sponsored by Rep. Janet Adkins (R-Fernandina Beach), also passed its first committee earlier this week.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.


Original Article

Romano: Phoebe Jonchuck’s death requires big-picture solution, not just knee-jerk anger

The short life and cruel death of Phoebe Jonchuck has touched us all.

It was so unnecessary, heinous and inconceivable that we’re caught somewhere between anger and grief. All we know for sure is someone has to pay, and something has to change. That reaction is natural. Certainly cathartic.

But it cannot be the entirety of the conversation.

Because Phoebe Jonchuck was not the first child to die at the hands of a parent in this state. She was not the first to endure an unsettled childhood.

She was simply the latest.

If you have paid even minimal attention, you must know that a dozen or more children die due to abuse or neglect every month, on average, in Florida. And many of those deaths are considered preventable because the families were on the state’s radar.

This is a problem that transcends political parties and state administrations. It existed 10 years ago, and 10 years before that.

What usually happens is a particularly egregious case like Phoebe’s comes along and brings the issue back to the forefront. We demand that heads roll, and policies change.

And, a few months later, we begin to forget.

In some ways, that is an even greater tragedy than Phoebe’s brutal end. For it ensures that another child, and then another and then another, will suffer similar fates.

It is easy, and satisfying, to point a finger and feel like the problem has been solved. In this case, the Department of Children and Families makes for an inviting and plausible target. The Jonchuck family was known to DCF workers and, in retrospect, there were red flags all over the place. Phoebe should have been rescued.

So, yes, the DCF is far from perfect. It may even be less than adequate. It has inherent flaws and probably has its fair share of incompetent employees. But to direct all of your ire at the DCF is to misunderstand what is really going on.

There is a big-picture quality to this problem that our leaders in Tallahassee need to recognize and embrace.

These tragedies will never be eradicated at the DCF level. Those people are working on the front lines. They are similar to medical professionals treating acute cases.

If we truly want to make a change, we have to provide help long before a child is in danger. In some cases, long before a child is born.

We have to do a better job funding mental health services. We have to do a better job funding substance abuse centers.

We have to do a better job recognizing that children who are raised in unstable environments understand no other way of life, and they grow up to create even more unstable families like so many ripples in a pool of water.

“We have to be certain that the children we do take in are provided safe, stable and nurturing relationships so we can prevent and change this generational cycle,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First, a nonprofit advocate for at-risk children.

“If they can be reunited with their families, we have to make sure they have the support they need. And if reunification is not possible, we need to make sure we provide them with a better life than they would have been facing at home.”

This state has struggled for years with the question of whether it should lean more toward rescuing children from shaky homes or trying to keep families intact. The reality is that there should not be a policy one way or another. Every case has to be looked at individually. And every child’s welfare has to supersede a bureaucratic goal.

We will never solve this problem in our lifetime. There will always be unfit parents. There will always be tragedies. But that doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up in frustration, and it doesn’t mean we should keep looking for someone to blame.

What we need to do is get in front of the problem as best we can.

And we need to start today.

Original Article

Child Thrown From Bridge in Tampa Prompts New Look at DCF’s Porous Safety Net

John Jonchuck Jr in a pair of booking photos  from Hillsborough (right) and Pinellas counties.

As the Tampa Bay area continues to reel from the death of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck, whose father was charged with dropping her from a bridge last week, state leaders are looking for answers.

But records of the case reveal that many answers were already available — in the form of arrests that could have raised alarms at the state abuse hotline operated by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

“We definitely will be looking into the hotline,” said state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

Hours before the girl’s death, her father’s lawyer called the hotline to express fears that John Jonchuck would harm Phoebe. Jonchuck had a lengthy arrest record, including multiple arrests for domestic violence and battery on Michelle Kerr, Phoebe’s mother, stretching back to 2010, and one for battery on his mother, Michele Johnchuck, in 2013. He was also arrested for driving under the influence in 2013.

Additionally, Department of Children and Families records show that in 2012, child-protective investigators examined allegations that Jonchuck had choked Kerr, struck Phoebe, used the drug crystal meth and kicked open a door to extract Phoebe from a bedroom containing prescription drugs.

“(Jonchuck) has a criminal history that includes charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, larceny and multiple domestic-violence charges,” said a child-protective investigator’s report. “The mother indicated on the last report that there had been domestic violence between her and the father.”

Two days later, however, the investigation concluded that “the updated risk assessment for signs of present danger is low.” Phoebe was then 2 years old.

Nonetheless, when the lawyer’s call came in Wednesday, reporting that Jonchuck was “driving all over town in his pajamas with Phoebe” and “seems depressed and delusional,” the hotline staff concluded the report “does not rise to the level of reasonable cause to suspect.”

“I believe it was a judgment call that was lacking, given the history,” Sobel said.

In theory, problems at the hotline had been addressed several years before.

In 2012, following another gruesome child murder, that of Nubia Barahona in 2011, the hotline was revamped so that frontline staff could quickly research a family’s history and send crucial data to child-protective investigators. The 2012 Legislature appropriated $20 million to redesign the call center.

And last year, following a review by the non-profit Casey Family Programs of the deaths of 40 Florida children, lawmakers passed a sweeping reform law. It acknowledged that domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness were potentially deadly factors, especially in the case of very young children.

“In addition to the lack of training in the area of domestic violence, equally disturbing is the fact that most people who work in the child-welfare system do not even have training in child development,” Miami-Dade County dependency-court Judge Cindy Lederman said in an email this week. “Without the child development training, it is difficult to understand the ramifications of violence on children. The lack of training in both fields creates ignorance that is harmful to children.”

So far Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll has changed the protocol at the hotline, so that if a caller alleges someone is having an acute mental-health episode, the department will immediately investigate. Now, frontline staffers are required to meet with the parent and potential victim within four hours.

Additionally, Carroll said Tuesday, adequate treatment services are needed to help troubled parents.

“The real root of the issue here, I think, is going to come around how we as a state deal with substance abuse and mental health in a family structure,” he said. “We are dealing with a lot of broken families who have substance-abuse and mental-health issues over a long period of time.”

A DCF Critical Incident Response Team is reviewing the Jonchuck case and will issue a report within 30 days.

Phoebe’s funeral will be held Wednesday morning in Tampa.

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida


Original Article

DCF secretary promises changes after child murder

The secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families promised swift changes Monday in how the agency responds to potential child abuse cases, but Mike Carroll said he’s not sure if the changes would have saved Phoebe Jonchuck’s life.

The 5-year-old child was dropped to her death last week from the Misener Bridge in St. Petersburg by her father, John Jonchuck, 25, police said.

“I was sick to my stomach,” Carroll said. “I’m angry and frustrated that we can’t better protect kids.”

See our full interview with DCF Secretary Mike Carroll in the media player above.

Carroll announced that DCF will respond faster to calls in which kids’ lives may be in danger. Instead of the usual 24 hour response time by child welfare agents, they’re required to respond in four hours.

The secretary said he’s assembled a Critical Incident Response Team consisting of child welfare experts, law enforcement, and educators that will review the Jonchuck case and report back in 30 days.

One issue under review is a complaint from Jonchuck’s attorney who warned DCF about her client’s unusual behavior and the possibility of hurting his own child.

Hillsborough County deputies responded but opted not to hospitalize Jonchuck for mental evaluation or arrest him.

Carroll didn’t blame the deputies for their actions but instead pointed the finger at his own agency.

“The buck will always stop with the Department of Children and Families on a child welfare case,” Carroll said.

The secretary said if child welfare agents had responded quickly to Jonchuck’s case, he couldn’t predict whether Phoebe would have survived.

“I don’t know whether we would have even located him,” Carroll said. “But I know this, I would rather have that protocol in place than not.”

The DCF secretary said the issue is complicated, and that people should not expect the problems to be solved overnight.

 “I can tell you systemically that this is not an issue that the Department of Children and Families is going to fix all by ourselves,” Carroll said.

Original Article

Add taxpayer cost to the controversy about group homes for kids without families

A new study shows that placing children in group homes instead of with foster families is much more expensive — and many children’s advocates say it’s also worse for the kids.

The study, released last month by the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, found that slightly more than 11 percent of children who are removed from their families are placed in group homes rather than with relatives, friends or foster families.

Group homes cost the state nearly $81.7 million for approximately 2,200 children in 2013-2014 — more than $37,000 per child. In comparison, the state rate when a foster family cared for a child age 13 to 17 was $515 per month, or $6,180 per year.

On Jan. 1, foster families got a cost-of-living increase to $527 per month, according to the Department of Children and Families.

The OPPAGA study noted that the main purpose of residential group care is “to provide a setting that addresses the unique needs of children who require more intensive services than a family setting can provide. … Community-based care lead agencies may place children in other types of group settings based on the child’s needs, such as residential treatment programs, therapeutic group care or developmental disabilities group homes.”

The problem with that, advocates say, is that while many group homes are modeled on families, with live-in house-parents and smaller numbers of children, 57 percent of Florida group homes use shift workers who are less likely to develop positive relationships with the kids.

“When we got in fights, they’d call the cops, and we’d get arrested,” said Miranda Phillips, who lived in group homes from age 13 to 18. “People are going to fight, especially if you throw that many girls in a house together.”

Phillips is now 22 and works with Ready for Life, a Pinellas County program for kids who age out of foster care. She said the group home she lived in typically housed 40 girls. Calling the police to deal with fighting was common, she said, and often led to the teens being charged.

“A lot of us wanted to be caseworkers or work with kids, and they can’t do it because they have this [criminal] record,” she said.

But Shelley Katz, chief operating officer of Children’s Home Society of Florida, said some kids prefer group homes with shift workers.

“There are kids who thrive with shift staff,” she said. “We have some who have come back and worked for us.”

According to the OPPAGA study, only about 25 percent of young adults who choose to stay in extended foster care after age 18 choose a group home.

“Every kid is not the same,” Katz said. “Some need on-site interventions all day, every day. … In order to meet the need, we need a wide array of options.”

Group homes primarily serve older children, and more males and minority children with behavioral health issues, the study noted. Physical aggression, running away, truancy and drug use all were more pronounced among children in group homes as opposed to foster families — but according to the study, those were the behaviors that landed them in group homes to begin with.

Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First, said she often hears that foster parents will refuse to take these “difficult to place” kids, or that the kids are so damaged they can’t live in regular homes.

“Foster parents have these kids and adopt them also,” she said. “But foster parents need additional support and services to help them. The cost of helping them to provide a home for hard-to-place kids would be far less than keeping the kids in a group home.”

Carole Shauffer of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, who has fought against the use of group-home placements in Florida, said children who live in group homes generally lack models for parenting their own children.

“How do you know how to parent?” she asked. “You already came from a home where parenting was a problem if you’re in a group home.”


Original Article

Phoebe Jonchuck was alive when thrown from bridge near Sunshine Skyway

Five-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck was alive early Thursday when she hurtled 62 feet from her father’s arms to the dark waters of Tampa Bay, where a search crew found her lifeless body hours later.

But for years before that horrible morning, child protective investigative records show, she was living in a home full of strife. Beginning in 2012, specialists from the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office received multiple reports of problems between Phoebe’s parents, John Jonchuck Jr. and Michelle Kerr.

On one occasion, they reached “verified findings” that violence threatened children in the home, though they apparently did not recommend intervention that advocates say is typical in such welfare cases.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that they would not have made a referral for services,” said Nikki Daniels, a therapist who specializes in trauma and domestic violence.

Shortly after midnight Wednesday, Jonchuck, 25, drove Phoebe to the top of the Dick Misener Bridge in St. Petersburg, pulled her from the back seat of his PT Cruiser, and dropped her over the railing, according to authorities. An off-duty St. Petersburg police officer, gun drawn, was standing behind Jonchuck, telling him to stay in the car.

Authorities confirmed Friday that Phoebe was alive when she fell. Detectives also called for help from the public in reconstructing the days before Phoebe’s death. They asked to speak with anyone who saw Jonchuck in the last week, especially clergy he might have visited. He remains jailed on murder and other charges.

In late May 2013, an argument between Jonchuck and Kerr, 29, turned physical at their home in Tampa. Investigators said he pushed her and she scratched him in retaliation. By the time deputies arrived, both were cut up. As Jonchuck was arrested, children slept inside the house.

The charges against Jonchuck were later dropped, and investigators from the sheriff’s Child Protective Investigations Division met with the family in June of that year. They checked back the following month, when Phoebe was living alone with Jonchuck. He had secured an injunction against Kerr, and set up appropriate sleeping arrangements for Phoebe, along with adequate food and clothing.

They closed the case, offering a resource guide and other pamphlets to the family. A summary indicates that investigators offered some type of services to Kerr, but officials could not say Friday what those were, and Kerr declined them anyway.

At that time, Daniels said, child protection workers should have pushed Jonchuck toward voluntary intervention services that would have helped him build a safe home for Phoebe. Such a recommendation is typical when investigators do not want to remove children from their families.

“If they really missed making that referral, to me that’s really a concern,” she said.

The main partner in such cases around Tampa Bay is Eckerd, a child and family organization that can remove children from a home entirely or make house calls.

“We do provide in-home services, so if it doesn’t reach that level for removal, we can come into the home and do what’s called a case plan to work with the parent,” said spokeswoman Terri Durdaller. She said neither Jonchuck nor Kerr had been referred to Eckerd.

“Allegations are one thing, but the conclusions of investigations are what really matters to determine the outcome for the child,” said Hillsborough sheriff’s spokesman Larry McKinnon. He said it was not atypical to see a family with multiple child protective reports. “I think anytime you have a family that’s having disputes, its not uncommon for multiple complaints to come in.”

Child protective investigators had looked into Jonchuck and Kerr twice before in 2012, and they did not recommend services either time, according to records released by the state Department of Children and Families. DCF contracts with the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office, which performs welfare investigations around Tampa.

In February 2012, Jonchuck’s mother, Michele, was arrested on drug charges after someone complained to authorities that she had been smoking crack cocaine while watching a baby. Child protective investigators learned that Phoebe had been staying overnight at her grandmother’s home about three times a month, but there was no evidence she was exposed to open drug use.

Phoebe’s parents eventually signed a safety plan but during the course of that investigation, Jonchuck angrily hung up on a sheriff’s employee who informed him that his mother had tested positive for cocaine. The investigators recommended drug treatment programs for Michele Jonchuck, but records do not show any service referrals for Phoebe’s mother and father.

Ten days after that report was closed, child protective investigators opened another case upon learning that Jonchuck may have choked Kerr two months before. Someone further alleged that Jonchuck had used crystal methamphetamine and that Phoebe’s parents had locked her in their bedroom. Both Kerr and Jonchuck denied the allegations and said the antique crystal doorknobs in their apartment often fell to the floor, which is why she had been locked in a room once while playing.

In both 2012 cases, investigators made note of Jonchuck and Kerr’s history of domestic disputes, but did not find that Phoebe was especially vulnerable to abuse. Kerr had been arrested in 2007 on a child neglect charge after deputies came to her apartment and found one of her older children unsupervised, according to an arrest report. She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and admitted: “I left for work today. Should have waited for babysitter . . . to come first but didn’t. I made a huge mistake.”

Advocates say the presence of domestic violence alone is enough to make a child vulnerable. Child abuse is more common in homes with domestic violence, which on its own can cause emotional trauma, leading to nightmares, stress and other symptoms.

“Just because domestic violence doesn’t physically impact children, it can emotionally impact them,” said Robin L. Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First.

Suzanne Parker, director of the Guardian ad Litem Program for the Hillsborough judicial circuit, said abuse does not necessarily have to be directed at the child. “You can have a domestic violence situation in the presence of the child and that constitutes abuse,” she said.

Phoebe never showed signs of battery or malnourishment. Her teachers did not express alarm.

Investigators received another report last February alleging that Jonchuck had pulled Phoebe’s arm two years prior, and another in April accusing her day care director of smoking marijuana. Both were deemed insufficient to suspect abuse or neglect.

Then on Wednesday, Jonchuck’s lawyer called to report his erratic behavior. He was driving around Tampa in his pajamas and seemed “depressed and delusional,” according to a record of the allegations. Investigators again determined there was not sufficient evidence to suspect abuse or neglect.

The last filing for Phoebe was logged Thursday. The location was All Children’s Hospital. Her “father had tossed [her] off a bridge.”

Contact Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804, Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com and Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com.


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Before girl’s death on Tampa Bay bridge, a family in chaos

By age 5, Phoebe Jonchuck already had a significant history with Florida child protection authorities: Her father, they were told, was habitually violent with his domestic partners, and had been accused of “smacking” his daughter in the face. Phoebe’s mother, according to reports to the agency, was a meth user who had been charged with cruelty to another child in 2008.

A Tampa judge left to determine custody between them faced difficult choices.

The battle between John Nicholas Jonchuck and Michelle Kerr ended tragically early Thursday when Jonchuck tossed his 5-year-old daughter from a bridge approaching the iconic Sunshine Skyway, which spans Tampa Bay between St. Petersburg and Manatee County. Phoebe’s body was found by an Eckerd College dive team.

The report of Phoebe’s death to the state Department of Children & Families child abuse hotline was the sixth report the agency had received about the family in the past 2 1/2 years. Records of those contacts suggest little was done to ensure Phoebe’s safety since the first report was received at 9:51 p.m. on April 14, 2012.

Phoebe’s death is the most recent in a string of horrific — and often preventable — killings that prompted lawmakers to demand reform and greater transparency from the state’s chronically troubled child protection system.

As Jonchuck was booked into the Pinellas County Jail Thursday morning — he was arrested by police after he fled the scene of Phoebe’s killing — DCF Secretary Mike Carroll was speaking before a committee of Florida senators who last spring authored a bill that overhauled his agency’s child protection policies. Carroll praised a provision that required DCF to post all child fatalities on a website that went live last June, and said the agency had hired 90 of the 191 additional abuse investigators lawmakers had funded.

On Thursday night, Carroll told reporters he was deploying the so-called Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to Tampa “to assess the investigations and interventions with Phoebe’s family prior to her murder.” The team was developed as part of last spring’s legislative reform, enacted after publication of Innocents Lost, the Miami Herald’s series on 477 child deaths. The group sent to Tampa will be led by Assistant Secretary for Child Welfare Janice Thomas, Carroll said, and will include police, mental health providers and members of another group created by lawmakers, the Florida Institute of Child Welfare at Florida State University.

“After the tragic loss of Phoebe, the department is immediately changing our hotline criteria to include a trigger for when a caregiver is believed to be experiencing a psychotic episode that would require a department investigator to visit the family within four hours,” Carroll said. “We have to do more for the children, like Phoebe, who depend on us to protect them.”

“The horrible nature of this little girl’s murder at the hands of her father is heart-wrenching and demands our most immediate and thorough response,” Carroll added. “We must do everything we can at DCF to prevent any and all harm to precious children like Phoebe.”

Shortly after midnight, a St. Petersburg police officer saw Jonchuck’s white Chrysler PT Cruiser approaching the southbound span of the Skyway, speeding at about 100 miles per hour, police said. Jonchuck pulled over at the Dick Misener Bridge before getting on the Skyway. A patrolman pulled up behind him. The officer watched in horror as Jonchuck walked around to the passenger side of his car, pulled his daughter close to his chest as he babbled incoherently, and then flung her off the bridge.

Jonchuck was charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault with a motor vehicle on a law enforcement, and aggravated fleeing. At his first appearance before a judge Thursday afternoon, Jonchuck said, “I want to leave it in the hands of God,” when asked whether he wanted a lawyer.

“I’m pretty sure God is not going to be representing you in this case,” the judge replied.

It appears from DCF records obtained by the Herald on Thursday night that DCF’s contact with Phoebe’s family on April 2012 was its first; in Tampa, all child protection probes are conducted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office under contract with DCF.

The hotline call alleged that Jonchuck used “crystal meth,” had choked Phoebe’s mother, and had locked the then-toddler in a bedroom “where powerful pharmaceutical medication was located.”

At the time that report was received, unspecified extended family members already had been the subject of seven prior calls to DCF, beginning in 1997, and ending in 2012. Jonchuck already had an arrest history that included aggravated assault with a weapon, “multiple charges” of domestic battery and larceny. Kerr, the girl’s mother, had been charged with child abuse.

A former landlord told an investigator he’d found “drug paraphernalia” at the couple’s home, had found doors “kicked in” on several occasions, and had been forced to replace windows that had been smashed in by the couple. He described Jonchuck’s and Kerr’s behavior as “very erratic.”

Still, at the time investigators closed the case, they had concluded that the risk to Phoebe was “low” because Jonchuck and Kerr had moved to a new home and “the home was observed to be free and clear of any environmental hazards.” A local church was helping the couple.

“There were no concerns for the family,” a notation from April 19 of that year stated. Days earlier, a notation said that Jonchuck’s psychiatrist had told investigators Jonchuck had missed his domestic violence counseling appointment, and had failed to reschedule.

DCF received another call in 2013, alleging that Kerr had abused methamphetamine, cocaine and alcohol, had been “hostile” and had fallen down when drunk. The mother, the report said, was violent with Jonchuck, and had attacked him with a box cutter. “There is a problem with Phoebe not being bathed,” the report said, adding: “There are some concerns regarding the mother having adequate food in the home.”

And though the investigation was closed with verified findings that Phoebe was at some risk because of the ongoing violence between her parents, investigators took no actions on her behalf.

The hotline received another report last month saying that Jonchuck — who had custody of Phoebe — did not have “a stable home,” and was moving between relative and relative. The relatives, the report alleged, were “alcoholics.” Kerr, 29, continued to struggle with drug and mental health problems, reports said, and was living, once again, with a man who beat her up.

On Wednesday, DCF received its final report on Phoebe before her death. It came in at 2:45 p.m. and said that Jonchuck was “driving all over town in his pajamas” with Phoebe in the car. “The father seems depressed and delusional,” the report added.

Kerr, the report said, was “unstable,” and living with a violent boyfriend. Jonchuck was hiding his daughter both from her mom and her school.

The report apparently originated with a Tampa family court lawyer whom, reports said, Jonchuck had visited Wednesday as part of his dispute with Phoebe’s mom.

A record of the report does not indicate any action had been taken by Thursday morning, when Jonchuck’s odyssey ended near the Skyway bridge.

Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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Former foster care child is honored for helping other youth

Left to right: Howard Talenfeld, Christina Spudeas, Keisha Anthony, Carlos Martinez and Michael Dunlavy

Left to right: Howard Talenfeld, Christina Spudeas, Keisha Anthony, Carlos Martinez and Michael Dunlavy MICHAEL MURPHY COURTESY


Kenisha Anthony entered the foster care system when she was 5 years old.

After she aged out at 18, she didn’t know where to go or what to do.

“When I aged out, I didn’t feel like my social worker had my best interest,” she said. “I wasn’t able to get independent living or any benefits. I didn’t know my rights. I got no help.”

Anthony wanted to keep that from happening to other foster children. She joined Florida Children’s First, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting foster children and other at-risk youth, in 2013.

Since then, she has helped advise people who want to be guardians ad litem; volunteered during Children’s Week, a grassroots children’s event supported by more than 100 nonprofit, corporate and faith-based organizations; and advised people who want to become foster parents.

Last month, Florida Children’s First recognized Anthony and other community leaders at the nonprofit’s annual Miami Fundraiser and Awards Ceremony. She was given the Youth Advocate of the Year award for her work in the community and with children in the foster care system.

“I’m just doing things from my heart,” she said. “It meant a lot to me to be recognized for my hard work. I’m appreciative that people are looking at me and supporting my endeavor.”

Anthony, now 23, is a junior at Florida State University. She graduates in December with a bachelor’s degree in social work.

“I set goals and accomplished them day-by-day,” she said. “In high school, I realized you have to find a way to make it on your own.”

Before she graduates, Anthony wants to study abroad in London and Prague to work with victims of domestic violence and abuse.

Also recognized during the award ceremony was Rep. Erik Fresen (R-Miami), who was named Champion of Children’s Rights for sponsoring the Attorneys for Dependent Children with Special Needs bill in the House of Representatives. The piece of legislation provides attorneys the right to protect dependent children with disabilities who are in legal custody of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). The bill passed in July 2014.

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Preeminent Foster Child Abuse Attorney Named Finalist as Most Effective Lawyer

Preeminent foster child abuse lawyer and staunch advocate for child welfare reform in the state capital, Howard Talenfeld, was named a finalist as one of this year’s Most Effective Lawyers by the Daily Business Review.

Talenfeld Most Effective Lawyers AwardTalenfeld, who recently opened Talenfeld Law, one of Florida’s first law firms dedicated to protecting injured, abused and neglected statewide and around the country, was recognized for work done as head of the Children’s Rights practice area with his former firm, Colodny Fass Talenfeld Karlinsky Abate & Webb, P.A., along with Babbitt, Johnson, Osborne & Le Clainche, P.A.

Specifically, Talenfeld and the other attorneys were acknowledged for their work on the case of Judith Leekin. While in New York, and later in Florida, the woman assumed numerous identities to adopt mentally disabled children and defraud city welfare officials.

When police raided Leekin’s Port St. Lucie home and found adopted children starved and handcuffed, Leekin’s arrest blew open a tragic breakdown of the New York City foster care system spanning three decades and two states.

Leekin had fraudulently adopted 11 special needs children in Queens, New York, in the 1980s and 1990s, using various aliases. She then collected more than $1.68 million in government subsidies. While she lived in luxury, the children endured continuous torture, abuse, and squalor. Ten survivors were accounted for. An 11th child disappeared while in her care and is presumed dead.

Leekin went to prison, where she remains. A federal judge in New York sentenced her to 11 years in 2008 on fraud charges, and a circuit judge in St. Lucie County sentenced her to 20 years in 2009 for abuse of children and disabled adults.

That left a five-year fight for civil justice on behalf of the abused children against the agencies responsible for the children’s well-being. Two of the children had been placed in a city adoption unit, and the other eight with three private adoption agencies with city contracts, under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. On April 29, 2009, the 10 foster children filed suit against the City of New York and the adoption agencies responsible for their care. The case was filed in the Brooklyn office of the United States District Court, Eastern District of New York. (S.W. et al v. City of New York et al., CV 09-1777).

The 52-page suit charged the defendants with five counts, including two counts of violation of the federal statute 42 USC Section 1983 (see below) and three counts of negligence.

The civil case was concluded in June 11, 2014, with a $27.62 million global settlement on behalf of the victims, including a $9.7 million settlement reached with the City of New York on Dec. 6, 2012.

The case provided the plaintiff children with money not only to support themselves for the rest of their lives, but to provide them a life with a measure of dignity. The case also drew national attention upon the deficiencies of the foster care systems in Florida and New York, and broadened the discussion of the plight of foster children around the nation. That issue has forced a spotlight on foster care systems, influenced reform at local and state levels, and added to a national dialogue on how we treat our most vulnerable both pre and post adoption.

Talenfeld and co-counsel Theodore Babbitt, as plaintiffs’ Florida co-counsel, investigated the case, filed the suit and all the plaintiffs’ motions and arguments before the court, took the depositions, and participated in the settlement negotiations, working for more than five years to achieve a just outcome for the victims. This included investigating more than 30 years of agency failures in New York CityState, locating key witnesses and uncovering critical documents.

The two attorneys pursued the criminal prosecution and appeared at Judith Leekin’s New York City sentencing hearing as the voice for the children. The team also overcame summary judgment motions that challenged statute of limitations and also established case law set precedent to pursue claims many years after the events occurred using the civil rights act, 42 USC § 1983, when state negligence statute of limitations were far shorter.

The case was not without hurdles. Filing the case in federal court presented a stiff challenge to the plaintiffs, and a number of New York law firms turned down the case as co-counsel with Talenfeld and Babbitt pro hac vice. Both Babbitt and Talenfeld, as Florida lawyers representing the plaintiffs pro hac vice, were the public faces on behalf of the children in the case, which drew prominent attention in New York media.

The suit was filed as a “Section 1983” case, which entitles a plaintiff to sue in federal court for civil rights abuses at the hands of “state actors,” or state or municipal employees or agencies. These claims require proving deliberate indifference. Section 1983 is a reference to 42 U.S.C. 42 § Section 1983, a statute that traces its origins to a civil rights act passed by Congress in 1871, in response to abuses suffered by African-Americans at the hands of state and local officials in the post-Civil War South.
To prevail in a Section 1983 case, the plaintiff must prove not just simple negligence, but a standard approaching gross negligence and willful misconduct. In other words, the plaintiff must prove that authorities in the city or diocese, such as the mayor, child welfare authorities, or agency heads, were aware of the problem and repeatedly ignored it. The bar for this proof in the State of New York is slightly lower than that in some other states, in that multiple examples creating a pattern of repeated negligence can be admitted as intentional misconduct and therefore as a Section 1983 case.
This interplay of federal and state law in New York was crucial to the case’s progress.
Discovery was Herculean. The time frame went back 15, 20, andor even 30 years, before computerized records and Internet access was commonplace. Since the case involved 10 different people, it was really, in essence, 10 cases in one.
“This was 10 cases, not one, “ Babbitt said. “So everything was 10 times as difficult, and were against two clients with unlimited resources.”

The Talenfeld-Babbitt team therefore had to spend hours and days on end in New York City and Albany searching through millions of pages, digging for files related to New York City’s child welfare system and the Social Security identification and other issues. The case ultimately involved 140 depositions, 200,000 pages of documents, which were obtained testimony, including synopsis, through the and review of 2 million pages of documents. Further hampering discovery were the limitations of the disabled plaintiffs themselves, who had limited ability to communicate and convey their memories coherently. Furthermore, the team had to locate witnesses to testify.

It was a grinding process, and it took four years to achieve the summary judgment, which opened the way to negotiations for the global settlement.

This case was a companion and successor to the 1995 MarisoloI v. Pataki and Marisol v. Giuliani cases in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In those cases, 11 children suffering from abuse and neglect under the New York Children’s Services sued then-New York Governor George Pataki and then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. Those two Marisol cases were settled in 1999, and served as a departure point for the Leekin case.

Original Article

Pro bono spotlight: Stepping up for our children in foster care

“One Lawyer, One Life” is a new pro bono opportunity sponsored by The Florida Bar Public Interest Law Section, The Florida Bar and Florida’s Children First.

It is a statewide pro bono project designed to recruit, train, support, match and mentor volunteer attorneys willing to assist a 17-year-old who is in out-of-home care pursuant to Chapter 39, Florida Statutes, regarding dependency proceedings.

It will be the pro bono attorney’s role to counsel the young person regarding the resources available through the state and/or to assist with a specific legal matter.

Important decisions are made by and about 17-year-olds in Florida’s child welfare system. They need good legal advice to help them transition into adulthood on solid ground.

It’s one more way attorneys can prevent problems and can help ensure all of our young people have the support they need to be productive, happy adults.

In the 4th Judicial Circuit, the Department of Children and Families will refer young people needing assistance to Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. Pro bono attorneys who volunteer will be sent the information for a specific young person.

When the pro bono attorney accepts the case, DCF will enter the motion for appointment so the attorney may have access to the case file and docket.

JALA will assign the attorney to the case for the purpose of pro bono attorney support and professional liability coverage for the matter, if needed.

To volunteer, attorneys are asked to sign up on Florida for Children and Families’ website, f4cf.org. Comprehensive training materials are available on the website for viewing at their convenience.

Additionally, pro bono attorneys can be paired with an expert resource person or mentor to provide guidance during the progress of the case. There also is a discussion forum available on f4cf.org.

Sincere appreciation is extended to the attorneys in the 4th Circuit who have signed up to assist a 17-year-old who has been part of our foster care system.

More help is needed as cases in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties are being identified. The difference each attorney will make in helping a young person start adulthood with confidence and stability is immeasurable.

Attorneys interested in pro bono opportunities throughout the 4th Circuit are encouraged to contact Kathy Para, chair of The JBA Pro Bono Committee, at kathy.para@jaxlegalaid.org.

By Kathy Para, The Jacksonville Bar Association Pro Bono Committee Chair

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This year’s honorees:

Champion for Children’s Rights:    Retired Judge Lee E. Haworth

Outstanding Youth Mentor:     Jayson Caines

Youth Advocate of the Year:     Mitchivena Tresalus


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Keys to Independence helps foster kids get drivers licenses

Tamara Vernette is 19, but she still doesn’t have her drivers license.

Vernette, who spent most of her teenage years in group foster care, didn’t have anyone to teach her to drive, although she dreamed about the mobility a car would have given her.

“Right now, I would pretty much be able to have any job I want, go to any school I want,” said Vernette, who gets around by bus.
A pilot program started this month is designed to help young people such as Vernette. Funded by a new state law, Keys to Independence will make driver education and insurance available — and affordable — to foster children.

Insurance will be provided through the Florida Automobile Joint Underwriting Association, and the state will foot the bill.

“The biggest barrier to foster youth getting a drivers license is the insurance,” said Gerry Glynn, chief legal officer for the nonprofit Community Based Care of Central Florida, which is administering the program statewide. “Before now, nobody would sell them insurance.”

Unlike other teens, foster kids don’t live with parents who typically add them to their auto insurance policies. Children living in group homes and those who move among placements have been at a particular disadvantage.

The new law acknowledges the financial burden and allows 16- and 17-year-olds who have completed a driver-education course to buy insurance as if they were adults. Foster parents also could add the teens to their insurance policies and be reimbursed by the state, Glynn said.

About 9 percent of foster children ages 15 to 17 surveyed in June by the Florida Department of Children and Families had a learner’s permit. Just 3 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds had a drivers license.

Keys to Independence has $800,000 to spend during the 2014-2015 year. Glynn estimated that will help about 200 foster children.

The program will pay for learner’s-permit and drivers-license fees, driver education, a traffic-law and substance-abuse course needed to obtain a license, insurance and deductibles in case of a crash.

Community Based Care officials hope foster parents, guardians ad litem and mentors will give kids a chance to practice driving. They’re also hoping to find driver schools that will donate their services.

“A key to normalcy in life in Florida is a drivers license,” Glynn said. “This is a huge step forward.”

Keys to Independence is designed to help foster children go through a rite of passage that other kids experience, allowing them to get to work, school and social engagements more easily.

“Overall, it’s a great idea … so more kids have resources and options about what they can do and where they can go instead of feeling grounded,” said Vernette, who is not eligible for Keys to Independence because she is no longer in licensed foster care.

Florida is the second state to institute such a program, Glynn said. Missouri was first.

sjacobson@tribpub.com or 407-540-5981


Original article

Hillsborough advocates work to avert row over immigrant kids

While a controversy played out in Pasco County over the expansion of a shelter to house unaccompanied immigrant children, Hillsborough County child advocates and the judiciary quietly have been establishing a plan to thwart any future problems here.

Florida’s Children First, an organization founded by child advocate attorneys, says 161 children came to Hillsborough County between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31. All were placed with sponsors — in many cases, relatives — and have not created any strain on the child welfare system, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the organization, which strives to make sure immigrant children have access to services and support they need to stay healthy and safe. The goal, she said, is to keep the young immigrants out of the child welfare system.

In the past 13 months, more than 63,000 undocumented minors have entered the United States over the Mexico border. The federal government is looking for places to house them until they can be placed with relatives or sponsors.

For months, officials in Hillsborough County, home to a large number of immigrant families, have been preparing for a possible large influx of undocumented children, should the federal government choose to send them here. A committee comprised of children’s advocates, attorneys and judges have formed the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Committee of the 13th Judicial Circuit Community Alliance. The group is believed to be the first of its kind in the country, Rosenberg said.

“As a citizen of Tampa, I am really proud of our community for stepping up and being proactive in this,’’ Rosenberg said. “We are unique in the country. As far as we know, we are the first to take these steps.”

Immigrant children come to Hillsborough County all the time, she said, and are routinely placed with sponsors and relatives. But this summer, the tens of thousands that streamed across the border into the United States generated a national debate on immigration policies and how to handle all the undocumented children. Some welcomed them while others wanted to sent them back.

“We said let’s not wait three years down the road,” Rosenberg said. “We can be proactive here. We don’t want these kids to be on child welfare. We want them to be with families.”

Hillsborough County has a large immigrant population, she said, “so, we can expect as more come over, they will be placed with families here.”

Winter might be a time for another mass migration, she said.

Plans to accommodate some of the children over the summer ran into fierce opposition in Pasco County, but this week, the Pasco County Planning Commission approved plans to expand the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services shelter. The county commission will make the final decision.

Attorneys, child advocates and judges in Hillsborough County don’t want the same public fight to play out here.

“When we got word of the increasing tide of unaccompanied immigrant children entering the United States, our alliance agreed that we could make the greatest impact by getting the community together before we experienced problems,” said Circuit Judge Emily Peacock, who handles juvenile delinquency cases and who chairs the newly formed group.

In August, about two dozen of the unaccompanied immigrant children found a temporary home in Hillsborough County at The Children’s Home, a 122-year-old charity that through the years has cared for orphaned and foster children and kids who are victims of abuse and neglect.

So far, the influx has not jammed the system in Hillsborough County, but officials want to be ready.

“I see this planning process as the development of a primary prevention strategy to keep these children from unnecessarily entering the child welfare system,” said Kelly Parris, CEO of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, in a statement released this week.

“Hillsborough County,” she said, “has numerous organizations that provide a variety of services to immigrant populations across a rich and diverse community.”

Besides receiving education and health benefits, the children also need legal aid, a task being undertaken by Gulfcoast Legal Services, said Adriana Dinis, an attorney with the agency. Gulfcoast Legal Services, along with the Hillsborough County Bar Association’s Immigration and Nationality Section, is recruiting lawyers to donate their time.

“We need both immigration lawyers and lawyers who can help caregivers obtain legal custody in family, probate and dependency courts,” she said in a statement released Wednesday. “This spotlight on the new influx of children provides an opportunity for lawyers to step up and help these children.”

Kathleen Cowan, executive director of Eckerd Community Alternatives in Hillsborough County, said a main goal is to reduce the number of children in shelters.

“We already have great prevention and intervention services,” she said in a prepared statement, “so it makes sense on every level for our community to help caregivers before a crisis arises and children wind up in foster care.”

By Keith Morelli | Tribune Staff

Original Article here

Detert: Lawmakers Will Fix Extended Foster Care

The sponsor of Florida’s 2013 law extending foster care to age 21 is working on a legislative fix to resolve confusion about which state agency is responsible for severely disabled young adults in the program.

State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice Credit AP

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, is meeting with children’s advocates and service providers about the issue, which involves whether the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities or the Department of Children and Families should pay for disabled people in foster care between ages 18 and 22.

“There’s a fear that (the Agency for Persons with Disabilities) would dump kids in extended care who need care that foster-care groups aren’t used to giving,” Detert said. “There’s just a lot of little problems that need to be sorted out as to who’s in charge of handicapped kids in extended foster care.”

The bill named for her, the Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act, went into effect on Jan. 1, extending from 18 to 21 the age a young person can opt to stay in foster care. For those with major disabilities, it’s 22.

Before the law, representatives of severely disabled foster kids turning 18 could cite impending homelessness as an emergency that would qualify the young adults for services through what is known as the Agency for Persons with Disabilities’ Medicaid “home- and community-based” services waiver.

But since the law went into effect, many say, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities has taken the position that children aren’t homeless if they can choose to stay in foster care — which is funded by the Department of Children and Families through the privatized community-based care agencies.

“At that point, APD started saying, ‘These are not homeless youth anymore,’ ” said Janice Thomas, assistant secretary for child welfare at the Department of Children and Families. “Now they’re not homeless, because we’re obligated to pay for extended foster care for them. I don’t want to say (APD) refused. It’s more like they say they’re not eligible because they’re not homeless.”

However, Denise Arnold, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities’ deputy director of programs, said a wide array of services — including nursing, personal care and various therapies — is available to children in foster care under a different Medicaid program, which involves enrolling Medicaid beneficiaries in managed-care plans.

“Anything that a child — defined as under 21 — would need comes from the state plan if they’re Medicaid-eligible,” she said. “In the case of these foster kids, they are Medicaid-eligible.”

Arnold said that because services for foster kids are available elsewhere, federal law bans the agency from duplicating them under the home- and community-based waiver.

“Once they reach age 21 and older, if they’re an APD client, we are always picking up what service ended in the state plan that now needs to be continued,” Arnold said. “And we always pick that up under the waiver. Because the waiver has similar services, but the waiver is designed to not duplicate what else is also available.”

But Gerry Glynn, chief legal officer at Community Based Care of Central Florida, disagreed. He said many children with severe disabilities go into foster care only because the Agency for Persons with Disabilities hasn’t done its job.

“If the families with whom these children live had the support of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, many of them never would have come into foster care,” he said. “But it was due to a failure of (APD) to have the resources to be able to serve these families that many of these families felt no other choice but to give up their children to the state and place them in foster care.”

Foster care was extended to give kids who had been removed from their homes a better chance to prepare for independence, Glynn said, but the disabled foster children whose services are at issue will never be able to live independently — or to make decisions about their care.

“These youth cannot live independently, thus they do not qualify for extended foster care,” he said.

Advocates say they’re considering a lawsuit to get the services delivered.

“These transition years wouldn’t even be a discussion if APD fulfilled the statutory mandate to make kids in foster care the number-two priority and moved them all off the wait list when they were under 18,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First.

Attorney Paolo Annino, who leads the Children’s Advocacy Center at the Florida State University College of Law, is representing one disabled foster child and points to the case of another, Amber Russell, who he represented in 2006.

“(The 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee) said that children who are abused, neglected or abandoned are not to be penalized just because they’re foster-care children and not receive the same type of services that all other children with disabilities would receive,” Annino said.

He also noted that children in foster care have a “much higher rate of disabilities than the general population” and are 40 to 60 percent more likely to become homeless.

Detert said she’s still gathering information and hadn’t taken a position on how the new law might be altered. She said it had been well received by providers overall, especially given that “it is an extra expense” for them.

“It’s certainly a topic for discussion for the upcoming session, and that’s always true with big changes,” Detert said. “You make the big change, and then you start hearing from people saying, ‘This doesn’t work for us.'”


Original Article at WUSF News

Heroes for foster kids honored in Orlando

As much as we Americans tend to worship our professional sports stars — even as they’re being arrested for domestic violence or child abuse or using illicit substances — the real heroes in our midst are not household names.

They’re guys like Gerry Glynn, Randy Pawlowski and Andrew Trepte — men who have stepped up for kids who have been abused, abandoned and neglected before ending up in Florida’s foster care system. These are kids who really need someone looking out for them.

On Thursday night, the statewide advocacy group Florida’s Children First honored the three in Orlando. Glynn, named “Child Advocate of the Year,” has spent most of his career fighting for children’s rights, especially their right to independent legal representation. He has been an associate professor and director of clinical programs at Barry University School of Law and a clinical instructor at the Florida State University School of Law Children’s Advocacy Center — places where he encouraged his students to volunteer on behalf of foster kids. At one point, he also oversaw the Barry University Juvenile Justice Center — a statewide training and resource center for juvenile public defenders in Florida.

Gerry was recently elected president of the National Association of Lawyers for Children.
Meanwhile, “Foster Parent of the Year” honors went to 49-year-old Pawlowski of Sanford, a single father who has adopted five teenagers and taken in 15 foster kids for varying lengths of time. A dean at Seminole State College, he had some idea what he was getting into, though he perhaps underestimated the drama and angst. He learned quickly not to push too hard.

“I’m not their dad,” he said in an interview in June. “But we are family.”

And “Youth Advocate of the Year” honors went to Trepte, 21, a former foster kid himself. When he was still in high school, Trepte joined the Seminole County Youth Advisory Board, advocating to keep siblings together and to give youth a stronger voice in their medical and mental health treatment. He also volunteered to work with a foster-parent training program to help them understand the needs of teens, and he volunteered for Best Buddies, befriending fellow teens with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“I just love to help people out,” Trepte said. A 2012 graduate of Seminole High School, he’s now in the automotive program at Seminole State College, scheduled to graduate next year. “I feel like I need to make a difference.”

Original post at Orlando Sentinel

Florida child-welfare agencies battling high staff turnover — 80 percent in some parts of state

One of the worst problems facing Florida’s troubled child-welfare system, advocates say, is job turnover among the case managers who oversee adoption and foster-care services — 80 percent in some parts of the state.

It’s costing Florida tens of millions of dollars a year, and those are just the costs that can be quantified.

“Each time the child and parents have to start over with a new worker, everything is delayed, people are discouraged and children are re-traumatized at having to share details of their lives with yet another stranger,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First.

Rosenberg said caseworker turnover is directly related to how long a child stays in foster care; the more workers on a case, the longer a child is likely to spend in the state system.

Now, with turnover among caseworkers averaging 37 percent per year statewide, the privatized agencies responsible for adoption and foster care are turning to market research to keep their best employees.

“Every caseworker is waiting for a call back about another job,” Keith Gold, president of the Jacksonville-based marketing firm Gold & Associates, told a workshop at last week’s Child Protection Summit in Orlando.

Gold conducted a series of studies for the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the privatized community-based care lead agencies, and for subcontractors like the Children’s Home Society and Devereaux. Both hire caseworkers to find places for children to live after they’ve been removed from their homes by the Department of Children and Families.

As of 2012, there were 1,927 case managers and 398 case manager supervisors statewide. The entry-level salary averaged $37,000.

Gold conducted in-depth interviews with 154 of “the best of the best” caseworkers in the state — selected for their competence and longevity — who said 90 percent of their colleagues were looking for other work.

“This should scare the living crap out of you, that nine out of 10 of our people are actively looking for another job,” John Cooper, CEO of Kids Central, the community-based care lead agency based in Ocala, told his counterparts in the audience.

Low pay and high caseloads were frequently cited by Gold’s interviewees as reasons for a lack of job satisfaction. But he also found that the longest-serving, most competent caseworkers weren’t motivated primarily by money. More than 96 percent said their greatest job satisfaction came from helping children and families.

“It’s probably like people who go into teaching, or pastors — people with that same ‘calling’ mentality,” said Kurt Kelly, executive director of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the privatized community-based care lead agencies and many subcontractors.

Gold’s recommendations included performance-based salary increases, which he called “a critical part of retention.” He also recommended better hands-on training, reduced caseloads and clerical support.

Caseloads are expected to drop this year because the Legislature allocated $10 million in new funds for community-based care lead agencies — $4 million for caseworkers and $6 million for services.

According to Kelly, the private agencies expect that “in this coming year, we’re probably looking at getting down to [an average caseload] of 13-to-1.”

By Margie Menzel/News Service of Florida

Read more at HERE

DCF Works With Agency To Relieve Miami Foster-Care Overflow

The Florida Department of Children and Families is working with the agency that oversees child welfare in Miami to resolve issues that have included an overflow of kids in the area’s foster-care system.

DCF Interim Secretary Mike Carroll on Friday said the department is collaborating with Our Kids, the lead community-based care agency for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, after a surge in the number of children coming into state care.

“I think that system of care has experienced some significant challenges over the past year,” Carroll said. “And some are directly attributable to the number of kids coming into the system.”

In a June 9 letter to Our Kids’ interim CEO Joyce Taylor, Carroll said he “continue[d] to receive reports regarding lack of appropriate placement options for children in out-of-home care, resulting in children being housed in hotels, offices and emergency group home placements.”

The agency has seen a 44 percent increase in children coming into foster care and now serves about 33 percent more children than it did in June 2013, according to Our Kids spokeswoman Kadie Black.

“This isn’t just happening in Miami,” Black wrote in an email. “This has been happening in several circuits throughout Florida during the last year, although we are seeing one of the sharpest increases in Miami.”

Florida’s troubled child-welfare system has been the focus of intense scrutiny by the Legislature and the media during the past year, and a sweeping new law revamping the system went into effect July 1.

“Whenever there is significant change to the system, I think it has the effect of stressing the system,” Carroll said. “And not just Our Kids — I’m talking the whole system of care.”

Carroll followed up his letter to Our Kids by sending a “peer consultation team” to Miami, including the chief executive officers of two community-based care agencies, Lee Kaywork of Family Support Services of North Florida Inc., in the Jacksonville area, and Lorita Shirley of Eckerd Community Alternatives in Pasco and Pinellas counties.

Shirley said the team’s charge was addressing the overflow of children into the system, but “we are looking at all aspects of how that system is operating.”

There are currently no children in state care housed in Miami-Dade hotels, Carroll said Friday.

Carole Shauffer of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center said the interim secretary showed foresight in making the move.

“It’s completely unacceptable to have kids staying in unlicensed facilities,” she said. “Had DCF not taken some action to end this, they would have been subject to liability themselves.”

Shauffer noted that the Youth Law Center sued the department and Big Bend Community Based Care in 2006 for having children sleep in a DCF conference room. After Bob Butterworth became DCF secretary the next year, the department settled the lawsuit. Big Bend, which provides services in Tallahassee and surrounding areas, went on to collaborate with the Youth Law Center on the Quality Parenting Initiative, designed to increase the number and caliber of Florida foster placements.

But placements continue to be a problem in Miami and elsewhere, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. She called it “incredible” that an area the size of Miami-Dade County would have so few places to serve the most troubled or traumatized kids.

“It is outrageous that children who need a therapeutic placement are parked in hotels,” Rosenberg said. “And that is not Our Kids’ responsibility.”

She said all the responsible state and local agencies — DCF, the Agency for Health Care Administration, managed-care providers and the managing entities that oversee substance abuse and mental health services — should put their heads together and figure out how to develop enough therapeutic placements to keep kids in their communities.

“They’re getting sent to Jacksonville or Orlando,” Rosenberg said. “How do you get family therapy if your family is three hours away?”

That said, members of the peer consultation team say the issues are being resolved. And former state Sen. Ron Silver, who is now a member of the Our Kids board, said the agency’s relations with DCF have improved “immensely.”

“We are thankful to DCF and our partnering (community based care organizations) for taking the time to meet with us so we can identify best practices from around the state to ensure we are able to provide the absolute best possible service for children and their families,” Black wrote.

Additionally, Our Kids, which has been without a permanent chief executive officer since April, last week hired Jackie Gonzalez for the post. Gonzalez spent the past 13 years at the Children’s Home Society of Miami, most recently as executive director, according to Black.

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.


Read the article here

Former Foster Youth Finds Herself When She Found Family

Georgina Rodriguez spent most of her life growing up in foster care. She entered the system at age six and aged out at 18. In the course of 12 years, she moved eight different times. She had only lived with her older brother for six months in all her years in foster care.

She is now a 23-year-old college student majoring in social work. Her ultimate goal is to be the secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families or the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C.

She currently serves in a statewide foster youth advocacy organization, “Florida Youth SHINE,” and has interned with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. She hopes to change the system that raised her.

Here, Rodriquez shares her experiences on how she found over 40 relatives on her own.

Georgette Todd: Hi Georgina, what motivated you to start looking for your biological family?imgres

Georgina Rodriguez: When I was [14], I got into contact with a 33-year-old brother who was a Navy veteran with a wife and two young kids in San Diego. I didn’t get to live with him, but three days after aging out-of-care, I flew out to meet him and his family. We shared the same short stubby hands and his voice sounded just like my other brother’s voice. Because of that one trip, that one experience, I have spent the last five years of my life searching and connecting with my family.

Todd: How did you go about finding your relatives?

Rodriguez: I have found or connected with family by going on Facebook, searching the internet religiously, making calls, traveling around the U.S. to knock on doors, and even leaving letters on them.

It has not been easy. The searching part is hard, but the range of emotion is even harder. So far, I’ve found or connected with 40 to 45 maternal relatives all over the U.S. and Dominican Republic. I’m talking cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, brother, sister in laws, niece, nephews, etc.

I had help along the way. I couldn’t have found my family without independent living social workers, mentors, friends, foster families, my foster care agency, and even people that I have never met before. It’s been an emotional roller coaster, but worth it in the end.

Todd: What has been the reaction from your relatives? Have any of them said they would have taken you in had they known you were in foster care?

Rodriguez: They ask me questions about what happened and what it was like growing up in care. (I tell them the good stuff of course.) They showed me pictures of the family and of my mom when she was younger, too. They even gave me an album of photos that had baby photos and toddler photos of me!

My relatives were sorry that they couldn’t get us, but it was because they didn’t know where we were. One time a relative found out about us being in the system, but no one knew how to find us.

None of them outright said they would’ve taken us in when we were placed in foster care. A lot of them though, I think, realized my mother’s instability early on and wanted to help care for us when my mother did have us in her custody.

Todd: Did you ever wonder where your family was? Why wasn’t anyone stepping up?

Rodriguez: At the time of my initial removal, my eight-year-old brother and my mother were the only family I knew I had. After removal, I became hesitant in being reunited with my mother.

So at that point, I didn’t really think about being with family members because I didn’t know I had any. I wanted to be adopted by a family and never go back home to mother, but parental rights weren’t terminated until close to my 13th birthday.

But I do remember back in elementary and middle school when I would wonder if the person sitting next to me with the same last name as Rodriguez was in anyway related to me. In high school, I even wondered if the famous Yankees baseball player, Alex Rodriguez, was related to me.

Todd: What efforts, to your knowledge, did your social worker make in placing you with relatives?

Rodriguez: In the very early stages of the case, according to my foster care records, diligent searches were done on our fathers with no success. Also, there were attempts to reach out to our older maternal brother in California. Sending us to our grandparents was an option that they had talked about at one point, but then my grandparents went back to the Dominican Republic (DR) and never returned.

Todd: What advice do you have for foster kids? And for those who work in child welfare?

Rodriguez: What I’d like to tell foster kids is that foster care is temporary even when it seems like an eternity filled with misery. So in the meantime make good friends, build your own family, your own support system. Find refuge in those that are actually willing to be there for you or listen to you whether it’s foster parents, group home staff, social workers, neighbors, [or] coaches.

My advice to professionals is that they should help kids get and stay connected with positive family members or significant people in their life such as neighbors. This connection will help with emotional stability and feeling cared about. Finding my family has helped with healing because I can now better understand why my mother was the way she was.

Don’t look for family just for placement purposes. Whenever I meet with family, I realized that I didn’t just find family, I found myself.

Read the entire article here

 Georgette Todd is also the author of “Foster Girl, A Memoir.” To submit questions for this weekly column, e-mail Georgette at: fostergirlwoman@gmail.com.

Foster Care’s Looming Crisis

Florida welfare officials and child advocates expect a surge of children to flood strained state system

BY ATHENA PONUSHIS aponushis@floridaweekly.com

MORE CHILDREN ARE ENTERING THE CHILD welfare system. More foster parents are needed to love these children as their own, then let them go.

The Florida Department of Children and Families has shied away from removing children from their homes, acting under the philosophy of family preservation. Protecting families has led to the death of 477 children in six years, investigations show.

Those deaths have provoked change — recent legislation directs DCF to shift its priority to acting in the best interest of the child.

As fearful as child protective investigators were to remove children from their homes, now they’re scared to let them stay.

Child welfare workers sense a surge of children coming, but the increase of children that will enter the system remains unknown.

Foster child advocate Christina Spudeas puts it bluntly: “Are we going to see a kneejerk reaction? Absolutely. Are we going to bring a lot more kids into care than we need to? I absolutely think that’s going to happen. It will, because of heightened fear.”


Leaders of Community Based Care agencies do not see a rise in removals as negative, as Larry Rein of ChildNet says, “If it’s done intelligently to make children safe it is the right and good thing to do, but the key is that we need to have resources to serve those children and those families.”

Florida has 4,561 foster homes. This past year the state added 1,463 new homes, but 1,125 closed, meaning the number of new foster parents has essentially been wiped out. Some foster parents decide to adopt and stop fostering. Others stop due to burnout.

Foster parents feel beat up by the system. They say they are told to advocate for the children, but when they do, they are ignored. They fear if they speak up too much, their foster children will be taken away from them. Sometimes they question if reunifications with biological parents are made for the good of the children or to look good on paper. Many foster parents are throwing their hands up, surrendering to the system, shutting their doors.


But they do not want to discourage potential foster parents, they want to recruit them. They want to break patterns and shift generations.

“Being a foster parent has taught me about unconditional love. I don’t think I ever understood it the right way. It’s the act of loving somebody,” Scott Maulsby says. “See, a lot of times, people think love is an emotion. It’s not.”



It’s an act. And that act broke his heart.

Mr. Maulsby lives in North Palm Beach. He and his wife, Carrie, foster babies, straight from the neonatal intensive care unit, many withdrawing from drugs.

Cameron was not yet 2 months old when he came into their care. He was given nebulizer treatments, inhaling medicine as mist, to treat his asthma. He was taking anti-HIV medications to prevent his mother’s past from being passed on to him. Mom was a prostitute. Dad had nine children with three different women.

“Foster parents in general, I think it’s safe to say, we look at it and we say, I can give this child a better home, so you, judge, should see that, that I’m a better parent than this guy. He’s been in jail, he’s a registered sex offender, he’s this, he’s that, he killed a man, he shot this person, he raped this woman, and I’m a better parent than that person, so give this child to me,” Mr. Maulsby says, summing up his past train of thought, but having fostered seven children in three years, he’s learned, “That’s not fair.”



Cameron lived with the Maulsbys for 14 months. He was reunified with his father. “I’m not going to lie to you. I wanted to adopt Cameron,” Mr. Maulsby says.

He demonized dad in the beginning. When reunification was imminent, it dawned on him, he could lift him up, support the man who would raise the boy he loves.

“Now I’m his biggest fan, so it rehabilitated me, too,” Mr. Maulsby says. “I was wrong when I was rooting against dad, when I was happy that bad things were happening to dad. I was wrong to think that. Now that I’m on the other end of it, the last thing I want is for something bad to happen to dad.”


The Maulsbys feel it’s their calling to foster, an extension of their faith, to be a father to the fatherless. They since have been named Cameron’s godparents. They see what they’ve done as making a “Kingdom impact.”

“If I can impact a father who has nine children, look at the impact that can have over the course of the next three generations,” Mr. Maulsby says. “you think about what you do every day, how much of it is really going to matter in 50 years?”

“What a blessing that would be to see in 100 years, Cameron had some kids and maybe even they had some kids and things were different because of 14 months in our home.”

There are more than 30,000 children in the state dependency system. Roughly 10,000 children are in foster placements — some in foster homes, some in group homes or shelters, some are placed out of county, some are separated from their siblings.


When he thinks of the incomprehensible swell to come, Mr. Maulsby says, “This is like Katrina hit. There’s a tsunami that’s hit.” He cannot understand why it’s not the top story on the news every night: Not enough homes for children. “What else is more important?” he asks. “I can’t figure it out. I really can’t.”

ChildNet, the Community-Based Care lead agency for Broward and Palm Beach counties, reports that as of July there are more than 4,500 children in foster care; 282 new homes opened this past year and 162 closed.

The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, the lead agency for Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Glades and Hendry counties, reports a total of 570 children in foster care; 120 new homes opened and 72 homes closed.



Wendy Vernon brings up the prospect of foster parenting in every conversation. She does not miss an opportunity to recruit. When she tells people she is a foster parent, she says they immediately respond, “Oh, I could never do that. I could never give the children up.”

This stings her. “Do they think that I don’t have a heart? Is that what they think?” she says. “It’s because you make it about yourself rather than the children, and if you’re thinking about how you would feel, yeah, you would never do it, because it’s heartbreaking.”

Mrs. Vernon wants to dispel the public stereotype that foster parents are in it for the money. DCF reports foster parents are paid $429 a month for children up to age 5; paid $440 a month for children ages 6 to 12; paid $515 a month for children age 13 and older. (Compensation rates are higher for foster parents licensed to care for children with therapeutic needs).

“If you do it properly, that money doesn’t cover it,” Mrs. Vernon says. “What we get we spend on the children. When they come to you, most of them come with nothing, so that’s a very big expense.”

Conversely, she wants to dispel the assumption that you have to have money to foster. “We don’t have a palace. We have an extra room,” she says.

Mrs. Vernon and her husband Paul live in Cape Coral. They came to Florida from England. In their dining room, above a teapot, hangs a plaque that reads: “Ask for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The Vernons have fostered 26 children in five years.

Sitting in her dining room, Mrs. Vernon opens up, the day after she flew to Maine to transition her foster child into a pre-adoptive home. They boy had lived with her for 20 months. When he came to her, he never cried, because at 2 months old, he had learned nobody came when he cried. The Maine family adopted his sibling, so they chose to adopt the boy. The Vernons Skyped with them for months and placed their picture at the boy’s bedside.

“It was strange sitting on the plane, having sat on two planes with him, holding him, then coming away,” Mrs. Vernon loses her words, “empty arms.”

Regaining her composure, falling back on her mantra, she says, “It’s not about me … As much as I could make it about me, I could be sitting here crying my heart out because I’ve just given a little boy away, it’s not about me.”

Mrs. Vernon had four calls for foster placements the two days she was in Maine.

The Vernons liken foster care to emergent care, triage, recovery time, co-parenting with a family in crisis. They render the rewards of being foster parents as seeing a child change, a family heal, becoming whole again.

The Vernons caution that people should not foster with an agenda to adopt. They are so aligned with the goal of reunification, that when it does not come to pass, they feel like they’ve failed.

They believe the key to sustaining foster parents, combatting burnout, is support, the support of other foster parents and the support of the system.

Barbara Boslow, child advocacy coordinator for the Guardian ad Litem Program in Palm Beach County, says she’s not seeing support, she’s seeing threats.

“Constantly. It is unbelievable the way (the system) treats these foster parents. They are not allowed to advocate, they are not allowed to make noise and they’re the ones who know the children the best.”

Mr. Boslow finds this upsetting, so much time spent trying to recruit foster parents, they go through the classes, the whole process, they get their license and then they stop fostering after their first kid.

“They do it and then they’re out,” Ms. Boslow says. “And I do believe, strongly, that the system does not give the foster parents the respect that they deserve. They are not treated as well as they should be … I see so much of a clashing with these angels, these foster parents really are angels, they’re stepping in.”

Ms. Boslow finds herself staring down the same misconception over and over again: “People think there are a lot of foster parents out there, and what I ask them is, ‘How many foster parents do you know?’ They always say none. I go, ‘Well, where do you think they are then?’”

She thinks foster parents would make the best advertising, but so many foster parents have had so many bad experiences, they’re not saying, “Oh, you should do it,” they’re saying, “Don’t do it. It’s the worst.”

“That’s where the attrition comes from,” Ms. Boslow says.

DCF reports the state has an attrition rate of around 1,100 foster homes a year, and to keep pace with the swell of children, the system needs to perpetually attract 1,300 to 1,500 new foster homes annually.

“I think the system needs to have a little sensitivity training on how to deal with foster parents,” Ms. Boslow says. “Where are you going to put these kids?”

Andrea Cook, a foster mom turned adoptive mom living in Orlando, says, “I could never foster again, because the system beat me up.”

Mrs. Cook and her husband Nathan were asked to foster 12-week-old Michael for three weeks, at which point he would go live with his grandmother. Four months later, they were caring for his 2½-year-old brother Elijah, too.

Mrs. Cook was taught to stand up for the children in her foster licensing classes, if something came up that didn’t sit well with her, it was worth a discussion, so in a meeting with the attorney, case manager, Guardian ad Litem and others, Mrs. Cook shared that mom had been showing up to visitation with this new guy. A minor in criminal justice, Mrs. Cook looked into it, and she remembers telling the respective parties, “He just got out of prison for serving a 23-year sentence for murder and you guys are talking about giving mom unsupervised visits with the children and we all know that mom didn’t have a vehicle prior to this gentleman being in her life and now you want to give her unsupervised visits? Common sense tells us he’s going to be the one picking up the kids. We don’t know anything about him. How is this possible? How is this allowed?”

“Everybody in the meeting turned the other way. They ignored it,” Mrs. Cook says.

Mom was supposed to take random drug tests, but Mrs. Cook says mom told her people from the drug rehabilitation program would call her up and say, “Hey, on Thursday we’ve got to give you a random, so meet me at the BP gas station.”

Mom was supposed to take an eighthour parenting course, but it took her five months and 14 cancellations to finish.

“They want you to speak, but at the same time, they threaten you as a foster parent that they will remove the children,” Mrs. Cook says of the system. She spoke up. Reunification did not occur. The Cooks adopted the boys. The last time Mrs. Cook talked to mom, she had two more children, she was living in a hotel room with no food, no money, no gas and no diapers.

“You convince people to get involved in fostering and the system tears you up and you can’t do it again,” Mrs. Cook says. “If you have a child that comes into your home and you are their champion and you are their advocate and you are loving them like you are supposed to, like you love your own child, and then the system works the way it does and puts these children back in harm … you can only take this for so long … If we’re asking foster parents to take care of these kids and really do it the way it should be done, you can’t last.”

Christina Spudeas, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog Florida’s Children First, worries about the proliferation of group home facilities as the state needs to find more placements for foster children. She says group homes receive far more money than foster parents, one child in group care costs the state approximately $31,000 a year, versus $6,000 a year for a child in a foster home. The state paid foster parents $45 million last year.

“We see most of our adolescents being placed in congregate families, and yet they are going to create their own families someday,” Ms. Spudeas says. “How do they learn to be good parents when they have never been part of a family?”

Called “Mama” to Florida Youth SHINE, an advocacy group made up of former foster youths, Ms. Spudeas hears how it was the wish of many foster children to stay with their families. “I understand that keeping the family intact, if you can keep the children safe, is a wonderful goal, but the fact of the matter is, it started to trump what was in the best interest of the children,” she says.

Contemplating the legislative shift in priorities from family preservation to child safety, Ms. Spudeas anticipates a flood of children in need of foster care.

She muses over the implementation of new decision-making methods for child protective investigators to better assess safety and risk, a methodology some suggest will lead to less children in foster care. “Should there be less that come into care? I don’t know. I can’t say that. I don’t know. Apparently, 477 should have been that weren’t,” she says, referring to the Miami Herald investigation of 477 child deaths that happened under DCF’s watch.

Again, Larry Rein, executive director of ChildNet, does not see the rise of children being removed from their homes as negative, as long as resources are in place, like a well of foster families.

Child welfare workers say you cannot just look at the numbers, ‘We have this many foster children to place, we have this many foster homes,’ because it doesn’t translate. You have to find the right fit.

“Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing if they could do that, but they don’t. It’s like, ‘Where’s the bed?’ That’s it. It’s not the person, the family, the fit,” Ms. Spudeas says. Having the inventory to match foster parent and child, “That’s a luxury we wish we could have,” she says.

Looking at DCF July numbers: There are 4,561 licensed foster homes in Florida; 1,776 foster homes are caring for more than one child; 1,427 foster homes do not have any children placed in them at all.

Mr. Rein cautions those in the system, don’t jump for the empty bed, “don’t make a placement just to make a placement,” make a good fit. If the child does not fit with the family dynamic, the family may feel frazzled, “We can’t do this,” close their door, the child feels abandoned again, and the family may not foster another.

As much as the last state legislative session was geared toward child safety, Mr. Rein would like to see the next legislative session geared toward family services.

“People need to understand that the child abuse system in the state of Florida is predominantly a system about adult substance abuse and adult mental illness and adult domestic violence,” he says. “That’s the root of the problem and we need, most definitely, additional resources targeting those problems and until we do that, we’re doing a disservice to the children in the system.”

So while he’s grateful for funding on the front end, $56.9 million put toward child welfare, Mr. Rein would like to see some money on the back end, because as he says, families in the dependency system aren’t coming out of nowhere, many are coming back from relapse. The total DCF budget is $2.8 billion.

In the course of her life from foster child to foster parent, Ashley Rhodes-Courter says she has seen the child welfare pendulum swing from nonsensical removals to nonsensical reunifications.

She believes her adoption saved her life, but she feels when she was removed from her mother, if her mother had been given the support of the system, she could have gotten it together, rather than turning to those who gave her food and shelter, drug dealers and pimps, who did not progress her life in a positive way.

Without support, she feels the emphasis on biological reunifications may not be best and may be dangerous. “I think we’re leaning too much into biology and that’s why all these premature reunifications are happening and that’s why children are being killed,” Ms. Rhodes- Courter says.

She wrote a memoir of the nine years she spent passing through 14 different foster homes, titled, “Three Little Words,” and in the circle of things, she has since seen one of her foster daughters fall asleep reading it. When she went to tuck her in, she remembers thinking, “Holy cow, here’s my foster daughter reading my story about when I was a foster child and I hoped in that moment it brought her some peace.” And some company.

Her second book, “Three More Words,” on her experiences as a foster parent, will be out in May. Ms. Rhodes- Courter and her husband, Erick Smith, have fostered more than 20 children, going on four years.

“Each time we got a phone call, it just killed me,” she says. “Who can say no to a homeless child?”

Ms. Rhodes-Courter was shocked to learn the highest population of children needing care in Pinellas County, where she lives, were little ones, children under the age of 5, because of the prevalence of prescription drug abuse in Florida.

She has fostered a little girl whose mother used to put her cigarettes out on the little girl’s arms. She has fostered malnourished children with rotted-out teeth.

Ms. Rhodes-Courter says one of her foster children, who tested positive for STDs, was reunified with the abusers. She says another foster child was sent home after she presented the court with time-stamped Facebook photographs of continuing drug use in the home.

“Hitting those kinds of walls, time and time again … we were treated so poorly, so frequently, that I can definitely see how foster parents burn out,” Ms. Rhodes-Courter says.

As a foster child, and even volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem, Ms. Rhodes- Courter remembers thinking, “Foster parents just do it for the money. There are fewer good foster parents than there are horrible foster parents who have ulterior motives.” As a foster parent, she says, “I learned that’s not true, that there are countless amazing foster parents and we really strive to be one of those amazing foster homes, but I’m also learning, those amazing foster homes, probably the reason that I didn’t have any of them, is that they burn out so quickly.”

Her biggest fear in speaking and writing about her life as a foster parent is sounding negative, but she says, “We can only share the story that we experienced.”

Ms. Rhodes-Courter and her husband continue to foster because there are children who need a safe bed, a fully belly, who need to be nurtured, who need to be read to, who need to see what healthy looks like.

Her thoughts drift back to a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, siblings they fostered, who came into their home wanting to play Grand Theft Auto and watch violent movies. “That’s not how we roll in our house,” Ms. Rhodes-Courter says.

Her husband started reading them bedtime stories. “In such a short period, I mean, they had to have these bedtime stories, so it became this routine and they became kids again,” she says. “I would stand outside the door and cry because it was so beautiful to see these young boys who were so desensitized, so exposed to things well beyond their years, but to see them light up with a bedtime story … Oh, that’s why you do it.”

See original article from the Fort Meyers Florida Weekly  here

Rick Scott Signs House Bill 561

Today, Governor Rick Scott announced he has signed House Bill 561, which requires the appointment of an attorney to represent dependent children who have special needs, unless a pro bono attorney represents the child.

Governor Rick Scott said, “I’m happy to sign this legislation today to ensure that children who have disabilities and are in the care of the state are guaranteed that advocate to represent them in legal matters. We must do everything to protect our children and this legislation provides greater support to those who need it most.”

The bill states that an attorney shall be appointed for a dependent child with disabilities who meets one or more of the following criteria:

  • Resides in a skilled nursing facility or is being considered for placement in a skilled nursing home;
  • Is prescribed a psychotropic medication but declines assent to the medication;
  • Has a diagnosis of a developmental disability as defined in law;
  • Is being placed in a residential treatment center or being considered for placement in a residential treatment center; or
  • Is a victim of human trafficking.

DCF Interim Secretary Mike Carroll said, “I am pleased to see this bill become law because it will ensure that children with special needs who have endured abuse or neglect have a strong voice in court.”

Alan Abramowitz, Executive Director, Florida Guardian ad Litem Program said, “The GAL’s ‘best interest’ attorneys, staff, and volunteers – working with attorneys created by this new legislation on these complex cases will be a formidable advocacy team to get children permanency. The addition of these skilled attorneys to advocate children’s disability benefits, educational services, and a permanent family is a giant step forward in improving our state’s child protection system. I passionately believe in the work we do for these children, and this legislation will not interfere with our representation of children or our ability to secure resources to have all children’s ‘best interest’ represented in Florida’s dependency system.”

Gloria W. Fletcher, Vice President, Florida’s Children First said, “It takes more than leadership to sign a bill that will help a constituency who cannot vote, has no money to donate to campaigns, and may never know the heroes who came to their aid. But that’s the true definition of character. Governor Scott, and the legislators who backed the bill to provide counsel for the state’s dependent children with special needs, epitomized leadership. The children who will be served by this legislation are Florida’s most vulnerable and defenseless citizens. Children before this legislation had no voice. Now, they will during critical proceedings that decide their futures. This was done for all the right reasons by people who have proven their passion and concern for the most vulnerable children in the state’s care. It stands as an example we can be proud of today, and it will be a lasting part of these leaders’ legacies long after they’ve left public office.”

Senator Bill Galvano, Senate bill sponsor said, “This is yet another piece of legislation that considers the priority needs of Florida’s most vulnerable children. Like me, Governor Scott is a family man and I appreciate him supporting children and families by making this bill the law of Florida.”

Senator Tom Lee said, “Governor Scott recognizes that children with disabilities deserve a voice to advocate for their position and it shows with his signing of House Bill 561 today.”

Senator Joe Negron said, “I am pleased Governor Scott is highlighting his signing of this important legislation that ensures dependent children with disabilities have an attorney.”

Senator Rob Bradley said, “Governor Scott’s signing of HB 561 codifies what we know to be true: that he and the state care about putting what is in the best interest of children in the care and custody of the state first.”

Representative Erik Fresen, House bill sponsor said, “I’m thankful Governor Scott signed HB 561. This bill outlines an avenue for the Department of Children and Families to work with the courts and the Statewide Guardian Ad Litem Office so dependent children with disabilities are provided an attorney.”

Representative Dennis Baxley said, “Governor Scott is committed to supporting all Floridians who are vulnerable like the dependent children with disabilities who are specifically provided for in this law.”

Representative Charles McBurney said, “I appreciate Governor Scott’s support of this bill. It will make a difference in the lives of children with disabilities and who need a legal advocate.”

Representative Larry Metz said, “By signing House Bill 561 into law, Governor Scott echoed his support for ensuring every child has a voice.” Source: Rick Scott Press Release

Original Article

Gov. Scott signs two bills into law to help disabled children

Doris Freyre believes her daughter would still be alive today if an attorney had intervened.

But Marie Freyre, 14, only had her mother to fight for her before she died in a Miami nursing home in 2011.

Freyre said a new law signed by Gov. Rick Scott could have made the difference in her disabled daughter’s life had it existed before.

After signing a child welfare overhaul Monday, Gov. Rick Scott signed another bill that could begin to give voice to children long rendered voiceless. Scott signed HB 561 Wednesday, requiring the appointment of an attorney for dependent children with special needs.

The Florida Legislature set aside $4.5 million to pay attorneys willing to represent disabled and medically needy children in the court system, said a statement from the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. Attorneys may also provide their services pro bono.

“It’s been our mission since 2002 to enact a law like this because disabled children are the most vulnerable children to come into our child welfare system,” said Howard Talenfeld, president of Florida’s Children First. “Unfortunately, they have to face a maze of bureaucratic hurdles in order to obtain the benefits they need to be safe and to survive in the foster care system.”

Under the new law, attorneys would be appointed to children who meet several criteria, including youngsters who live in nursing homes, are diagnosed with a developmental disability — such as autism, cerebral palsy or Down syndrome — or who are the victims of human trafficking. Children who are prescribed psychiatric drugs, but refuse to take them, also can be appointed a laywer under the new law.

The state Department of Children & Families will select dependent children who qualify for an attorney.

Florida child welfare administrators came under fire after a Miami Herald investigation identified nearly 500 children since 2008 who died of abuse or neglect after their families had already been known to DCF. Eighty five of the children who perished suffered either from a developmental disability or a complex medical condition.

Tamiyah Audain was one of those children. Tamiyah, who was 12 at the time, was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis, a disease that caused tumors to grow in her brain and other organs. Tamiyah also suffered from autism. When her mother died and her father abandoned her, she was sent to live with a cousin in Lauderhill. In late 2013, she was found dead in her cousin’s apartment, severely malnourished, and with gaping bedsores and a wound so deep her bone was visible.

“Nobody understood that she needed Medicaid . . . benefits,” said Talenfeld, referring to the public insurance program. “It was time for somebody to fight for her emergency benefits to protect her.”

The law, sponsored in the Legislature by Bradenton Sen. Bill Galvano and Miami Rep. Erik Fresen, takes effect July 1.

“These children often cannot speak for themselves, and if they can, they find themselves in courtrooms or complex administrative hearings without any representation,” Fresen said in a Florida’s Children First press release. “We wouldn’t send a criminal defendant into such a situation without counsel. It’s time we provide the same legal support and representation for the state’s most vulnerable and innocent citizens when their lives are at stake.”

To some child advocates, more still needs to be done to protect children like Tamiyah.

A recent report said that physically disabled Florida children are 17 times more likely to die from abuse or neglect than their typically developing peers.

All children need lawyers in order to represent their interests, said Miami attorney Matt Dietz, who represents Freyre.

Dietz said things might have turned out differently for Marie if the provisions of the new law were already in effect when Marie was winding her way through Hillsborough County’s child welfare court system. Three years ago, Marie was taken from her home in Tampa and transported to a nursing home in Miami by DCF. About 12 hours later, Marie died of a heart attack while screaming for her life.

Dietz is suing the state Agency for Health Care Administration, and other agencies, to force the state to remove scores of children with medical complexities from elder nursing homes. Under the state’s Medicaid Program for impoverished and needy Floridians, the state will pay for a nursing home bed, but, often, not for sometimes cheaper in-home nursing care. The U.S. Department of Justice also has put pressure on the state to remove children from nursing homes.

“You have to look into exhausting what’s in the best interests of the child and focus on keeping the family together rather than what’s the most cost-effective solution for the state,” Dietz said. “The policy change may have helped Marie, and the state of Florida to provide her the assistance and care she needed.”

Read more here


Good for You: Florida’s Children First to honor local child advocate and former foster child

Daniel Pettus

Daniel Pettus

The organization that gives a political voice to young people in Florida’s dependency system recognized local youth Daniel Pettus for using his own voice to improve life for children in foster care.

Pettus, 23, the youth worker at Devereux Community Based Care of Okeechobee and the Treasure Coast who entered local foster care when he was 10, was recognized as a youth honoree during the June 19 Florida’s Children’s First 2014 Bay Area Reception, in Tampa.

Florida Children’s First is a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect the legal rights of at-risk children, especially those in Florida’s foster care system.

“Daniel has dedicated countless hours testifying in Tallahassee, serving on statewide committees, speaking with legislators…and sharing his story with the media,” said Geori Berman, coordinator for Florida Youth SHINE, an organization of young people who advocate on behalf of children in foster care.

He has served as the statewide Florida Youth SHINE chair for the past two years, leading advocacy efforts that eventually led to the passage of three child-welfare laws, including the recently adopted Extended Foster Care act that gives youth in foster care the option to remain in care through their 21st birthday.

Pettus entered care at the age of 10 and transitioned in and out of care many times until he turned 18. Although an adult and no longer able to remain in foster care, Pettus was being served by a local program called Road to Success, which helped him transition out of foster care and into college. During his stay in foster care, he was separated from his two sisters – an experience that still drives much of his advocacy.

“Daniel feels an obligation to join the fight for young people’s rights because of his own story,” Berman said.

Pettus, who is pursuing an engineering degree at Indian River State College, said his greatest passion is to help build the tools that other young people will use to overcome adversity in their own lives. He draws inspiration from historical leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy and from American clergyman and author Phillips Brooks, who said, “I do not pray for a lighter load, but for a stronger back.”

“There were times when it all seemed too much,” Pettus said. “I wondered how I could possibly help enough people with my voice alone…but I asked for more strength, and I found it within myself.”

Devereux Community Based Care of Okeechobee and the Treasure Coast is the non-profit organization responsible for all known abused, abandoned and neglected children in Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties. It is contracted by the Florida Department of Children and Families to coordinate and oversee the local child-welfare system in those counties.

This story is contributed by a member of the Treasure Coast community and is neither endorsed nor affiliated with TCPalm.com

Original Article

Gov. Rick Scott signs new bill for DCF overhaul

Gov. Rick Scott signed a $77 billion budget on Monday, making it the largest budget the state of Florida has ever seen.

On Monday, Governor Rick Scott signed a bill unanimously backed by the Florida Legislature. The new law creates a wealth of new measures designed to protect children from abuse and neglect and in the process, it is designed to save lives. (Photo: file)

The Department of Children and Families has constantly come under fire and now lawmakers and Governor Rick Scott have stepped in to do something about it.

On Monday, the Governor signed a bill unanimously backed by the Florida Legislature.

Hundreds of children have died while under the watch of DCF, and that’s why lawmakers are trying to change that and keep people safe.

Governor Scott hopes this will have a major impact.

Governor Scott said, “As a father and a grandfather, the safety of Florida’s children is a top priority. That’s why this session we succeeded in creating 270 additional child protective investigators, so we can decrease caseloads and provide our servants in the field the support they need to ensure we’re doing everything possible to protect our children. We have to do everything we can to protect our children from abuse and neglect, and these reforms and targeted investments will better enable our child welfare servants to do their job.”

Lawmakers said the old system just didn’t work with lawmakers saying there was no question that it needed to be revamped.

The new law creates a wealth of new measures designed to protect children from abuse and neglect and in the process, it is designed to save lives.

Ronderique Anderson was just 16-months-old when he was beaten to death by his father.

Ezekiel Mathis was just 13 months old when investigators say he was killed by his mother’s live-in boyfriend.

Both boys were under what was supposed to be the watchful eye of DCF.

Their deaths cast yet more of a shadow on the troubled child welfare agency.

A major priority of the overhaul means a reverse in policy in which priority is no longer given to keeping the children with the parents.

Interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll released a statement that read, “We are eager to start implementing this important bill and the resources provided to put needed boots on the ground to protect children. Governor Scott has been a strong and vocal supporter for the children of this state and these reforms would not have been realized without his leadership and devotion to Florida’s vulnerable children.”

“We relied on parents to give promissory notes instead of to really make sure change was going to be into place,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida Children’s First.

It’s a non-profit that makes sure agencies that serve children do a better job.

“We should not have to read in the newspaper to find out about childrens’ deaths in our community,” said Rosenberg.

Rosenberg said this is a start beginning with transparency.

“Our community needs to know so that we can act appropriately,” she said.

The law adds 270 child protective investigators to decrease caseloads and give workers support in the field.

It makes a push to keep siblings together.

It also gives funding for people who aren’t licensed foster-parents to take kids into their homes.

“It’s a great start,” said Rosenberg, “There are a number of really terrific things that are in the bill, things that are really good for children and family.  But there’s a long way to go.”

The law also creates a new Assistant Secretary for DCF.

It also creates a critical incident response team which means speedier investigations into the deaths of children in families who are already to the agency.

The law goes into effect on July 1st.

These changes were brought on, in part, by a newspaper’s investigation into the agency.

By Paul Mueller, Reporter

Original article

Our Opinion: Tracking DCF (Tallahassee Democrat)

Florida’s Department of Children and Families has taken a beating over a Miami Herald series “Innocents Lost,” which told the story of 477 children who since 2008 suffered what the paper characterized as “predictable and preventable” deaths.

DCF now has a new interim director, Mike Carroll, a longtime regional director who was named in late April to replace the previous interim director. Mr. Carroll has some new resources — but also the same immense challenge as his predecessors.

In reaction to the Herald’s series, the Legislature acted this past session, offering DCF millions of dollars to beef up services and case management. In all, an extra $48 million went directly or indirectly to child welfare.

In response to the difficulty the Herald had in accessing statistics on child deaths, Legislature also acted to increase the transparency in DCF, requiring “prompt disclosure of the basic facts of all deaths of children from birth through 18 years of age which occur in this state and which are reported to the department’s central abuse hotline.” Those reports were to be published on the department’s website.

Mr. Carroll and DCF have acted quickly here, and the new website is expected to be up and running this week (go to http://www.myflfamilies.com and look for the Child Fatality Prevention button).

The website fits well with Mr. Carroll’s increased use of metrics to help DCF do its job.

For example, in a meeting with the Tallahassee Democrat’s Editorial Board, he listed factors that can indicate a high risk of abuse, including a child under age 3, a parent under age 26, a history of substance abuse, a history of domestic violence, mental health issues and previous contact with DCF. It might seem obvious that children in such a family would be at risk, but DCF hasn’t had a standard statewide methodology to identify them.

Now, in much the same way that police can concentrate enforcement on a dangerous stretch of road or a troubled neighborhood, DCF can quickly flag cases meeting that profile and concentrate its efforts — and it’s most experienced workers — on those families.

On the Child Fatality Prevention website, the public will see the demographics, key details and a short narrative on every child death reported to DCF. At first, the statistics will cover only this year, but soon they will cover the last 10 years.

The new transparency is admirable, but this information is more than a means to track deaths and beat up DCF some more. Ideally, it will be used by communities to tailor prevention efforts. For example, if a county has a problem with drownings, it can focus efforts on water safety. Those efforts would involve partnerships with neighborhoods, local groups (such as the YMCA) and churches.

Then, continuing to follow the statistics, the community can see if those efforts are working.

Mr. Carroll spoke of how increased awareness can change people’s behavior. For example, he said, today few people would walk by a child left in a hot car and fail to act, thanks for years of publicity on the dangers. We need to develop that same awareness about water safety, safe sleeping and other behaviors.

Obviously, DCF can’t stop all child abuse any more than police can stop all murder or fatal accidents. DCF’s goals are simple: no child deaths in open, active cases, and no child deaths in the first year after a family leaves contact with DCF.

But intervention and education can save lives, and having DCF share the numbers on child deaths through its new website is a big step forward.


Original Article

Pro bono spotlight: Attorneys ad litem are there for kids


Pro bono attorneys gathered at Holland & Knight for an Attorney ad Litem training session.


All children subject to court proceedings should have legal representation.

 While Florida law provides for legal counsel for children subject to court proceedings because the child is accused of committing a crime, children who are subject to court proceedings because of allegations of abuse and neglect are entitled to legal representation in only a limited number of cases.

The Florida Legislature took a big step to remedy this in the most recent legislative session, now requiring representation for children with certain special needs.

Specifically, an attorney must be provided for a dependent child who resides in or is being considered for placement in a skilled nursing home; is prescribed psychotropic medication but objects to taking that medication; has been diagnosed with a developmental disability; is placed in a residential treatment facility or being considered for placement in a residential treatment center; or is a victim of human trafficking.

While this legislation is a big step forward, there are still circumstances where a child will be unrepresented in dependency without volunteer pro bono attorneys willing to act as the child’s attorney.

Pro bono organizations throughout the state have been providing legal representation for children for many years. Locally, through a joint initiative of The Jacksonville Bar Association’s Protecting Our Children Section and Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, an attorney ad litem Judicial Appointment Panel exists.

This panel consists of a group of dedicated attorneys from all areas of practice who accept appointment to represent children in dependency proceedings. These attorneys, who provide legal representation to children with the same duty of undivided loyalty, confidentiality, and zealous representation as would be afforded any adult client, provide the child with a voice in court.

Many of the attorneys who have agreed to accept appointments to represent a child have little or no experience in juvenile law or dependency court. The JBA Legal Needs of Children Committee provides training, mentoring, and support to attorneys willing to assist in this important work. Partnering with Florida’s Children First, a statewide non profit children’s advocacy organization; the local office of Holland & Knight; and Florida Coastal School of Law, training has been made available to more than 50 local attorneys over the past three years.

In addition to providing a platform for video training, JALA offers professional liability coverage to attorneys who would otherwise be unable to accept appointments. Attorneys ad litem are supported with on-going training opportunities, periodic networking lunches, and experienced juvenile attorneys available to mentor and assist them.

Those who do pro bono work would like to be able to report a “happy ending” and there are many such stories.

However, when representing dependent children (often referred to as “foster children”), we more often have “happy moments,” such as when a child who needs a new placement transitions successfully to a new foster home.

Because of the work of an attorney ad litem and/or educational surrogate, a child’s educational needs are met.

A teen mother is able to keep her child. These are the moments we all work for.

Best case? Children who have been removed from their home sare successfully reunited with their parents after appropriate services are offered to make the home safe again.

A child who cannot be returned home finds a permanent place with a new family through adoption.

That’s called permanency and that’s what we are all working for.

By Connie Byrd, The JBA Protecting Our Children Section Chair

If you would like to help build happy moments and happy endings for a child, contact JALA or the JBA for more information through Kathy Para, chair of The JBA Pro Bono Committee, kathy.para@jaxlegalaid.org.

Original Article

ReMoved Short Film

Removed Screen ShotClick to watch ReMoved, an award winning short film that brings awareness, encourages, and is useful in foster parent training, and raising up foster parents. The film follows the emotional story through the eyes of a young girl taken from her home and placed into foster care.

“It would be impossible to fully understand the life and emotions of a child going through the foster care system, but this short narrative film portrays that saga in a poetic light, with brushes of fear, anger, sadness, and a tiny bit of hope.” -Santa Barbara Independent

How DCF kept 30 child deaths off the books

At 2 a.m. on Dec. 13, 2013, a Riviera Beach mom woke up to find her newborn baby’s lips were purple. Blood and milk oozed from the girl’s nose. She had stopped breathing.

The baby, authorities say, likely was accidentally smothered to death by her mother, who placed the girl in bed with her and three other children — a practice known as “co-sleeping” that can be lethal to infants. Child welfare investigators had been involved with the family four times before the infant’s death.

An investigator prepared an incident report on the baby’s death later that day and emailed it to a supervisor.

The paper trail ended there.

Kimberly Welles, an administrator at the Department of Children & Families’ Southeast Region, deleted the incident report, email records show. And she instructed the supervisor who wrote it, Lindsey McCrudden, to deep-six it, as well.

“Please do not file this in the system. No incident reports right now on death cases,” Welles wrote in an email that day. “Please withdraw this and thanks. Will advise why later.”

Last November, the Miami Herald was finishing a tally of Florida child abuse and neglect deaths among families that had previously come to the attention of DCF. The count was undertaken as part of a project called Innocents Lost. To track the number of dead children, which soared to new heights in recent years, reporters relied on public records, including incident reports.

Documents obtained after Innocents Lost was published show that starting at least as early as last November, as the Herald was grilling DCF on its problems in preventing the deaths of children under its watch, one branch of the agency deliberately kept as many as 30 deaths off the books — ensuring they would not be included in the published tally.

The incidents were in DCF’s Southeast Region, encompassing Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Okeechobee and Broward — the county cited by the Herald as having the most reported deaths by abuse or neglect.

DCF’s new secretary, Mike Carroll, said he has dispatched his top deputy, Pete Digre, to look into the missing records.

Carroll’s initial assessment of the matter: “Was it ill-advised? Absolutely. Was it a mistake? Absolutely.”

But as to whether the missing records amounted to a deliberate attempt to conceal deaths or suppress numbers in a series of articles highlighting DCF blunders, Carroll said: “I am not certain yet. I hope that’s not the case. I have made it clear to folks that we are not in the business of hiding information.”

Southeast Region administrators say they ceased filing the required reports for at least five months because they were in the process of developing a new reporting tool, Carroll said.

He added: “There is no evidence that makes me think there was a conspiracy to withhold information. … I don’t have anything that shows me this was done with ill intent.”

Carroll reaffirmed previous pledges to transform his agency into one of the most open and forthcoming in the United States, beginning with the online posting of “every single death report.” Streamlining and speeding up the availability of agency information, Carroll said, will not only allow DCF to quiet its critics — it may help the agency improve its performance.

“We have to get better at what we do,” Carroll said. “If DCF had contact with a child, we should have zero child deaths with those families.”


The story of the Southeast Region’s phantom deaths likely begins at the end of September. That’s when Lauderhill police began an investigation into the death of 12-year-old Tamiyah Audain, whose emaciated and pockmarked body was found at the home of her DCF-approved caregiver. Diagnosed at birth with a rare genetic disorder, Tamiyah was wholly dependent on her young cousin for nourishment and medical care.

The Herald learned of the death through sources and sought details from DCF. Agency administrators refused to discuss it.

But an incident report describing Tamiyah’s final days later helped fill in the gaps. It was provided to the Herald in response to a public records request. The details were grisly: Though Tamiyah was supposed to be under the protective supervision of a private foster care caseworker, she had become mortally malnourished. Her body was covered with bedsores, one of them a crevasse deep enough to show her bone. Police described a “stench” that pervaded her caregiver’s home.

An autopsy concluded that both the cause and manner of Tamiyah’s death were undetermined. But it also detailed a pervasive infection, a healing rib fracture and multiple wounds and bedsores. The episode was deeply embarrassing to DCF, which was already reeling from a series of child deaths that had caused DCF’s top administrator to resign.

In the ensuing weeks, records show, child abuse investigators in the Southeast Region’s five counties ceased filing child death incident reports, which are required by DCF policies.

The missing incidents ran the gamut from gunshot deaths to accidental drownings to smotherings to a murder-suicide.

Meanwhile, the Herald published Innocents Lost — which detailed the deaths of 477 Florida children over a six-year period — starting March 26.


In an effort to bring readers up to date, reporters on March 31 requested all child death incident reports statewide since Nov. 1, roughly when the Herald’s gathering of death reports had concluded. As the agency prepared to fulfill the records request, it discovered a strange new development: From at least November onward, the Southeast Region apparently had stopped filing incident reports, though more than two dozen child deaths had occurred in the region, according to the state’s child abuse and neglect hotline.

On April 2, a DCF child abuse and quality assurance specialist, Leslie Chytka, wrote in an email that she had found 30 child deaths with no corresponding incident reports — a violation of agency rules that say such reports must be completed “within one working day” of a child’s death. She instructed staff in the region to file reports for all of the 30 deaths.

That led to another email, from another staffer, with the title: “the upcoming rash of incident report deaths.” In it, DCF quality assurance manager Frank Perry wrote: “Disregard the next thirty or so incident reports that will be posted in the next day or so. They are child deaths we are aware of but are not in the … system. I have been asked to create these incidents so they are recorded.”

And create them he did — very quickly. The reports, filed by Perry on April 3 and April 4, are unlike any of the of the 145 or so the Herald received from the rest of the state at that time: They were largely devoid of information. Many of the Perry reports consisted of four sentences or fewer and offered no information, or scant information, regarding each family’s history with DCF. Such information is customarily provided in an incident report.

“[Redacted] was found in rigor mortis face down in the blankets where he slept,” Perry wrote in one report, neglecting to include a sentence-ending period.

“[Redacted] died from drowning in the pool at the home,” he wrote in another, also lacking final punctuation.

And another: “EMS responded to a call from the mother about her daughter, [redacted] being ‘non-responsive and not breathing.”

Only one child death incident report from the region included unredacted details of the family’s history with DCF. That one involved a November 2013 case in which an infant from Miami-Dade County was accidentally smothered by a relative in Broward. In the report, DCF administrators blamed the death on a Miami judge who ignored an agency recommendation about where the baby should live.

“A Miami judge overruled a negative homestudy,” DCF’s then-secretary, Esther Jacobo, wrote in an email that the Herald received later.


One of the incident reports filed on April 4 concerned the Jan. 25 smothering death of a Palm Beach County infant. Perry’s incident report described the case this way: “[Redacted] was found face down on a pillow not moving or breathing. The crib was not set up because there was no room.”

Manner of death, according to Perry’s report: accidental.

By the time Perry filed the report, however, agency administrators knew there was considerable evidence that was not true.

The incident report appears to correspond to a string of emails obtained by the Herald. In the discussion, the Southeast Region’s director, Dennis Miles, told DCF’s deputy secretary that the baby’s death was probably a homicide.

“Originally came in and appeared to be a [sudden infant death] type situation,” Miles wrote. “However,” he added, “children began stating that the father was seen smothering the baby with a pillow.”

As to DCF’s history with the family, Miles wrote: “Many priors.” Miles downplayed the significance of the agency’s involvement with the family by saying most of the prior investigations “are with different combinations of these parents and their ex’s.” The most recent investigation had occurred earlier in the year. Miles wrote that it was closed unverified — meaning not determined to be neglect or abuse — though family members were “uncooperative” with the investigation.

Welles, who apparently reviewed the case, wrote in an email that investigators “could have” considered seeking advice from agency lawyers a year earlier to determine whether the family should have been forced to accept help, or whether the children should have been removed from their parents.

The 8-month-old’s siblings were taken into state care following his death. “Kids safe,” Welles wrote on Jan. 26.


One of the most puzzling incident reports concerned the Riviera Beach newborn who died on Dec. 13, 2013 — the report that Welles insisted be spiked.

Following requests from the Herald, DCF produced what it said was the report originally attached to McCrudden’s email. But it was contained in a format that does not match any of the hundreds of incident reports the Herald has reviewed in recent years. DCF later acknowledged that McCrudden — a nine-year DCF employee and supervisor since April 2013 — had “filled out the wrong form” — a document typically used for slip-and-falls at office buildings, or employee injuries.

The incident report given to the newspaper was unusual in other ways. It was not dated. And it contained no information on the family’s history with DCF, though such information is included in virtually all such documents.

A DCF spokeswoman later said the newborn’s parents had been the subject of four prior investigations, the most recent in 2011. A police report said a DCF complaint had been received last year. Three of the investigations involved allegations of family violence; the other was a report of substance abuse. None of the reports were verified as abuse or neglect.

The incident report described the baby’s mother and grandmother in glowing terms: “The mother is a good mother and takes really good care of the children.” The grandmother, it added, “is a great grandmother; she helps care for the children.”

The newborn was found dead after her mom placed her in bed along with herself and three other children, a 6-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. This manner of co-sleeping, considered especially dangerous, was linked to an estimated 77 of the 477 deaths reviewed by the newspaper in Innocents Lost. A little before 2 a.m., a police report said, the baby’s mom found her face “turned into” her mom’s chest. She was “bleeding from her nose, and her lips were purple.”

A report from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office attributed the cause of the girl’s death to co-sleeping. The mother, the report said, rolled over the infant during the night, “causing her to suffocate.”


Read more here


Three Moments That Helped Me in Foster Care

I never knew a single kid who ever wanted to be in foster care. No kid is proud to be born into a broken home. Then you add foster care on top of trauma, which creates a litany of other problems such as: exposure of family secrets, a separation of siblings, lack of certainty or stability, disruptive family interruptions, spotty educational records, and a village of workers who don’t communicate with each other.

However, looking back, there were times when people made a significant difference in a positive way. These acts of kindness didn’t take a lot of time either. Big or small, those moments became memories that helped me cope in the midst of the worst years of my life.

1. Asked for My Side of the Story.

I was 14-years-old when I was crying my eyes out at some Dust Bowl courthouse. My absentee social worker had just threatened to separate me from my younger sister for a “failure of placement.”

We weren’t kicked out, but we asked to be removed from an unstable foster home at the time our biological father came back into our lives. I had a great school record and was on a sports team. All to say, I was virtually ignored by the passive court reporters and lawyers until I had a probation officer ask me what was wrong. I told her about how I was powerless against my social worker’s decision to separate my sister and me, and she suggested I write a thorough letter to the judge, explaining my side of things.


I took her advice,* the judge launched an investigation that concluded a separation was not warranted. Because someone asked for my side of the story being weaved in the courtroom, I felt empowered to explain myself. This act kept my sister and I together.

2. Took A Genuine Interest.

I was 15-years-old, slouching in sweats at a receiving home classroom, hating the world when Mr. Severson, the head teacher, asked me about my interests.

“Sleeping. Dying. That’s about it!”

Mr. Severson didn’t let up, and eventually plied a real response out of me, which was writing. He immediately assigned me to write for the school newspaper, “The Polinsky Scoop,” and gave me books on writing. It was this genuine interest that helped not only distract me from my problems at the time, but assisted in channeling all my justifiable anger and upset into a more productive outlet.

3. Not Fazed By My Fight.

I was 16-years-old when I got into my first (and last) fight in foster care. For years, I had been able to avoid taking the bait by some of my provocative peers, but one day, my sister was picked on and I defended her. I was also convinced that all my honor rolls in school and in group homes didn’t matter, as I was relegated to spending the rest of my childhood in institutions.

Later that day, I received a visit from an Independent Living Skills Program (ILSP) worker. He was visiting everyone, recruiting, and I wasn’t hearing it. I was consumed with how I now had a “record” and devastated that I was a cliché, a typical foster care stereotype who had zero chances of a normal home life.

After sharing why I was distracted, this worker told me not to allow myself to be defined by one mistake. If anything, take the opportunity he was presenting to show I’m not the girl with the new label. “Rewrite, edit your life, right now!” he said.

Needless to say, I did and he helped redirect the course my life was taking. If it weren’t for him, and others like him, I would’ve been angrier, more self-destructive and far less open to receiving love when it finally arrived in my life, years later.

*Click on photo to see the first page of the original letter. The rest of this letter is in Georgette’s memoir.

Georgette Todd is the author of “Foster Girl, A Memoir“,  and a member of our blogger co-op.

Original article here

New Florida DCF boss names child death prevention czar

In his second week on the job, the Department of Children & Families’ top administrator made good on his first formal pledge by appointing a professional social worker and agency veteran to be the state’s first statewide fatality prevention specialist.

Lisa Rivera, who started her career at DCF as a child abuse investigator and has worked at the department 17 years, will be the agency’s top child death administrator. Mike Carroll, her former boss at DCF’s Tampa Bay-area region before he was elevated to DCF secretary, promised to make fatality prevention a top priority by creating the position.

“We are committed to improving our response, consistency and transparency,” Carroll, who holds the top job on an interim basis, said in a prepared statement. “Lisa has the experience and expertise to lead this effort and engage communities in protecting children from abuse and neglect.”

With a master’s degree is social work, Rivera is the type of administrator lawmakers envisioned when they passed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s troubled child welfare agency earlier this month. The legislation, which passed both chambers unanimously, contains language favoring master’s-level social workers for sensitive investigative jobs. It has yet to be signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Rivera also has expertise in a subject that often is directly linked to child abuse: domestic violence between family members. Before joining DCF, a statement says, Rivera supervised a domestic violence center in Honolulu, and helped develop curriculum for treating the effects of family violence on children. Rivera continues to oversee domestic violence efforts by helping train Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies, who investigate child abuse for DCF, on domestic violence.

Carroll took over the reins of DCF on May 5, just after the annual legislative session ended, following a tumultuous year of public outrage over the deaths of small children whose families had been known to the agency. His predecessor, Esther Jacobo, took on the job, also on an interim basis, after former Secretary David Wilkins resigned amid a spate of child deaths reported by the Miami Herald.

In March, the Herald published a series of stories, called Innocents Lost, that detailed the deaths of 477 children whose families had been the subject of at least one abuse or neglect report. Concern over the deaths led lawmakers to change state law to emphasize the safety and welfare of children rather than the rights of parents.

The Herald had reported that child deaths had spiked after the agency implemented a far-reaching “family preservation” effort without first ensuring that communities had drug treatment, mental health, domestic violence and other services in place to protect small children who were left with drug-addicted or violent parents. The series also revealed that both investigators and their lawyers often made poor decisions about whether children would be safe without significant action.

Miami Herald

May 15, 2014

Read more here


More DCF Death Records Released

The Florida Department of Children and Families is asking a judge to approve the release of details on 177 children under agency care who have died since November.  The request follows criticism of the agency for withholding information on child deaths, the Miami Herald reports.

Though Leon County Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers granted the request, a DCF attorney said the agency will withhold similar information in the future. He said the documents previously provided to the Herald had been done so erroneously.

Deputy General Counsel John Jackson said DCF asking a judge for permission to release further information is designed to improve public confidence, the Herald reports.

The Herald’s “Innocents Lost” series chronicled the deaths of 477 children whose families had been brought to DCF’s attention. It was based in part on reports that DCF now says were provided by mistake.


Original article

DCF Creating Post to Oversee Deaths

Child-welfare officials said Monday they are creating a new position within the agency in an effort to improve transparency when releasing child-abuse-death records.

The Department of Children and Families has been under intense scrutiny after a series by the Miami Herald highlighted the deaths of 477 children in the past five years. The newspaper accused the agency of recently shifting its internal policies regarding the sharing of information about child deaths in a way that left the records they released so heavily redacted they were nearly useless.

The details surrounding a child’s death are typically public, although names of surviving siblings are confidential.

The person who assumes the new role will oversee data gathering and the agency’s responses to child deaths, the officials said.

“When tragedies occur, especially those involving children, our response must be consistent, coordinated, compassionate and transparent,” new interim secretary Mike Carroll wrote in a memo Monday to regional managers and the news media.

Gov. Rick Scott appointed Carroll last week. Carroll said he hopes to fill the new position within a month, and he added that the new hire must be given the authority to make policy changes as needed.

Carroll also asked regional managers to finalize plans to streamline reporting so that leaders are immediately informed after a child’s death and that information in the reports is consistent and accurate. The Herald series noted serious lag times in reporting child deaths in some cases.

Florida lawmakers also want more accountability from the agency. The Legislature passed a bipartisan bill last week requiring DCF to post child-death information on its website, including the date, region, cause of death, what private contractors were involved and the age of the child. Many of the children identified in the newspaper series were under the age of 5.


Original article

Editorial: DCF chief takes steps to open up agency

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll is taking steps to reverse recent policies that would have shielded much of the agency’s work from the public record.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll is taking steps to reverse recent policies that would have shielded much of the agency’s work from the public record.

Florida’s most vulnerable children deserve to have an empowered, enlightened public that can hold state officials accountable for their safety. Just days into his new role as the Department of Children and Families’ interim secretary, Mike Carroll is taking steps to reverse recent policies that would have shielded much of the agency’s work from the public record. This is a sound move that puts children’s safety first.

The Miami Herald sparked an intense debate about child welfare issues in Florida this spring after it published its Innocents Lost series. The yearlong investigation detailed the deaths of 477 children who perished in Florida since 2008 after having some contact with DCF. The series revealed systemic problems in the agency, including overworked caseworkers who did little followup with at-risk families and toothless safety plans that provided little protection for children.

In the wake of the series, legislators created sweeping child protection reforms. Gov. Rick Scott called for the hiring of 400 new child protection investigators. And DCF pledged its continued commitment to Florida’s children and to transparency. But behind the scenes, the agency did just the opposite. According to a Heraldreport earlier this month, the DCF adopted a policy that allows it to delete what it calls confidential information from the public record. This essentially scrubs its files of most of the information surrounding a child’s death, including the child’s age, details of the investigation and record of any prior DCF involvement. In response to the Herald’s article, DCF said it had simply taken steps to protect the privacy of others who might be involved in a child’s case, such as a surviving sibling. In reality, it would make it impossible to investigate their performance again like the newspaper did.

On Monday, Carroll ordered the creation of a position in the state office of Child Welfare to oversee reporting, data gathering and response to child deaths. He also called for the streamlining of incident reporting and vowed that once the new system is deployed, it will be shared with the public in ways that do not violate traditional confidentiality. This is what the agency should be doing: opening its records rather than cloaking portions of investigations even if the law allows it.

The Herald’s series was scathing in its analysis of DCF’s shortcomings. The comprehensive look at an agency in trouble resulted in sweeping legislative reforms and more than $59 million in new money proposed for child protection issues. Government agencies should embrace openness, especially when it involves efforts to protect children and youth. Children benefit when the entire community looks out for their safety.

Original article

A little-known provision of the Affordable Care Act evens the healthcare playing field for foster kids

Rain clouds couldn’t spoil Kenisha Anthony’s afternoon as she emerged from the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Saturday with an associate degree in social work from Miami Dade College. The 22-year-old from Miami had survived the school of hard knocks that is Florida’s foster care system to reach this moment. Now a provision of the Affordable Care Act promises to help her make an even better start. Xl8a8.St.56

As of Jan. 1, Anthony and others who aged out of foster care became eligible for Medicaid until they turn 26, just as other young adults can stay on their parents’ health plans to that age as part of the ACA. But not all former foster children may know about this little-discussed Obamacare benefit, especially if they’re no longer in the system.

Anthony learned about it through a group called Florida Youth SHINE, a network of former foster children who are working to find and enroll this population.

“I found SHINE on the Internet and contacted them to join. They helped me deal with the technical issues of applying. Now I can go to the doctor,” Anthony said.

Nationally, about 26,000 young adults aged 18 to 22 are released from foster care each year to make it on their own, more than 50 percent with chronic health conditions or mental disorders, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew researchers estimated that 7,000 to 8,000 former foster youths in Florida could benefit from the Medicaid extension this year if they knew about it. Read more.

Photo by Al Diaz/Miami Herald staff

DCF chief promises more transparency

Hours into his first day as top administrator of the Department of Children & Families, Mike Carroll on Monday began a far-reaching reform of his agency’s response to child deaths — and promised to make the troubled agency more open to public scrutiny.

In his first move as interim secretary, Carroll created a high-level administrative post supervising child death investigations and reporting. He also directed his top deputy to oversee efforts to make the department more transparent.

“Child deaths, for me, are a priority going forward, and they should have been a priority for the department a long time ago,” Carroll told the Miami Herald in an interview Monday afternoon. “We need to get out in front. We need to be loud, and crying from the tree tops. We need to draw communities in.”

Carroll’s announcement came three days after the Herald reported DCF had clamped down on the release of information about child deaths, despite promises of greater transparency. About six weeks earlier, the newspaper had published Innocents Lost, a series of stories detailing the deaths of 477 children whose families had been known to the agency.

On Friday, the state House of Representatives passed a

sweeping overhaul of child welfare laws that addressed the host of issues identified in the series. The problems include inadequate abuse and neglect investigations, poor decision-making by investigators and lawyers and an over-emphasis on keeping families together based on flawed “safety plans” that amounted to little more than promises from parents to do better.

House lawmakers openly criticized the department Friday in reaction to a Herald report about the DCF’s internal effort to clamp down on public access to details of child death investigations. The agency had blotted out virtually every detail from new child death incident reports requested by the Herald after the series, and had delayed — sometimes for five months — required notifications of a child death.

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, who shepherded passage of an agency reform bill in the Senate, called the agency’s crackdown on information “just outrageous,” adding that she had considered the launch of a Senate investigation of possible public records violations.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, said of Carroll’s new policy. “Keeping information from the public or from newspapers doesn’t help us solve our problems, and doesn’t prevent these unfortunate deaths.”

In a prepared statement last week, DCF had initially defended its recently imposed redaction policy, inviting the public to sue the agency for more information.

“We don’t want more litigation,” Sobel said. “We want solutions.”

In a memo titled “Vision for Transparency and Reporting of Child Deaths,” Carroll backed off the black-out of information.

He directed his staff to streamline the filing of incident reports.

“This plan must ensure that leadership is informed immediately following the report of a child death to the hotline, as well as bring consistency and accuracy to these reports,” Carroll wrote.

Carroll said he expects his deputy, Pete Digre, to appoint a child death administrator — a “key staff member within our organization” — within the month. When the position is filled, he added, he expects the department to begin making the details of child deaths available to the public.

“Reviews of cases with children who had prior contact with the department and/or service providers will be used to improve and strengthen child welfare practice and services provided to at-risk families through partners statewide,” Carroll’s memo said. “These reviews must be documented in a way that can be shared with the public without violating confidentiality.”

Transparency, Carroll wrote, can help local child protection leaders identify what resources they need to improve.

“I can tell you that we are going be more open. As open as can be,” Carroll told the Herald. “It’s my promise.”

cmarbin@MiamiHerald.comMay 6, 2014

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Win for at-risk kids (Letter to the Editor)

Win for at-risk kids


Under the legislation, $4.5 million will be provided to help ensure attorneys skilled in administrative and juvenile court proceedings, including attorneys from Florida’s Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program, are secured to represent children in these dependency cases.

The implications of non-representation were clear for these children, who often suffer medical or developmental disabilities. The DCF or other agencies, including the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities, the Agency for Health Care Administration, and the Social Security Administration, had seasoned attorneys representing their sides in matters of applications for and denials of benefits, education or placement.

Meanwhile, unrepresented children often languished in state custody and programs long after their peers have been placed with permanent families.

The bill, which still awaits Gov. Scott’s signature, is a tremendous win. Among the leaders who helped advance this cause and secure the bill’s passage was Senator Robert Bradley (R-Orange Park). Well before this session began, Sen. Bradley had proven himself tol be a tireless advocate for Florida’s most vulnerable citizens.

He and his fellow legislators, including Senator Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) and Representative Erik Fresen (R-Miami), stand today as shining examples of the positive impact of dedicated child advocates.

Gloria W. Fletcher, vice president, Florida’s Children First, Gainesville

Read more here


Guardian ad Litem Program in need of child advocate volunteers

The Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program is currently seeking volunteer advocates to be a voice for abused, neglected or abandoned children whose cases are in the court system.

A GAL is a trained volunteer appointed by the court to advocate on behalf of a child.  The GAL becomes familiar with the child’s case and makes recommendations to the court to help ensure a safe, stable, permanent environment for the child. The volunteer works as part of a team including a volunteer supervisor and program attorney.

Research has shown that when a child whose case is being heard in dependency court is assigned to a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) volunteer, they spend less time in foster care and do better in school. Sadly, there are more children in the system than volunteers to serve them, according to Marcia Hilty, Circuit Director of GAL Program for 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Lake County.

“On any given day in the 5th Judicial Circuit, more than 1,500 children are involved with our local dependency courts due to abuse and neglect,” said Hilty. “The majority of these children are below eight years of age. These children need someone who will speak up for them.”

Eligible volunteers must be 21 years of age and older (adults between 19 and 21 years are also eligible to work alongside a certified volunteer GAL), successfully complete the pre-service training program and be cleared of any serious criminal history via a level II criminal background check. A GAL must complete 30 hours of pre-service training. On average, volunteers should expect to spend five-10 hours a month on a case, and most cases last 10 months.

The program’s next four-part training session begins Monday, June 9 and continues on June 10, 12 and 13 at the Oxford Assembly of God, 12114 N. U.S. Highway 301 in Oxford near The Villages. To find out more about the program, contact Sarah Jay at 352-274-5231 or emailSarah.Jay@gal.fl.gov. To download an application, visit www.guardianadlitem.org. 

Original article

Interim DCF Chief Wants New Position To Track Child Deaths

Mike Carroll (Source: DCF)

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – On his first day as interim secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, Mike Carroll directed his deputies to create a new position to oversee the reporting of child deaths and to track the agency’s response to them.

“This individual must have vast knowledge of our system of care and child protection practices,” Carroll wrote in a memo to Deputy Secretary Pete Digre and Assistant Secretary for Programs Janice Thomas. “They must be given the authority to enact policy change, as needed.”

Carroll noted that he expected the new hire to be recruited and placed within the month. He also directed Digre and Thomas to finalize a plan for incident reporting that will “ensure that leadership is informed immediately following the report of a child death to the (state abuse) hotline.”

The memo follows a Miami Herald investigative series on hundreds of children’s deaths and a report by the newspaper last week that DCF had “clamped down” on transparency as the series was being reported. One administrator reportedly withheld more than 20 child-death reports over a period of months.

DCF denied last week that it had acted improperly.

“Once this vital role in our organization is filled and an improved reporting system is deployed, I expect that data on child deaths will be reported and shared with the public,” Carroll wrote.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Original article

View from the front line on saving children-A former child protective worker reflects on child deaths, the series Innocents Lost, and what can be done to protect vulnerable children from abuse and neglect

Bryan Osceola was one of the 477 children whose stories were told in the Miami Herald’s Innocents Lost series. The 11-month-old died after he was left in a sizzling hot car, along with an empty beer can, by his mother. That death, and his mother’s arrest, brought questions to light about the quality of a previous child welfare investigation into Bryan’s mother.

Bryan deserved a better child welfare system. A lot of people, including lawmakers in Tallahassee, have been weighing in on what needs to be done to get us there. For years, I was an investigator on the front lines, as well as a supervisor of investigators. Here are my thoughts on what needs to be done:

• First and foremost, the Department of Children & Families has to cap the amount of investigations given to an individual employee. It should be written into the legislation and sanctions should be levied against local leaders who cannot manage how many cases each employee receives.

All of the research and all of the Blue Ribbon panels call for no more than 12 cases per worker. Any more than that and the quality of the investigations deteriorates rapidly. As these words are written, inside sources tell me that there are investigators who still have upward of 36 cases each, even after all of the media scrutiny and child fatalities.

Additionally, no supervisor should have more than 60 to 70 investigations to oversee. At the time of Bryan’s death last May, I had well over 100 in my unit and maintained an average of 115 to 120 cases monthly. In such circumstances, a supervisor is playing Whack-A-Mole. It is impossible.

• Discontinue the standard that cases are to be closed within 60 days. While the department maintains that this is not actually a requirement, it is clear that cases over 60 days old are frowned upon. Employees are evaluated on their ability to close an investigation in that amount of time. Employees who meet the 60-day deadline and maintain other stats have their pictures displayed on a leadership board for the month. It is an arbitrary and unnecessary threshold and should be discontinued immediately. The standard for closing a case should be at which time the children are deemed safe.

• Return to the practice of having the investigator, not the attorney, write the petition for court intervention. The Herald series underscored the problem with DCF’s reluctance to go to court on behalf of vulnerable children. Unless a judge orders it, parents can refuse to get drug treatment or other services. A judge’s order is necessary to shelter a child from a dangerous home.

One of the first skills I learned when I started my career with DCF in 2002 was how to write a petition for court intervention. Subsequently, I wrote many, and only one case was rejected.

A seasoned investigator knows how to petition for Probable Cause and Reasonable Efforts, the standard required to remove a child from a dangerous home. But since the department transitioned to having the attorneys write the petitions, it has caused major conflicts between investigators and the legal team, delayed court intervention and impeded services.

(It should be noted that in the Bryan Osceola case, I wanted to go to court to seek a judge’s permission to remove Bryan from the home after the previous case, in which his mother, Catalina Bruno, passed out while behind the wheel. Her unsecured son rested beside her in the still-running car. I sent the proposal up the chain of command. There was no court intervention, with tragic results.)

• Provide real services for real families. Many of the cases that come through DCF have an alcohol or drug abuse component. Bryan’s case was mired in controversy as the media reported that the investigator may have falsified documents. Due to possible pending litigation, I am not going to give my opinion on that. I am more focused on the solutions.

Some believe that had the department engaged, assessed and treated the mother, Bryan would be here today. That may or may not be true, but the department’s procedure for assessing risk is flawed. The procedure is to use a questionnaire that asks caregivers whether they think that they have an alcohol or drug problem. Guess what? Most people say no. And the services are not provided.

• Change the department’s overtime culture. Requiring investigators to seek prior approval for overtime, while supervisors are steadily pressing investigators to meet demands, demoralizes staff. Investigators rebel by seeking to work only 80 hours every two weeks to avoid debating overtime. Meanwhile, important follow-ups are compromised. Paying investigators by salary would improve moral, draw an increase in talent to the profession and save taxpayers money.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a department that is proactive instead of reactive. From January to April 2013, I sent numerous emails warning my supervisor that investigations were superficial, and went so far in a meeting to declare that “someone is going to go to jail if things do not change.”

The case of Nubia Barahona should have taught the department innumerable lessons. Instead, DCF subjected some families to hyper-removals (removals out of an abundance of caution), brought in some new investigators, made a few rudimentary changes, and then, when things died down, returned to the same old routine. Requests for substantive legislative change have been hot and heavy under the bright lights of media scrutiny and the deaths of 477 children. But why does it take the deaths of more of our precious children to request change?

• The last and perhaps the most important step needed to protect our children is putting in place local leadership that is accountable and experienced.

Sadly, after each child death, the department seeks to minimize systemic problems and defer accountability as far down hill as possible, usually leaving the burden of the department’s dysfunction on the laps of the investigator and supervisor. Local leadership convenes in damage control meetings, and come up with clever ways and angles to make the tragic event appear isolated to a few.

I spent 11 years at the department, receiving stellar evaluations every year, even as a supervisor. There was not so much as a counseling memo or a blemish in my file. Yet, when the Bryan Osceola case hit the news, DCF suggested — falsely — it did not know that I would occasionally substitute teach during the week. I was the weekend supervisor. My own supervisor definitely knew. The work document was in my file.

The department also let stand a suggestion that I bore some responsibility for the mistakes that led to the death of Nubia Barahona. For the record: I was involved with the Nubia case for three days after the death of the child — assigned to cover the unit during the media frenzy that followed.

As a supervisor, you work seven days a week. Even on your days off, you are not really off. You are constantly working on the computer and completing follow-ups.

Creating false narratives on employees only serves to distract the media and internal investigators from getting to the source of the true problems that plague the Department.

We failed Bryan Osceola and 476 other children statewide under a system that is cumbersome, fails to respond to front-line workers, reactive and ill-equipped to protect our most vulnerable clients. The children of the state of Florida deserve better.

Implementing these steps as soon as possible will not save every child, but they are certainly steps in the right direction.

The writer was a child protective supervisor with DCF before resigning in 2013 and is the author of ‘Finding Emily’.

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New Florida DCF chief backs off attempts to shield information about child deaths

Just days after the Miami Herald reported that the Department of Children and Families had shut down the the flow of information about a string of child deaths under its watch, the agency’s new secretary has released a memo that promises to share more information with the public.

Entitled “Vision for Transparency and Reporting of Child Deaths,” the one-page memo released today by Interim Secretary Mike Carroll orders the DCF’s assistant secretary Pete Digre to create a position within the Office of Child Welfare “to oversee reporting, data gathering and response to child deaths.”

He said he expects the position to be filled within a month and once it is, “all child deahts will be reviewed by the department to quickly identify the salient issues that will help inform and shape local prevention strategies.”

The memo, which copies DCFs regional managers and which was released to the media, also makes this claim: “These reviews must be documented in a way that can be shared with the public without violating confidentiality.”

In the final weeks of the legislative session, as lawmakers were completing an overhaul of the child welfare statutes to increase accountability, transparency and oversight at DCF, the agency attempted to remove a provision in it that requires that all deaths of children under age 5 be posted on its web site.

The amendment that gutted those provisions and others was ultimately pulled, and the requirement was passed as part of the bill, SB 1666, but it now appears that after Carroll’s arrival last week, the agency has had an about face. Download Transparency memo05052014

“Our goal is to increase awareness so communities across the state can identify where additional resoruces or efforts are needed ot assist struggling families,” Carroll wrote.

The Miami Herald last week documented how the agency had shifted its internal policies regarding release of information regarding child deaths in response to a Miami Herald investigation. After the Herald’s Innocents Lost series was published in March, the Herald made a request for documents about new child deaths. The agency inadvertently sent some of the same documents it had previously released but this time the entire page was nearly black with redactions, making it impossible to determine the cause of death or any other significant information. Here’s that story.

Still unknown is what the governor will do with the child welfare overhaul when he receives it. As recently as Friday, when the Legislature adjourned, the governor refused to commit to signing it, or letting it become law without his signature. “I will review it,” he said.

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Legislators send child protection overhaul to governor

Florida legislators approved a major overhaul of the state’s child protection laws Friday and sent the governor a bill that requires the troubled Department of Children and Families to take greater care when handling abuse and neglect cases and abide by more disclosure and oversight.

The legislation requires the agency that serves as the watchdog for vulnerable children in Florida to keep the safety of children “as the paramount concern.”

The goal is to end the tragedies that led to 477 child deaths in the past six years, as chronicled by the Miami Herald, said Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, sponsor of the House version of the bill.

“This is unconscionable,” Harrell told lawmakers on the final day of the session. “We have got to change our system in Florida.”

The House passed the bill, SB 1666, on a 117-0 vote and Harrell promised that it represents just the first step.

“We have made major strides in this bill, but it is the beginning,” she said. “We are not done yet and we’re going to continue until every child in this state is as safe as they can possibly be.”

Gov. Rick Scott has been non-committal about whether he would sign it.

Under the bill’s provisions, DCF must report on its website the deaths of children under age 5 who die from abuse or neglect, immediately review all reported child deaths from abuse or neglect and contract with a university-based think tank to oversee death reviews.

DCF has insisted that it is open to scrutiny, but its record is one of consistently resisting disclosure of details on child deaths. Though the agency provided hundreds of documents relating to child deaths, the Herald sued three times to gain greater access to information. After the series was published, the agency changed the way it redacted incident reports, removing virtually every detail of a child’s death.

The bill also attempts to strengthen the agency’s workforce, by improving the expertise of the investigators who respond to calls from the state’s abuse hotline. It attempts to encourage people with social work and other advanced degrees to join its ranks as investigators by providing tuition reimbursement.

Other provisions require that the agency’s review of child deaths be more thorough and that they undergo a level of oversight to help the child protection system better find the root causes to prevent disaster.

The bill also imposes new requirements and additional resources for families that care for medically complex children, creates a new assistant secretary for child welfare, requires DCF to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths and emphasizes the importance of keeping siblings together.

The legislation requires DCF to improve investigations involving disabled children or other kids who may have suffered medical neglect. It also requires DCF to identify children with developmental disabilities and provide services to mitigate the risk such children face if left with troubled parents.

Among the most significant changes: reversing a decade-long policy that had the effect of giving priority to the rights of parents — not the health and safety of children.

The Herald series showed that the deaths of children whose families were known to DCF, particularly infants and toddlers, spiked after agency administrators implemented a rigorous policy that left children in sometimes profoundly violent homes to promote “family preservation.” Administrators acknowledged the policy’s implementation may have been misguided, given that the state lacked the services and oversight to protect such children.

“One of the positive things this bill includes is it ascribes our legislative intent into statute,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. “Children are, first and foremost, protected from abuse and neglect.”

Legislators rejected an attempt last week by DCF to rewrite key provisions of the bill, including transparency requirements, and the broad, bipartisan support was a signal that legislative leaders have lost confidence in the agency.

The legislation will dramatically change DCF’s policy regarding the use of “safety plans,” which are signed agreements from troubled parents to alter their behavior for the sake of their children. In most states, safety plans have teeth: provisions ensuring parents keep their promises. The Herald found that more than 80 children died after such a plan was signed.

The bill requires that safety plans be “specific, sufficient, feasible, and sustainable.” In particular, the bill requires that investigators not sign such agreements without adequate services to treat the causes of parents’ problems, such as drug abuse or mental illness.

The package comes with new money — legislators say more than $56 million — but it falls short of what service providers say is the need to provide at-risk families with needed services.

Florida’s privately-run community-based care providers, were disappointed that legislators failed to provide a significant hike in funding for the programs they oversee, such as case management, drug treatment and mental health counseling.

But Kurt Kelly, who heads the Florida Coalition for Children, the providers’ association, applauded the legislation as “a great first step.”

The budget includes $18.6 million sought by the governor for additional DCF child protective investigators, another $8.1 million for investigators that do similar work for sheriff’s departments that contract with the agency and $2.5 million for investigators to work in teams for the highest risk children.

“We were pleased to work with the Legislature on Governor Scott’s proposed historic funding for child protective investigators,” said Alexis Lambert, spokeswoman for DCF in a statement. “This significant funding will help decrease caseloads and provide staffing to laser focus on children most at risk.”

The budget includes $10 million for the community-based care providers, $10 million in additional substance abuse money and $2.5 million to expand child welfare and domestic violence services.

“We are putting our money where our mouth is,” Harrell said.

Andrea Moore, a long-time child advocate and Fort Lauderdale lawyer, commended the focus on hiring investigators who have “critical thinking, communication and problem solving skills.”

But she noted, “the bill sends a subtle message to DCF that the Legislature does not trust them, and rightly so.” She said that recent reports that the agency continues to withhold information from the public on child deaths should prompt lawmakers “to get DCF’s attention that it is time to stop covering up and blaming others, and just do the work to fix the problems.”

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

New dollars for child protection

Lawmakers added nearly $57 million in new funding for child welfare programs:

• $2.5 million to expand child welfare and domestic violence services

• $18.6 million for additional child protective investigators

• $8.1 million for sheriffs who handle child protective investigators

• $2.5 million for child protective teams for children at highest risk

• $10 million for community-based care agencies

• $3 million for victims of human trafficking

• $5 million for family intensive care teams

• $10 million for substance abuse services

Legislators send child protection overhaul to governor 05/02/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 2, 2014 9:11pm]

Original article

DCF clamps down on child death information — despite promises to be more open

Florida’s child welfare agency is reneging on its pledge to be more open about child death records.

In the wake of one of the deadliest eras in the history of Florida child welfare, administrators pledged to be more transparent, even suggesting that added scrutiny could help the agency keep more youngsters safe.

“The answer is to keep this in the public eye,” the Florida Department of Children & Families’ interim Secretary, Esther Jacobo said in January, while discussing ways to reform the troubled agency.

But even as lawmakers debated measures to require the DCF to be more open, the agency has instead worked to close down the flow of information about a string of child deaths. It has pushed to weaken transparency legislation and has already quietly adopted internal policies making it harder for the public to track the agency’s actions.

A DCF incident report before the new deletion policy


The same DCF incident report after the new deletion policy

DCF’s new disclosure policies delay and sharply restrict information provided in official child death reports, a move critics argue could help mask continuing child deaths. The policies are far more rigid than in past years, when the grim details in those reports led to a yearlong Miami Herald investigation called Innocents Lost.

The series, which documented the deaths of 477 children since 2008, exposed systematic flaws in child abuse investigations and the agency’s inadequate response to troubled families.

A new Herald review of nearly 180 child death incident reports since last November found:

• In the midst of the Herald probe, agency administrators implemented a new policy for deleting what they call confidential information from public records — which covers almost every detail of a child’s death.

It amounts to a virtual erasure of key information, including the agency’s history with the family. The effect is vividly illustrated in a single page of one case. A record of one child death DCF released to the Herald last year blacked out only a few passages. When the Herald requested the same record earlier this week, DCF blotted out almost every word.

•  In the fall of 2013, as administrators anticipated the series, a child death review coordinator overseeing Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties ceased filing required “critical incident reports” to the agency’s headquarters in Tallahassee. Then, a week after the Herald series was published, coordinator Frank Perry filed more than 20 child deaths reports — some of them incidents that occurred months earlier.

DCF’s procedures require such reports to be submitted within one business day.

• In records obtained by the newspaper this week, the agency redacted all information about DCF’s prior history with troubled families — key details that allow supervisors, and the public, to study whether the agency could have acted differently in the months or years leading up to a child’s death. There was only one exception: a case in which DCF apparently blamed the death on a Miami judge, who overruled an agency recommendation about where an abused child should live.

A DCF spokeswoman, Alexis Lambert, said the case involving the Miami judge was different from the others because it was “an accounting of what occurred in the child’s case but not a word-for-word copy” of confidential records.

“The department remains unwavering in our commitment to transparency,” Lambert wrote in an email to the Herald on Thursday.

DCF’s press office released a statement about the Herald’s report. “To suggest that the department has been anything less than completely open and transparent is irresponsible and insulting,” the agency said. “The department’s commitment to transparency is balanced with a respect and adherence to the law. Records regarding a child’s death are by nature sensitive and demand careful and through review before release.”

The release added: “In many cases, explicit detail regarding surviving siblings is included in such reports. As the law instructs, the department will always err on protecting those children from further harm that can result from public disclosure.”

Late Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott said, through a spokesman: “Governor Scott believes in transparency. He expects his agencies to be committed to the same.”


But last week, when a Citrus County man smothered his 16-month-old son to death with his bare hands so he could continue playing an online Xbox game, a DCF spokeswoman initially told the Herald that the agency had no prior history with the toddler’s parents. In fact, DCF had been told about four months earlier that California social workers had flown the troubled family to Florida amid allegations of drug abuse and homelessness, both red flags.

DCF’s deputy secretary later acknowledged DCF had visited the family, and the investigation that followed was inadequate.

Lawmakers and children’s advocates insist more openness is critical for DCF to improve and to ensure more accurate reporting on child protection cases. The Herald’s series revealed that the agency had systematically under-counted the deaths of children whose families were known to the agency,

“Transparency keeps the public informed and holds people responsible — whether it’s the department, the [private foster care agencies], or others,” said Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican. “Transparency is the antiseptic to keep children safe. The more transparency the better.”

Lawmakers in recent weeks have debated provisions of an agency overhaul bill that would have written greater transparency into state law.

But last week, before the Senate reform bill was passed unanimously, DCF staff proposed an amendment to gut the transparency requirements. The House adjourned late Thursday without bringing up the Senate’s DCF reform bill. For it to pass, the House must take it up Friday.

Among the amendments the agency sought: changing the time frame the agency is required to begin investigating a child death from within two business days to “prompt;” eliminating an advisory committee that would provide oversight to the agency’s critical injury responses; and deleting a requirement that DCF post on its website whether a victim was under 5 years of age at the time of his or her death. Such youngsters are the overwhelming majority of children who die of abuse or neglect.

An internal report detailing proposed changes to the Senate bill shows DCF also resisted a proposed provision requiring the agency to post child death incident reports on its website. “The public posting is designed to find fault, and potentially further traumatize families while in crisis,” the agency reasoned.

But child welfare administrators in other states have concluded that transparency is primarily about preventing future deaths.

“Florida is now at risk of not playing its role as a public agency being accountable to the public,” said John Mattingly, the commissioner for New York’s Administration for Children’ Services from 2004 until 2011, and now a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation child welfare think tank.


A lack of candor also can hamstring a child welfare agency’s ability to justify adequate funding, Mattingly said. “If you are not being open and honest with yourself about your failings, it’s hard to see how you could expect a public legislature to provide you with what you need to go forward.”

Said Ryan Duffy, a spokesman for Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford: “The whole point of the [reform] bill is to reduce child deaths, and if we don’t know about them, we can’t do anything about them.”

Questions about DCF’s openness with child death records arose as early as the winter of 2013, though records suggested the effort to clamp down on public information did not gain steam until several months later.

In February 2013, during the investigation of the death of a Lake County infant, Matthew Condatore, a DCF supervisor named Stephanie Weis announced “new rules” for the reporting of child deaths to agency administrators.

Matthew’s death was particularly troubling. Only months before he died, workers had been told in two separate investigation that the 11-month-old’s mother left the children for “days at a time” while she consumed a host of drugs, rendering her an unfit caregiver. The Condatore home, a report said, was “disgusting, filthy and dirty,” with bugs and roaches crawling everywhere. The first investigation was completed without DCF taking any action; the second remained open when the child died.

Matthew’s mother passed out while bathing him on Feb. 15, 2013. The boy’s 8-year-old sister found him floating in an overflowing bathtub. His mother, whom a report said was “messed up” at the time, lay unconscious near her dead infant.

“No gory details go to [headquarters] regarding the deaths unless they ask for them,” wrote Weis, a community services director, in an internal DCF email. Referring to Matthew’s death, she wrote: “I think this got everyone excited and we are where we are now — hair’s on fire.”

“Our incident reports need to be factual, clear, and to the point — no dramatization of the events. We need to look like we know what we are talking about, and we’ve got it under control.”

Beginning last year, the Herald reviewed hundreds of critical incident reports that detailed child deaths. This week, the newspaper reviewed 177 new reports. The cases include a child who drowned in an open septic tank, and a teenager who hanged himself in the woods — after DCF had declined to investigate two prior reports concerning his family, and was looking into a third at the time the boy died.

Until about wintertime, most reports were filed within days of the death, as DCF procedures require.


But sometime around November, records show, DCF Southeast Region death coordinator Frank Perry stopped filing formal death reports for the counties he oversees. Those counties are home to two of the most powerful lawmakers in the state for child protection, Harrell, the Stuart Republican who chairs the House’s Healthy Families Subcommittee, and Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs that chamber’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

Lambert, DCF’s spokeswoman, said the agency had reviewed its incident reporting system in recent months, after the Herald requested hundreds of the reports, and uncovered “inconsistencies” in their filing.

“These discussions led to a misunderstanding in the Southeast Region that resulted in the gap in reporting you noticed. However, incidents from that region were still being reported timely via email,” she added.

On April 3, Perry submitted three death reports. The next day — almost two weeks after the Herald completed its series — he turned in 17 reports, ranging from an infant found “in rigor mortis” in his family’s Palm Beach County home on Nov. 22 to a boy who shot himself at his stepfather’s work place on March 25.


Even after Perry submitted the reports, they provided virtually no information. All but two of the incident reports contained four sentences or fewer; 13 of the reports contained one or two sentences.

“Today on 12/26/2013 [the child] passed away. [The child] was found not breathing,” was the extent of an incident report concerning a child death in Broward, which was submitted to the state nearly four months after the youngster died.

One of the April 4 reports said only: “When dad turned his back, [the child] wound up submerged in the pool.”

Perry was not the only DCF death reviewer to miss the “one business day” deadline by at least three weeks, though he was the most consistent. Eight other incident reports were submitted weeks late — some months late — involving child deaths from a variety of counties, including Volusia, Lake, Orange, Duval, Lee and Hillsborough counties.

Incident reports submitted by other investigators also lack details about the family’s past involvement with DCF.

In January, the mother of toddler Kayne Williams left him in the care of her boyfriend while she went to work. Before she returned, Kayne had been beaten nearly to death. Bryan Blalock is accused of beating Kayne so severely that he suffered brain trauma, bruising across his face and body, swelling to his genitals and black eyes. The two-year-old died 12 days later.

On Jan. 15, a child abuse investigator submitted a report to Tallahassee with details of the death and prior agency involvement. That entire portion — about a third of a page of information helpful to put the family’s history in context — was redacted from public view.


Lambert said the agency recently changed its redaction of death records when administrators discovered DCF was inadvertently releasing confidential information, contrary to state law. “The department redacts records in compliance with the law,” Lambert said.

The hundreds of incident reports obtained by the Herald last year which were considerably more expansive all were redacted by Assistant General Counsel John Jackson, a DCF attorney who is the agency’s public records expert.

In her email to the Herald, Lambert suggested members of the public had recourse if they felt DCF was withholding information concerning the deaths of children: they can sue the agency.

“There is an avenue through the courts for the public or the Herald to obtain the redacted information,” she said.

Mary Ellen Klas of the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau contributed to this report.

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Florida legislators send child protection overhaul to the governor

Florida legislators on Friday approved a major overhaul of the state’s child protection laws and sent to the governor a measure that requires the troubled Department of Children and Families to take greater care when handling abuse and neglect cases and abide by more disclosure and oversight.

The goal of the legislation is to make sure the agency that serves as the watchdog for vulnerable children keep the safety of children “as the paramount concern,” and end the tragedies that led to 477 child deaths in the last six years, as chronicled by the Miami Herald in its Innocents Lost series, said Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, sponsor of the bill.

“This is unconscionable,” Harrell said before lawmakers passed the bill on the final day of the session. “We have got to change our system in Florida.”

The House passed SB 1666 on 117-0 vote and sent it to the governor, with a promise by Harrell that it is just the first step.

“We have made major strides in this bill but it is the beginning,’’ she said. “We are not done yet and we’re going to continue until every chld in this state is as safe as they can possibly be.’’

Gov. Rick Scott told reporters Thursday that he will review the bill but remained noncommital about whether he would sign it

Under the provisions of the bill, the Department of Children & Families, which reports to the governor, must now report on its web site when it fails children, by listing the deaths of children who die from abuse and neglect.

The bill attempts to strengthen the agency’s workforce, by improving the expertise of the investigators who respond to calls from the state’s abuse hotline. It attempts to encouraging people with social work and other advanced degrees to join its ranks as investigators by providing tuition reimbursement.

Other provisions require that the agency’s review of child deaths be more thorough and undergo a level of oversight to help the child protection system better find the root causes to prevent disaster faster.

The bill also imposes new requirements and additional resources for families that care for medically complex children, creates a new assistant secretary for child welfare, requires DCF to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths and emphasizes the importance of keeping siblings together.

Legislators rejected a last-minute attempt last week by DCF to rewrite key provisions of the bill and the broad, bipartisan support was a signal that legislative leaders have lost confidence in the agency.

“We have a system that’s broken and we have to take strongand decisive steps to fix it,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, after the Senate passed the bill last week.

The package comes with money — more than $47 million — but it also falls fall short of what service providers say is the need to provide at-risk families with the services they need.

Advocates and service providers widely praised the legislation as an important and progressive step.

“I am hoping the focus on hiring people with the needed critical thinking, communication and problem solving skills will be a big step forward,” said Andrea Moore, a long-time child advocate and Fort Lauderdale lawyer.

“The bill sends a subtle message to DCF that the Legislature does not trust them, and rightly so,” she said. “But subtlety seems not enough given the latest Herald story on DCFs further retreat from transparency and candor. Somehow the Legislature needs to get DCFs attention that it is time to stop covering up and blaming others and just do the work to fix the problems.”

Bart Armstrong, chief operating office of Our Kids of Miami-Dade and Monroe, which contracts with DCF to provide services to at-risk children, applauded the Legislature for passing the bill.

“We hope this is a step in the right direction to ensure that all children have the protection they need and families can access needed services,” he said in a statement. “We look forward to working with our partners at DCF and our service providers to assure this important piece of legislation realizes it’s potential.”

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