Florida's Children First

Howard M. Talenfeld, Esq. – President


Howard M. Talenfeld is an advocate for the children. A long-time children’s rights attorney and trial lawyer, he has dedicated much of his career to helping – and convincing others to help Florida’s most vulnerable citizens — its abused, foster, mentally ill and developmentally disabled children.

Talenfeld successfully litigated Ward v. Kearney, a class action lawsuit to reform the foster care system in Broward County, and he won a landmark monetary civil rights settlement on behalf of six neglected and abused foster children.

He’s been instrumental in obtaining funding for Florida’s Guardian ad Litem Program and the Broward County Children’s Services Council. In 2002, Talenfeld helped found Florida’s Children First. A partner in Colodny, Fass, Talenfeld, Karlinsky & Abate, P.A., he also recruits and trains fellow attorneys to provide legal counsel to foster children statewide.

Talenfeld’s goal is to ensure every foster child has appropriate legal representation for educational, general and mental health care, and developmental services. He even coaches Little League, softball and soccer in the city of Parkland. For his many volunteer efforts, Talenfeld was named the Broward County Bar Association’s 2005 Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year.

Letter from the president of Florida’s Children First

Gloria W. Fletcher, Esq. – Vice President

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.

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.

Jay Kassack – Secretary

AmeriGroup Corporation Tallahassee, Florida

Jay Kassack has been a member of the FCF Board of Directors since February 2007 and comes to the board after serving as Chief of Staff to Former Senate President Tom Lee. While in the Senate President’s office he distinguished himself as a director of important children’s legislation. Now working with AmeriGroup Corporation, Mr. Kassack brings his years of experience to our board.

Kassack’s legislative and executive experience has been an asset to our Board. Prior to his work with the Senate President’s office he served as Staff Director for the important Senate Rule and Calendar Committee, and served as the Assistant Secretary for Children, Youth, and Family Services of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Gov. Scott calls for lawmakers to fund his DCF reforms


Gov. Rick Scott, right talks to Amos Davis, left, Christy Davis, and Malik Davis before a press conference in Opa-locka to discuss proposed funding for the Department of Children and Families, Tuesday, April 15, 2014. PETER ANDREW BOSCH / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Gov. Rick Scott visited a Department of Children & Families service center in Opa-locka on Tuesday to tout additional funding and staffing for the troubled agency’s child protection system.

Surrounded by child abuse investigators and supervisors, Scott pledged again — as he did earlier this year — to commit about $39 million in new dollars to hire more staff and lower caseloads. He then chastised the Florida Senate for not including the money in its budget while defending gaps in his own child welfare budget.

After praising the work of local investigators, Scott said: “I am asking the Senate to do right by our children.”

Katherine Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz of Destin, said that’s precisely what the Senate is doing.

She said the Senate set aside dollars for child welfare reform “from day one of our budget planning,” adding: “President Gaetz has communicated this point throughout session, as have other senators working on this legislation.”

In January — months after the Miami Herald wrote about the deaths of four children whose families had prior DCF contact — Scott announced a proposal to commit $31 million in additional funding to hire new investigators, as well as another $8 million for sheriff’s offices that also investigate child abuse.

The Senate has set aside $33.5 million in new money for child welfare programs, but has not identified where the money will be used. The House is proposing to spend more than the governor — $44.5 million, enough to hire additional child protection investigators and provide $4.5 million in new money for services for troubled families.

During a news conference at the center, Scott deflected questions about why his proposed DCF budget will not provide additional money for the treatment or supervision of parents accused of abusing their children.

Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo has begun a survey of private agencies throughout the state to identify “gaps” in the state’s ability to provide services. Scott said he does not plan to seek additional dollars until the analysis is complete — meaning any new spending won’t arrive for at least a year under Scott’s plan.

After a brief tour of the center, Scott praised the work of local investigators, acknowledged the difficulties of their jobs, and promoted an investigator from the center to supervisor as her boss, Jacobo, beamed.

“They are truly public servants,” Scott said of the investigators, as they observed the news conference in their lobby. “They are on the front lines when it comes to protecting Florida’s most vulnerable children.”

Also in Scott’s crosshairs Tuesday: former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat who is challenging Scott’s re-election. At his news conference, Scott accused Crist of cutting dollars from the state’s child protection budget.

Crist has maintained that he was forced to make tough decisions during his administration, which included some of the bleakest economic times in recent memory, resulting in a near-collapse in state revenue.

Scott’s proposal comes after the state reduced the DCF budget by about $100 million, including his vetoes, during the current fiscal year.

Scott conducted his news conference amid a growing chorus of calls to reform the agency, as well as a scathing report from Casey Family Programs, a child welfare consultancy that identified systematic flaws in the way DCF handles cases. The report, which involved the study of 40 child deaths in which DCF had a prior family history, included 13 recommendations.

Hiring the additional investigators will allow the state to reduce caseloads from the current 13.3-per-worker to about 10, DCF says. The agency is also starting a pilot project that pairs two investigators in cases where children were determined to be at high risk of abuse or neglect. DCF says it now has 1,084 child protective investigators, excluding supervisors.

In March, the Herald published a series of stories, called Innocents Lost, that detailed the abuse or neglect deaths of 477 children whose families had a prior history with the state. The children died since January 2008.

The series prompted lawmakers to rewrite portions of a child welfare reform package that was making its way through the Legislature since last summer. It would be the most substantial overhaul of the children welfare system in a decade or more.

Legislation in the Senate would improve training, rein in so-called “promissory note” safety plans and make it easier to remove children from unsafe homes in cases in which the parents or caregivers have demonstrated a pattern of child abuse or neglect.

Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

Read more here


DCF, Foster Youth Say New Law Extending Foster Care Age Needs Some Work

Members of Florida Youth Shine, Christian Aguilar (left) and Georgina Rodriguez (right) gave lawmakers an update last week on a new law aimed at helping foster youth. They talked about what’s working and what’s not.
Florida Channel



A new law aimed at helping those who would otherwise have aged out of Florida’s foster care system when they turn 18 is going well so far, but may still need some more work. That’s according to the state’s child welfare agency as well as some foster youth who are taking advantage of the programs under the new law.

It’s been barely a year since the “Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act” got signed into law. And, it’s only been a few months since the law authored by Detert took effect.

By extending the time children can remain in foster care, Detert says the idea is to make sure older foster kids have the tools needed before they go out on their own.

“That age from 18 to 21 is to be able to produce citizens that can then leave the system, be out of care, and be independent, and be good workers and be good little taxpayers, instead of being homeless, be out of work, or in jail,” said Detert.

The Florida Department of Children and Families works with the Community Based-Care organizations known as CBCs to provide services for foster care youth and parents. Normally, included in those services are periodic classes foster youth attend, which teach so-called “life skills” in a classroom setting.

“Well, when we talk about life skills, we’re talking about financial management, about the checkbook, can they cook for themselves, or if they would they rather go shop and purchase, do they have an idea of nutrition and health management, and those sorts of things,” added Detert.

That’s Kristi Gilmore, the Chief of Policy and Practice for DCF’s Office of Child Welfare. She’s speaking during one of several videos tailored toward foster parents and foster youth to help them understand the new law.

Now, the responsibility of teaching those life skills to foster youth are transferred to foster parents and group home primary caregivers, who also receive an increase in pay.

Also, under the new statute, foster youth aging out of the system get to choose from several options. Among them is what’s called Extended Foster Care for those who must be in high school or have a GED or be working for 80 hours a month.

“The reason I enrolled into Extended Foster Care was because I knew I was going to age out of the foster care system and I was scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen to me,” said Christian Aguilar, who’s currently enrolled in that program.

Aguilar says while he wishes there were more avenues to provide legal representation for those in the program, he sees the benefits.

“What I like about being in Extended Foster Care is definitely the fact that I know that I have a support system behind me to guide me. It helps a lot when you need help from, like a parent figure, when you need to make decisions, like about school or on an everyday life basis,” added Aguilar.

The new law also creates what’s called Postsecondary Education Services and Support, or PESS—which Georgina Rodriguez is currently enrolled.

“A young adult is allowed to take 9 credits in college and considered eligible for postsecondary funding and that really allows young adults to go and get full-time employment and be able to be self-sufficient prior to turning age 23,” said Rodriguez, who also represents Florida Youth SHINE, an advocacy group for foster youth.

Under that program, foster youth are also eligible for a monthly stipend. That money is not taken away, even if they qualify for financial aid or a scholarship—which Rodriguez says she likes. But, she says the implementation of the actual program needs a bit more work.

“Implement some sort of state guideline for coordinators can follow so that everyone across the state are on the same page and follow one rule. So, An example of this would be different areas throughout the state interpret how whether or not a young adult must enroll and attend college over the Summer to receive Postsecondary Education Services and Support,” she added.

And, speaking before a recent Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee hearing, Stephen Pennypacker praised the new law.  But, the DCF’s Assistant Programs Secretary says he too believes there are some areas that need improvement—starting with their recruitment efforts.

“We need additional foster homes and housing options for the young adults. Because of the increased population, the increased need for them to have a place to stay, and for foster parents to be able to house young adults, we need more recruitment and we need that to be met,” said Pennypacker, last week.

The new law took effect January 1st. According to DCF, over a two-month period—January to February—164 foster youth elected to go into the Extended Foster Care program until the age of 21, and 602 are enrolled in the Postsecondary Education Services and Support program until the age of 23.

Also, within that same time frame, close to 60-percent elected to stay in the foster care system. Those who opted not to still get the chance to enter back into the foster care system, under the new law.


Read the original article here.

Miami Herald and WLRN to Host Town Hall


  This coming Thursday, April 17th, the Miami Herald and WLRN will host a town hall meeting to discuss Innocents Lost, the investigative series that looked at 477 Florida child deaths by abuse or neglect that occurred over a six-year span.

All of the 477 were from families that had previously come to the attention of the Florida Department of Children & Families, which is tasked with protecting vulnerable children.

Lawmakers, DCF officials and child advocates will be present to discuss solutions. The Herald reporters who wrote the series will also participate.

The event starts at 6 p.m. at Miami Herald headquarters, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Doral, 33172.

Space is limited. Please RSVP via email to eventinfo@miamiherald.com.

Read more here:


Foster Kids Ask Lawmakers For Help

By: Julie Montanaro, wctv.tv


Click to go to original article and to see video









More than 97% of children in foster care in Florida don’t have a driver’s license when they turn 18.

Most do not have access to cars and don’t have anyone with whom to practice driving.

They say it further alienates them from their peers … and makes it tough for them to get a job.

They are asking lawmakers to fund a pilot project that would give foster teens priority in taking driver’s ed courses and potentially reimburse foster parents for insurance.

“Foster care is not a choice…and I’m pretty sure only 3 percent of these kids are not choosing to not have a license…” said Daniel Pettus, former foster child.

Youth SHINE – which is made up of teens in foster care – and others who have aged out – is lobbying lawmakers this week … pushing what they call the “Keys to Independence” bill in both the house and senate.

One version of the bill passed a senate committee today. We’ll let you know what happens.

Bills Would Provide Lawyers for Special-Needs Kids

By Jan Pudlow, Senior Editor
The Florida Bar News

With the crucial support of Statewide Guardian ad Litem Director Alan Abramowitz, bills in both the House and Senate are moving forward to provide state-paid attorneys for dependent children with special needs.

“It’s the first time in history we have a director of the GAL supportive of attorneys representing children,” said Howard Talenfeld, a Ft. Lauderdale attorney who serves as president of Florida’s Children First, an advocacy group pushing the proposed legislation.

Sen. Bill GalvanoWhen Talenfeld was president of The Florida Bar’s Legal Needs of Children Committee in 2009, he fought unsuccessfully to persuade the former GAL director to support legislation that would provide attorneys for dependent children, a key recommendation of the predecessor 2002 Legal Needs of Children Commission. He referred to the child advocates’ clashing views on representation over the years as “the Crusades.”

“It’s very important to signal to the guardians of the world that the Crusades are over,” Talenfeld said the day before CS/SB 972, sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 1. 

Abramowitz was there to support the bill, as was Steve Metz, chief legislative counsel for The Florida Bar. The bill now heads for its third stop in the Appropriations Committee.

A companion bill in the House, CS/HB 561, sponsored by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, passed unanimously out of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on April 2, and next goes to its third stop in the Judiciary Committee.

When pro bono attorneys are not available, the court-appointed attorneys would be paid through a new and specific line item in the Justice Administrative Commission budget, and would not negatively impact the GAL budget, Abramowitz said. Attorneys’ fees would be capped at $3,000 per child, per year.

“The GAL’s ‘best interest’ attorneys and volunteers, working with attorneys created by this new legislative proposal on these complex cases, will be a formidable advocacy team to get children permanency,” Abramowitz said.

“I have never seen it as an either/or issue. I think each child needs a guardian, clearly, because that’s what the law says. Guardians do a lot more than legal. They mentor for the child and work in the educational system. They work with the child in group homes and with foster parents. A lot of stuff doesn’t even get to court that we can fix.”

But, Abramowitz said, there is clearly a need for attorneys, too, for five categories of special needs children: 

* Children placed in skilled nursing facilities. Currently, there are only 11 children in foster care in this status in Florida, and this category was the only one specified in legislation, based on proviso language in the 2013 General Appropriations Act. “With the attorneys and GAL Program working together, the outcomes achieved in these cases have shown that we can work collectively to achieve results that are clearly in the children’s best interest,” Abramowitz said. “Some of the children who were in nursing homes are now adopted or reunified with their parents.”

* Children who are prescribed and refuse to take psychotropic medication. There is already a requirement in the Florida Administrative Code for these children to have attorneys. The proposed law would “simply fund the process when a pro bono attorney is not available,” Abramowitz said.

* Children with developmental disabilities. “With our GAL ‘best interest’ attorneys already carrying high caseloads, I consider attorneys in this category an added resource to ensure the child is placed on the Medicaid Waiver or getting the services he or she needs,” Abramowitz said.

* Children placed or being considered for placement in locked residential treatment centers. “This is already required under case law, based on the 2000 Florida Supreme Court opinion M.W. v. Davis and Rule 8.350, Florida Rules of Juvenile Procedure,” Abramowitz said. “The GAL Program would continue to advocate for placement that is in the ‘best interest’ of the child. The proposed bill would simply fund the attorney when a pro bono attorney is not available.”

* Children who are victims of human trafficking. “The unique issues that these children have, especially with regard to being witnesses in criminal cases, and possibly facing prosecution, justifies the child having an attorney,” Abramowitz said.

As Abramowitz told his staff and supporters: “I passionately believe in the work we do for these children, and I believe this legislation will not interfere with our representation of children or our ability to secure resources to represent 100 percent of the children in Florida’s dependency system. There is no question in my mind that this will enhance the GAL Program as we work with the attorneys appointed as a result of this new legislation.”


Read original article here.

Child Welfare Bill Draws Calls For ‘Moral Outrage’ & More Funding

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A Florida Senate panel on Wednesday approved a sweeping child-welfare reform bill amid calls from foster parents to help more children and pleas from providers to fund the changes properly.

The Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee voted 12-1 to approve a measure (SB 1666) that collapses three bills (SB 1666, 1668 and 1670) into one. It would make a series of changes to the Florida Department of Children and Families and the community-based care agencies that provide adoption and foster care services to children in the state system.

The legislation got its start last fall, after media reports about a wave of child deaths from abuse and neglect — and gained momentum as it became clear that many of the victims were already known to the Florida Department of Children and Families, which had failed to protect them.

Last year the Casey Family Programs reviewed 40 of the deaths and issued a scathing report on the department’s performance. Then last month, The Miami Herald published an investigation into the deaths of 477 children whose families had histories with DCF over a six-year period, and who died despite warnings that they or their siblings could be in danger.

“After 477 deaths, where is the moral outrage at this problem?” demanded Pat McCabe, a Miami foster parent. “This is the one area where you guys — men and women — need to step up and fund this bill.”

But it’s still unclear how much lawmakers will allocate for services that could stabilize troubled families and keep children safely in their homes, such as substance-abuse and mental-health treatment, anger-management and parenting classes and domestic-violence programs.

The complex legislation would establish social-work education requirements for child-protective investigators, along with tuition-exemption and loan-forgiveness programs for them. It would create critical-incident response teams to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths and require DCF to publish the basic facts of all deaths of children reported to the state abuse hotline.

It would establish the Florida Institute for Child Welfare to conduct policy research and an assistant secretary for child welfare at DCF. It would keep siblings together and medically fragile children in their communities whenever possible. It would require greater transparency from the community-based care agencies. It would make abandoning a child a criminal offense.

But Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, said he was troubled that the bill does little to affect one of the key findings of the Casey review and the Herald series — that 68 percent of the children’s deaths were related to substance abuse.

“You have an opportunity to help people find recovery, and when you do, their children are safe, and when you don’t, their children are at risk,” Fontaine told the panel.

Former lawmaker Kurt Kelly, who represents the community-based care agencies, reiterated his request for an additional $25.4 million for the agencies.

“From a policy perspective, we’re getting darn close to having a substantive piece of legislation,” Kelly said. “My concern today …we will definitely need the resources to be able to provide those services.”

He said there had been a decline in funding for services.

The Herald investigation found that DCF’s budget had been reduced from $2.88 billion in fiscal year 2005-06 to $2.80 billion in fiscal year 2013-14 — even as the state budget grew from $64.5 billion to $74.1 billion.

And although Gov. Rick Scott has recommended spending nearly $40 million to hire 400 new child protective investigators, Kelly said the community-based care agencies would need enough case managers and family services to meet the need the new hires would generate.

Sen. Denise Grimsley, the Sebring Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, was the sole vote against the measure. She said she would like to find more funding for substance-abuse and mental-health services within the child welfare system.

The bill currently estimates the cost of the critical response team, public-disclosure hotline, 18 restored quality-assurance positions and a few other provisions at $15.562 million in general revenue. It estimates the assistant secretary’s office at $260,000 and the loan forgiveness program for child-protective investigators at $1,095,000. But a larger figure that includes more for family services is also expected.

The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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

See original article here

Senators Ponder Creating Child Welfare Czar

DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo supports creating the new position.
Credit Florida Channel / Florida Channel



By Stan Jastrzebski

Florida’s Department of Children and Families is a step closer to adding an official who’d be tasked with reducing the number of children who die after coming into contact with the agency. Two bills and a stack of amendments aimed at doing that were folded together Wednesday, but critics say they’re not sure how much it would cost or if the requirements for the new job are fully formed.

The new job title would be Assistant Secretary for Child Welfare – a job that sounded even more necessary after the Miami Herald showed nearly 500 kids who’d had contact with DCF have died.

“I spoke at Senator Sobel’s hearing a few months ago and asked ‘Where is the outrage at 24 deaths,’ asked Patrick McCabe, a Miami foster parent who’s given temporary shelter to some 70 kids in the last few years. “Now, after the investigative series by the Herald which, I’m grateful is allowed to even happen in the state because of the sunshine law, so I commend you for that. But now, after 477 deaths, where is the moral outrage at this problem?”

Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) authored the legislation, which she says could help rehabilitate the state’s child welfare system – and the image of lawmakers who didn’t give it enough oversight in the past.

“Many of you know that I was a special ed teacher and a social studies teacher and an English teacher,” Sobel says. “If I had to give the past performance a grade, I would give it a D for our performance. But I think we are heading in the right direction and we’re close to getting to an A, so I’d say we get an A-, because we really haven’t talked about funding.”

Sobel’s bill would also create an organization known as the Florida Institute for Child Welfare, but the legislation doesn’t specify how much that might cost. Public testimony from parties to the child welfare system estimated the number could be as large as $25 million.

Lawmakers are already pushing to allow DCF to spend more money hiring additional child protective investigators, or CPIs. The new hires would be required to hold degrees in social work.

“No measures put into law will make a difference unless we have enough protective investigators take time investigating the families and analyzing the situations in order to make the appropriate decisions,” says DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo.

But Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) noted an apparent disconnect between what the state is looking for in a CPI and the background of the assistant secretary Sobel’s bill would create.

“There doesn’t seem to be in the bill that there’s a requirement for a degree,” Gibson says. “Yet the CPIs and the supervisors have to have a degree. The assistant secretary only needs seven years of experience. I’m just wondering how we kind of get to just experience, no degree.”

Other states, including Oregon, have also beefed up their incident response frameworks in the last decade.

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It’s Time To Act…

OUR OPINION: After 477 child deaths, lawmakers, DCF must say: Enough!

What a difference a day makes.

Especially when on that day a newspaper publishes a mosaic of beautiful children. Scores and scores of them with dimpled, smiling, laughing, heartbreakingly happy faces. All of them dead, from brutality, neglect — and even a python. All of them known to the Department of Children & Families, charged with being their salvation.

The agency was anything but.

But after just one day, the lawmakers who for years have, with the blessing of governors past and present, siphoned life-saving funding and oversight from the agency, now declared fixing DCF Job No. 1.

We’ll see.

Absolutely nothing will bring back Ashton-Lynette and Kaleb, Ulysses or Tariji, or the rest of the almost 500 children and youths whose tragic deaths were chronicled last week in the Miami Herald.

And if DCF continues to deny, as Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo has, that DCF is “broken,” then there is no chance that there won’t be hundreds of other children who will be slaughtered one way or another while DCF remains derelict.

Ms. Jacobo, as a temporary chief, has no reason to pull her punches — and she shouldn’t. She knows better, because she is far better — more capable and compassionate — than her predecessor, who didn’t seem to “get it.”

So when she says that DCF is merely “challenged,” she undercuts the devastating seriousness of the agency’s problems — so many of which preceded her tenure. Of course, this is not her responsibility alone.

Solutions, if not easy, are obvious:

• Family preservation must no longer be the one and only priority. How many children were bludgeoned, starved smothered and tortured to death by drug-addled mothers, enraged boyfriends and alcoholic dads who signed a piece of paper DCF handed them and swore they’d morph into Ward and June Cleaver? Children are not property; their safety trumps parental rights.

• Compel troubled parents to get the services they need, and then make sure those services are provided — but first and foremost, get the children who are at risk of being harmed the most out. Child-abuse investigators should be required to file a court petition to order a parent into drug treatment or anger management. Court orders get even a meth head’s attention.

• Training, deep and comprehensive. One egregiously consistent thread that connected so many of these tragedies are the child-protection workers who would accept an addicted parent’s vow to improve. Yes, there are caseworkers who are saving lives because they’re experienced, think critically — and skeptically — to make informed decisions. This needs to be the rule, not the exception.

• Independent oversight has been written out of the picture. The results are clear — there are at least 477 of them. In fact, the Herald unearthed an undercount of reported child deaths, which the agency’s lack of transparency aided and abetted.

• And yes, more money — for caseworkers, better tracking and monitoring technology and services. Money is the one element that has been steadily drained from the child-welfare system. Again, the results were on the Miami Herald’s front page last week.

Republican Senate President Don Gaetz conceded that it will take “tens of millions of dollars” to make DCF whole. But will lawmakers, Gov. Rick Scott and Ms. Jacobo step up and insist on it? Or will more innocents be lost?

Read original here


Ana Veciana-Suarez: We Are Failing to Protect Our Children From Abuse



Little Emanuel Murray was wearing nothing but a blue onesie when he died on the shoulder of Interstate 275. Richard McTear had tossed the 3-month-old baby through a car window.

Aaden Batista was shaken and slammed so viciously by Jason Padgett Sr. that he died at the hospital the next day from a cracked and bleeding skull. He wasn’t even 2.

Haleigh Marie Caine, 2, was found face down on the floor of her bedroom, bruised and bloodied. An autopsy revealed a lacerated spleen and kidney. Dennis P. Creamer confessed to hitting and kicking her.

And Kataryn Johnson, was bitten, beaten and raped by Joseph Wente before she died. She was 3 years old.

These are but a few of the Florida children killed by the men their mothers allowed into homes that were more horror than haven.

In an eye-opening series of stories that should haunt us into action, Miami Herald reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch retraced the last, agonizing days of these children’s short lives. Heartsick, I read every word, alternating between outrage and alarm. Anyone with a conscience would’ve felt the same.

The most frustrating part? So many of these deaths could’ve been avoided.

The numbers are spine-chilling. During a six-year span, 477 children died of abuse or neglect, even after their family history was known by the Florida Department of Children & Families, the government agency charged with protecting them. Three girlfriends and 62 boyfriends were judged responsible, though not all were charged.

How many children are still living such nightmares?

Florida is far from being unique in its negligence. Sadly, it’s not the only state where the agency charged with safeguarding our children instead fails repeatedly to protect them.

Recent examples of our collective inadequacy: In Portland, a 2-year-old boy died after a beating by his mother’s boyfriend, who was indicted on murder charges earlier this month. In Houston, a 4-year-old girl also was beaten to death. Her father’s girlfriend was charged with her killing last week. And in Louisville, a boyfriend slammed a 4-month-old onto a couch because the infant wouldn’t stop crying. He never cried again.

National data on child abuse can be sketchy, the figures a patchwork, but decades’ worth of studies show that paramours, as social workers label them, are too often the perpetrators. Children living with a mother and her boyfriend are about 11 times more likely to be sexually, physically or emotionally abused and six times more likely to be neglected than kids living with their married biological parents, according to the fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, a congressionally-mandated, periodic research effort that assesses the incidence of child abuse in the U.S.

For sure, parents can be monsters, too — as the Marbin Miller and Burch stories so chillingly prove — and there’s no need to pine away for an imaginary Leave it to Beaver era that never truly existed. But an unrelated adult living in a house with young children, especially a boyfriend, is “a huge red flag,” as a University of Pennsylvania child welfare expert so aptly put it. A flag that needs to be heeded by authorities.

Much needs to be done to protect our children from abuse — more oversight, more and better trained caseworkers, more follow-ups and follow-throughs, and less emphasis by state agencies on this romantic notion of “preservation of family.” But perhaps the most expedient solution, certainly the simplest, is the immediate and thorough assessment of a potentially dangerous situation when an unrelated man moves into an already vulnerable household.

A very small step, yes, but one in the right direction.

Read original artilce here


Vulnerable Children Deserve Better

Published: Friday, March 21, 2014 at 5:30 a.m.

Keeping families together is a worthy goal. Research argues, convincingly, that children in the child-welfare system who stay with their parents have more successful lives than children placed in foster care. And when Florida embarked on its most recent revamp of the state’s ever-troubled child-protection system, “permanency” — which embraced family preservation along with adoption — became a rallying cry.

But the state tried to do it on the cheap. In the budgetary crunch of the recession, the state Department of Children and Families was an easy target: Lawmakers slashed its funding by nearly $80 million from 2005 levels. Hundreds of children paid with their lives.

In a searing examination of DCF over the last six years, the Miami Herald documented 477 deaths — including 12 in Volusia County and one in Flagler County — where the agency had contact with parents before a death attributed to abuse or neglect, but did not put the child in foster care.

The state can’t save every child, but the Herald’s examination shows clear warning patterns that are frequently overlooked.

The short life of 4-year-old Ke’Andre Coleman sounded nearly all of those warning bells. Ke’Andre’s mother, 22-year-old Mikkia Shardae Lewis, had drug arrests on her record, as did Joe Genard McCaskell, the 32-year-old man who shared her South Daytona apartment. McCaskell also had a history of domestic-violence arrests. There were at least two calls to the state’s child abuse hotline before April 15, 2013.

That was when paramedics responded to the apartment after a frantic call from Lewis. By the time they arrived — probably hours before, police say — Ke’Andre was already dead. It would take a medical examiner a full day to catalog his injuries, which included extensive bruising, open sores, shoe impressions all over his body and what looked like fingernail marks around his armpits.

Deaths like Ke’Andre’s are shocking as singular events. As relentlessly compiled by the Herald, they sound a clarion call for change.

But Florida has been here before — so many times. And each time, the state followed its own destructive pattern: A flurry of investigation. Tense, reproachful hearings. And finally, a fervent promise that, finally, the state would find the right plan, the correct emphasis, to save the lives of innocent abuse victims.

The intentions are always good. The execution always falters.

The main culprit is, of course, money. Foster care is expensive. Keeping families together, or supporting children in adoptive placements, also carries a cost, including family therapy, substance-abuse counseling and close monitoring of families on the edge of economic and societal crisis. The Legislature should restore as much funding as possible for these vital services this year, and in the wake of the Herald’s series, lawmakers scrambled to promise they would.

House and Senate committees have also proposed changes, including a new assistant secretary’s position for child welfare, better training and standards for child protection investigators, closer review of child deaths and a legislative mandate to watch for patterns, such as histories of substance abuse and the presence of “paramours” with violent criminal backgrounds. The latter isn’t just dollars, but sense.

These are good and necessary changes. But they will accomplish little if Florida doesn’t break its own pattern of panicked reaction to child-abuse horror stories, followed by a slide back into bureaucratic inaction as soon as the faces and names of abused children fade from the spotlight.

See original article here.

Child-Abuse Deaths Prompt Lawmakers to Weigh Overhauls


Laura Luksik, a case manager at a family-services agency, assesses the well-being of two young children in their home in Tampa, Fla., on Monday. Edward Linsmier for The Wall Street Journal

By ARIAN CAMPO-FLORES   March 20, 2014 8:27 p.m. ET

One 3-year-old boy died after his caregivers allegedly straitjacketed him in a blanket and put him face-down in bed until he stopped breathing. A 2-year-old girl perished after her mother shook her violently and slammed her against a wall.

They were among 78 children who died in Florida last year as a result of abuse or neglect—36 of whom had prior involvement with the state Department of Children and Families, the agency said. In some cases, DCF documents show the agency left kids with caregivers about whom it had logged multiple warning signs. The string of deaths triggered public outcry, plunged the state’s child-welfare system into crisis and led to the resignation of the DCF secretary in July.

Now, the Florida Legislature has made overhauling the system one of its top priorities in the session that began earlier this month. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican seeking re-election this year, has called for nearly $40 million in additional funding for the child-welfare agency after backing several years of budget cuts.

Other states and localities are embroiled in similar controversies. In Massachusetts, the September disappearance of a 5-year-old boy, who is feared dead, went unnoticed by the state’s child-welfare agency for three months, prompting the governor to order an independent review of its practices. The findings are expected in May. In California, the brutal death of an 8-year-old boy allegedly abused by his caregivers led Los Angeles County supervisors to create a commission on child protection that is due to issue recommendations next month.

The federal government is tackling the issue as well. A law enacted last year created a commission charged with developing a national strategy to reduce deaths from child abuse and neglect. The commission held its first meeting last month.

Several factors drove Congress to act, said David Sanders, chairman of the commission and an executive vice president at Casey Family Programs, a foundation focused on child-welfare issues.


“There was a lot of concern expressed by advocates and others that this was a kind of national emergency,” but treated as a local one, he said. Meanwhile, a 2011 Government Accountability Office report found that estimates of child-maltreatment fatalities compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services were likely too low because of inconsistency in the way states gather data.

According to those figures, the number of kids dying annually as a result of maltreatment has fluctuated in recent years, from 1,720 in 2008 to 1,560 in 2010 to 1,640 in 2012.

In Florida, the number of child deaths verified to have resulted from abuse or neglect has declined in recent years, to 78 in 2013 from 164 in 2010, according to DCF figures. But a Miami Herald investigation concluded that the tally of deaths during the past six years is scores more than what the agency reported. And the state’s child-fatality rate is one of the highest in the country, according to the most recent Health and Human Services data.

A review of 40 of the child deaths, conducted by Casey Family Programs last year at the request of DCF, cited numerous examples of agency lapses. In one case involving a 3-year-old who died of abuse, the agency didn’t seek to remove the child despite a history of prior injuries, including a recent one that required stitches, and a caregiver’s criminal history, including assaults and domestic violence.

The review concluded that investigators tended to focus solely on the specific allegation they were responding to instead of looking for other indicators of potential harm, such as evidence a parent had a substance-abuse problem. It also noted that “safety plans”—essentially promises by parents to take corrective actions—were often inadequately enforced.

Other child-welfare experts say the agency placed too much emphasis on keeping families together, rather than removing kids, yet failed to ensure those troubled households received counseling and other support services.

In some cases, investigators “thought they were leaving a kid at home with the right interventions, and they were wrong,” said Esther Jacobo, the interim DCF secretary. She said the agency has already implemented numerous changes, including making safety plans more rigorous and training investigators in new methods to assess families.

In the Tampa Bay area, Eckerd Community Alternatives, a private organization under contract with DCF to manage child-welfare services, has developed a system to identify kids more vulnerable to harm, based on certain risk factors—for instance, if they are under the age of 3 or live with a parent and an unmarried partner. Those cases receive more frequent and intensive scrutiny. The program is now being adapted for use statewide.

In the state House and Senate, lawmakers are weighing a long list of overhauls, from requiring most case workers to have social-work degrees to creating a policy institute to research child-welfare practices.

“What’s been done in the past hasn’t worked,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Democrat who heads the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. “We’re trying to prevent future deaths of these innocent children.”

Write to Arian Campo-Flores at arian.campo-flores@wsj.com

Removed From Home — Living in Bureaucracy


BY THE SECOND HALF OF LAST YEAR, CHILDREN IN South Florida were entering the state dependency system by “leaps and bounds,” one official said.

Removed from intensely troubled homes and taken into custody by the Department of Children and Families, they were spread out through that bureaucracy, filling foster homes and other places where they found help (more or less).

The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida — the nonprofit agency responsible for child welfare services in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties — scrambled to accommodate the influx. In August, it was serving about 1,300 children in the region, including those receiving in-home care; by January, that number was close to 1,700.

More than 1,000 had been removed from their homes, the most in the system since 2009, records show. That includes those who went to live with licensed foster parents, in a group home, or with family and friends.

Above: Paul and Wendy Vernon are currently providing foster care for three children. Left: Case worker Dora Cario. VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY Above: Paul and Wendy Vernon are currently providing foster care for three children. Left: Case worker Dora Cario. VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY“I think we just desperately need more good foster parents — (but) not just anybody,” said Cape Coralresident Wendy Vernon, co-president of the SWFL Foster & Adoptive Parent Association. The process requires an extensive background check and training.

Teenagers especially have trouble finding foster parents.

“Generally, I think people tend to take younger children, which is a shame because the vast majority of them are tremendous kids,” said David Brown, who heads the foster care programs for Children’s Network.

The spike in kids coming into the dependency system followed highly publicized deaths of children who had been under DCF supervision, which generally occurred in the first half of last year. A Lee County boy who had been under DCF supervision was reported dead in October after being wrapped tightly in a blanket. Such cases may have spurred people to call in more cases to the state hotline and put pressure on DCF investigators to be quicker to remove kids from homes that could potentially be dangerous, officials and child advocates suggested.

“That’s our major hypothesis,” said Larry Rein, head of ChildNet in Palm Beach County, the nonprofit responsible for child welfare services there.

The beginning of the school year, a lack of social services — especially for parents suffering from drug abuse and mental health problems, child advocates said — and other factors may have added to the number of children needing welfare services.

Magistrate Steven Studybaker manages cases for the dependency court in Lee County, including daily shelter hearings. A clerk told him that the court had opened about 90 cases through the beginning of March — double that of last year.

The numbers of kids in the system remains high, even if the rates of their arrival has started to taper off, leading to a range of challenges. Investigators and case managers may have less time to focus on individual cases. Agencies also report that an increasing number of children have been placed outside counties where they lived.

“The most important thing that the local community can do is either foster or to talk to and help us recruit more foster parents,” said Larry Rein, head of ChildNet in Palm Beach County, the nonprofit responsible for child welfare services there.

More than 100 children from Palm Beach were placed in neighboring counties last year because there was nowhere else to put them, said Charles Bender, executive director of Place of Hope in West Palm Beach.

Shuffled to other counties, they likely change schools, separating them from friends and resources they may have become accustomed to. The distance makes it more difficult to schedule parent visitations, crucial to eventually reuniting them with their children. And it creates bureaucratic challenges that make an already bulky system even more unwieldy.

“Everything becomes much more difficult and it just doesn’t operate as smoothly,” said ChildNet’s Mr. Rein.

Where home is and isn’t

Shuffling families around also makes it more difficult to place siblings together in the same home.

“One of the more common concerns is, ‘I haven’t seen my brother and sister in a while,’” Mr. Studybaker said.

West Palm Beach foster parent Dorothy Alvarez took a group of siblings into her care recently. They had been split up.

“When they came in they didn’t have any homes in Palm Beach to place them, not together or separate, really,” she said.

Now they’re back in Palm Beach, though still split up. Sometimes they see each other, but saying goodbye is hard.

“There’s just crying usually and holding on,” Ms. Alvarez said. “That’s the big challenge because it’s heartbreaking and you have to be strong for that, you know?”

Case managers have also taken on greater workloads as they work to keep children on a path towards going back to their biological parents, or being adopted, if possible. In Southwest Florida, 132 children were adopted in 2013 and 260 were reunified with a parent or caretaker.

“We got a lot of calls after hours and during business hours,” said Dora Cario, case manager with Lutheran Services, a nonprofit under contract with Children’s Network.

One call she took in December was about a large group of siblings, from toddler to teenager, who were being physical abused. They couldn’t be placed together.

“I know the older ones have it hard — harder, I should say — because they know what’s going on,” Ms. Cario said.

South Florida

Officials found the trend mostly took place in South Florida, said Mr. Rein and others. In Palm Beach County, for instance, removals (kids removed from their home for at least 24 hours) doubled to about 1,000 in 2013.

But statewide, removals and total kids in out-of-home care declined last year after peaking in 2011 and 2012. That corresponds with the high-profile Barahona child murder case, pointed out Maria Bond, director of Foster & Adoptive Parents Association in West Palm Beach. It began in February 2011 and involved adoptive parents in Miami- Dade County. Ms. Bond suggests when that case goes to trial, as expected this year, its sensational nature could lead to another uptick in kids coming into the system.

“Typically one big case will do it, or a number of cases where DCF had been involved,” she said. “If you’re an investigator or administrator with the department, who wants to take any chances? I personally think that’s the toughest job to have.

“Regardless of whether it’s DCF administration or society, it is still a pendulum swing. When something happens, there’s a kneejerk reaction and no one wants to be at fault in another tragedy happening.”

Better times

Cape Coral residents Wendy and Paul Vernon have fostered 26 children over the years, some for only a few hours. Others for years.

One 3-year-old came to them “really non-functional.” He couldn’t walk, talk or eat properly. But he improved. One evening sticks in Ms. Vernon’s memory.

“He didn’t know there was a moon,” she recalled. “He didn’t know there was a sky. The first time we went outside and he pointed up at the sky and said, ‘Moon,’ I wanted to scream like I was on a mountaintop.”

Some of the children they’ve fostered may not remember who she is, Ms. Vernon says, which is OK with her.

No matter how long they stay, “They take a part of you — but they leave a part behind also,” she said.

One 9-year-old, just removed from his home, arrived at the Vernons around 10:30 p.m. He would only sit sobbing in a chair. He had to be up early for court, so Ms. Vernon tucked him in to bed and gave him a teddy bear.

In the morning his demeanor had changed. He said he had slept well and told Ms. Vernon that he thought his bed had enough room for a few other kids like him.

“Those funny little things, they don’t leave you,” she said.

For foster children, memories are just as wide ranging, and each story is unique, said 22-year-old Kenisha Anthony. At age 5, she was removed from her parents because of an addiction they still struggle with.

Growing up in Miami, she bounced around from an abusive aunt to living with her sister and the sister’s abusive boyfriend to finally finding a foster parent as a teenager — only to age out of the system at 18 while still in high school, having fallen behind while moving about.

But she made it to graduation (“the hardest time of my life”) and is attending college in Miami while volunteering for Florida Youth SHINE, an advocacy group made up of former foster children.

“For me when I look back on it, when you’ve been through so much — it’s hard and it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “You’re young and you look at everybody else and you’re like, ‘dang why did my life have to turn out like this? Why did I have to go through all of these things?’ You think to yourself, even if you’re crying and feeling down: you don’t have nobody. You’re the pilot of your own life. You have to pick yourself up, you have to find your way, you have to learn how to accept things and learn from them regardless how bad, how heartbreaking they were. You have to make a difference for yourself and prove them wrong and prove yourself wrong.”

Child protective investigators

After a call is placed to the state hotline, DCF child protective investigators are responsible for removing kids from dangerous homes.

But that doesn’t mean they decided to start removing more of them in reaction
to critical media reports last year.

“We, as a region, didn’t look at the child deaths or negative publicity and put out some kind of edict,” said Dennis Miles, southeast regional managing director of child protective investigators for DCF, which includes Palm Beach County. “What we’ve always said is you’ve gotta look at each single case individually.

But he adds that investigators could be influenced by the reports. “It may in the short term have some effect on removal rates,” he said. “Also the communities are reading those articles.

There’s a heightened sense in the community after a child death. So we do get some additional calls where we do see the concerns that are reported to us and we make removals.”

For investigators, walking the line between when to remove a child from a
situation and let him stay can be tricky, said Palm Beach investigator Meredith Gray. She works with families who are often in crisis mode at the moment she arrives.

“I personally, I don’t remove very much,” she said. “I have to say that’s the last thing I want to do. I try not to let the media or anything get to me because we do have a bad reputation in the media. The public perceives us as getting a case, a report, and we go remove the children. (But) we put in services, we try to keep the child safe in their home.” Investigators often have to face a quandary, Mr. Miles said.

“Are we ripping people away from their families or leaving children in unsafe environments that may lead to a tragedy? It’s something we talk about and train constantly on that very delicate balance. The only way to approach it is on a case by case basis.”

Reform follows deaths

A DCF-commissioned report released last November examined 40 child deaths. They accounted for “slightly start removing more of them in reaction to critical media reports last year.

“We, as a region, didn’t look at the child deaths or negative publicity and put out some kind of edict,” said Dennis Miles, southeast regional managing director of child protective investigators for DCF, which includes Palm Beach County. “What we’ve always said is you’ve gotta look at each single case individually.

But he adds that investigators could be influenced by the reports.

“It may in the short term have some effect on removal rates,” he said. “Also the communities are reading those articles. There’s a heightened sense in the community after a child death. So we do get some additional calls where we do see the concerns that are reported to us and we make removals.”

For investigators, walking the line between when to remove a child from a situation and let him stay can be tricky, said Palm Beach investigator Meredith Gray. She works with families who are often in crisis mode at the moment she arrives.

“I personally, I don’t remove very much,” she said. “I have to say that’s the last thing I want to do. I try not to let the media or anything get to me because we do have a bad reputation in the media. The public perceives us as getting a case, a report, and we go remove the children. (But) we put in services, we try to keep the child safe in their home.”

Investigators often have to face a quandary, Mr. Miles said.

“Are we ripping people away from their families or leaving children in unsafe environments that may lead to a tragedy? It’s something we talk about and train constantly on that very delicate balance. The only way to approach it is on a case by case basis.” moree than a third of reports of child fatalitiesities possibly related to child maltment maltreatment received by DCF in the first sevenn months of 2013,” a widely circud circulated DCF memo read.

Drugrug abuse, chronic mental health problemsblems and domestic violence were the leading problems in those houses. households.

“Their deaths were unimaginable and shockingcking to the conscience. Some were beaten,”en,” wrote Perry Thurston, leader of Floridalorida House Democratic Caucus, in a witheringthering letter to Gov. Rick Scott in December.ember. “Some suffocated or starved. Manyny were toddlers or infants. For all of them,m, the misery and abuse that defined theirr lives and deaths is impossible to comprehend.”prehend.”

Mr.r. Thurston took Gov. Scott to task for thehe deaths, alluding to his 2011 meato measure to cut $179 million from DCF’s budget.get. That severe cut didn’t end up happening,pening, but hundreds of the agency’s workerskers were laid off.

Now,ow, the governor and legislators are workingking to make a host of improvets. improvements. Florida senators in the Children, Familiesilies and Elder Affairs committee are sponsoring three bills to better serve children.dren. Their measures include creating creatan an advisory group to the state on childd welfare policy, better training for investigatorsstigators and care for “medically complexplex children.”

Sen.n. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, whose districtrict includes Charlotte County, is sponsoringnsoring bill 7074. It includes a measure mearequiring requiring DCF to put up a website that includes facts about child deaths and create a team to analyze deaths involvinglving children.

In addition, Gov. Scott is proposing a $31.91.9 million increase for child proon protection services, calling it a “historic increaseease to DCF funding.”

Thehe money would be used to hire moree than 400 child protective investirs investigators with the goal of reducing casels caseloads to 10 per investigator in a 30-day period.od.

Childhild protective investigator Mr. Mileses said of Gov. Scott’s proposal, “That’sat’s literally a game changer. We’ll be ableble to lower the caseloads that each of ourur CPIs is carryingcarrying. Everything good happens when caseloads are down. It’s the be all end all.”

But the services for kids will be lopsided unless funding is also increased for the case managers who take over after investigators are finished with their job. There are also calls for additional funds to help with problems like drug abuse, said Mr. Rein of ChildNet- Palm Beach.

“The governor has a proposal to increase (funding for) protective investigation. But if you increase that and you don’t increase it for case management, you’re going to make things even worse,” he said. “The state needs to invest in case management resources and the money to increase the services the kids need, be they residential or behavioral health resources.”

And before investigators turn a child over to the state, DCF should redouble efforts to ensure parents are taking advantage of social services that could help them keep their children, said Robin Rosenberg, director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization.

“We need to follow up and make sure families actually engage in these services,” she said, whether a financial training seminar or visits with a therapist. “We really need to have a better control on what we call ‘service tracking’ and making sure there’s follow through. I think that is a big gap that needs to be filled.” ¦

— Athena Ponushis contributed to this report

The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida handles child welfare cases for the state in Lee,Charlotte, Collier, Hendry and Glades counties

>> Removals (children removed from
home for more than 24 hours)
2009: 731
2010: 507
2011: 616
2012: 709
2013: 777

>> Statewide removals
2009: 13,321
2010: 13,169
2011: 14,928
2012: 14,278
2013: 13,817

>> Adoptions in a year
2011: 155
2012: 94
2013: 132

>> Reunifications with parents/
caretakers in a year
2012: 249
2013: 260

— Source: DCF Child Welfare Services Trend Report

Learn more about becoming a foster parent

>> Children’s Network of Southwest Florida: (855) 933 KIDS or www.childnetswfl.org/foster_parents.php

>> Children’s Network of Southwest Florida: 226-1524 or www.childnetswfl.org

>> Wendy Vernon and her husband Paul are co-presidents of the Southwest Florida Foster & Adoptive Parent Association. They have also fostered more than two-dozen children. Ms. Vernon often speaks with new or those interested in being foster parents about what it takes and what it’s like. She can be reached at 634-8906.



Ina Brown is serving ten years at Gadsden Correctional Facility for the death of her son, Deondray


As a disabled boy, ‘Dooley’ Ashe needed the protection of his mother. She is in prison now for failing him.

Series of Child Deaths Spur Legislation – Senate Proposal Does Not Change Investigation Limit

After a series of highly publicized child deaths last year, the House and Senate are taking different approaches to fixing the state child-welfare system — but both are considering ambitious measures that cover a lot of ground.

Both chambers would require more professionalism — with an emphasis on social-work skills — for child protective investigators. Both would keep siblings together in the state system and help families care for medically complex children. Both would require the Department of Children and Families to publish the basic facts of all deaths of children reported to the state abuse hotline. And both would create critical incident response teams to conduct immediate investigations of those deaths and other serious episodes of child abuse and neglect.

“These are our kids — we have got to make sure that they are safe,” said Rep. Gayle Harrell, the Stuart Republican who chairs the House Healthy Families Subcommittee. “We are not done. We are going to work at this and work at this until we get it right.”

On Wednesday, Harrell led her panel through a workshop on the House’s omnibus child welfare reform bill (PCB HFS 14-03). The day before, the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee unanimously passed three bills (SB 1666, SB 1668 and SB 1670) that contain many of the same provisions.

The sweeping legislation is the result of a wave of child deaths last year that sparked outrage and contributed to the resignation of the secretary of the Department of Children and Families last July.

Since then, legislative hearings have shown that turnover at the top of the department — which has had seven secretaries and interim secretaries since 1999 — is contributing to a system-wide instability that lawmakers want to address.

For instance, both chambers are proposing a new position, assistant DCF secretary for child welfare, because the secretary is responsible for too many areas.

Both chambers are also proposing a consortium of state university social-work programs called the Florida Institute for Child Welfare, which would conduct research and policy analysis to advise the state and improve the education and training of the child-welfare workforce.

The biggest difference between the chambers involves safety planning for children who could be in danger of maltreatment. The Senate plan doesn’t change the current system, which limits DCF investigations to 60 days, within which the child protective investigator must verify the abuse.

“But what the investigator can’t do is ensure that there’s any kind of safety for the child after that 60-day period of time,” said Howard Talenfeld, president of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. “Because there’s no jurisdiction, you can’t ensure safety no matter how good your investigators are.”

Talenfeld urged the Senate panel to adopt a House provision that would not rely on promises by a parent, caregiver or legal custodian when developing a plan to ensure the child’s safety as the result of an investigation.

“We want to make sure safety plans are followed,” Harrell said.

So does Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, a national expert on child welfare.

“The scope of the investigations must be expanded to include family functioning and family history,” Lederman said. “Without that, these children are still in danger.”

See original article here.

Preserving Families But Losing Children


The Miami Herald investigates how 477 children died of abuse or neglect after falling through Florida’s protective net.

Fraternal twins Tariji and Tavont’ae Gordon were born together but died two years, eight months, 24 days apart. One was buried in a potter’s field; the other was disposed of in a shallow grave covered by earth, plywood and a sheet of tin.

Tavont’ae suffocated at 2 months of age while sleeping on a couch with his mother, Rachel Fryer, who later tested positive for cocaine. Child-welfare authorities took Tariji from Fryer and put her in foster care. Then they gave her back, convinced Fryer had tamed her drug habit and neglectful ways. Three months later, Tariji was killed by a blow to the head.

Fryer stuffed Tariji’s body into a leopard-print suitcase, caught a ride and buried her 50 miles from her Sanford home. The girl’s pink-and-white shoe, an unintended grave marker atop freshly turned dirt, was the only hint of her life and death.

The twins joined a sad procession of children who died, often violently, after the Florida Department of Children & Families had been warned that they or their siblings could be in danger.

They tumbled into canals and drowned, baked in furnace-like cars, were soaked in corrosive chemicals, incinerated, beaten mercilessly, and bounced off walls and concrete pavement. One was jammed into a cooler posthumously; others were wrapped like a mummy to silence their cries, flattened by a truck, overdosed and starved. An infant boy was flung from a moving car on an interstate. A 2-year-old girl was killed by her mom’s pet python.

The children were not just casualties of bad parenting, but of a deliberate shift in Florida child-welfare policy. DCF leaders made a decision, nearly 10 years ago, to reduce by as much as half the number of children taken into state care, adopting a philosophy known as family preservation. They also, simultaneously, slashed services, monitoring and protections for the increased number of children left with their violent, neglectful, mentally ill or drug-addicted parents.

The result: Many more children died.

“They want to keep families together,” said James Harn, a 30-year law- enforcement officer who spent his last nine years supervising child-abuse investigators at the Broward Sheriff’s Office. “But at what cost?”

Prompted by a series of high-profile deaths, a Miami Herald investigative team dug through six years of DCF deaths “verified” by the state as abuse or neglect, starting with Jan. 1, 2008. The Herald focused on those deaths in which the family had at least one encounter with child welfare over the previous five years.

Among the Herald’s findings:

The number of deaths with prior contacts totaled at least 477, far more than child-welfare administrators reported to the governor and Legislature. Lawmakers could have committed more money to address the problem had they known its full scope. Instead, they cut funding.

The overwhelming majority of the children were 5 or younger, and slightly more than 70 percent were 2 or younger – in many instances, too young to walk, talk, cry out for help, run away or defend themselves.

Drugs or alcohol were linked to 323 of the deaths, and yet the state cut dollars for drug treatment. Children snatched their parents’ pain pills off nightstands, gobbled them and died. They were smothered by moms who passed out while breast-feeding under the influence. One Hillsborough County couple concealed a loaded semiautomatic handgun under their sleeping baby’s pillow during a drug raid. Ulysses Franklin, 6 months old at the time of the raid, survived, was removed by the state and returned only to be crushed by a car months later while left unattended in a parking lot.

Rather than go to court to force parents to get treatment or counseling, the state often relied on “safety plans,” — written promises by parents to sin no more. Many of the pledges carried no meaningful oversight. Children died – more than 80 of them – after their parents signed one or, in some cases, multiple safety plans.

Parents were given repeated chances to shape up, and failed and failed and failed again, and still kept their children.

Twenty-six times, DCF received calls about Kaleb Cronk’s family. The 27th was to report his death when the 1-year-old from Palatka was run over by a tricked-out red pickup truck as he crawled across a private road. Kaleb’s mother, Amy Sowell, had been arrested 18 times and had been the subject of repeated DCF reports of chronic drug abuse and inadequate supervision.

“I don’t think we are broken; I think we are challenged,” interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo said in a three-hour interview. “Maybe we got it backwards, in that we tried to reduce out-of-home care before having those safety services that are needed. But I firmly believe if you have those safety services, you should be striving to fix a family. That is our mandate.”

Jacobo said the agency is improving its child-welfare computer system, revamping its process for studying and reporting on child deaths, and experimenting with other child-protection methods, such as having investigators work in pairs on high-risk cases.

Two weeks after Jacobo spelled out her reforms, the latest DCF scandal erupted: It involved Tariji Gordon, Death No. 477.

Tavont’ae and Tariji

In May 2011, Rachel Fryer dozed off on a couch with her newborns. Because of a heart condition, Tavont’ae needed an apnea monitor, but it was not in use – and was later found stashed in the garage. Sometime that night, Tavont’ae suffocated, probably after being wedged under his mother’s foot.

After Tavont’ae’s death, DCF asked a judge to permanently sever Fryer’s rights to her four surviving children – she had already surrendered two others six years earlier after they were present during a police drug raid. After medical examiners ruled the death an accident, Tariji and her siblings were returned to their mother in November with DCF’s blessing.

Two months later, a court-appointed guardian requested a hearing on the children’s reunification, citing “pressing concerns.”

The request was pending when Tariji was found on Feb. 11 in an unmarked grave in Crescent City.

Fryer denied she killed her daughter, telling police she found the girl unresponsive. However, one of her children told investigators Fryer would cruelly mistreat Tariji, hitting her with a broomstick. Three surviving siblings have been sheltered – again.

Fryer, jailed without bond, is expecting another child.

The undercount

For more than a year, Herald reporters examined thousands of pages of case histories – 1,738 pages on Tavont’ae and Tariji alone. They studied child-death reviews, police and court records, internal emails, autopsy reports, criminal histories and health department reports. The paper interviewed people across the state and sued three times over records.

Those records and interviews collectively show that child-welfare administrators consistently under-reported the number of verified deaths by abuse and neglect.

“Under-reporting and under-verification compromise the validity of the statistics ([and)] make it more difficult to ascertain true progress in combating these problems and, most importantly, defeat efforts to identify causes of preventable death,” Bruce McIntosh, a pediatrician who heads the state’s Child Protection Team in Jacksonville, said in a March 2011 memo to DCF’s top death coordinator.

Florida’s death totals per 100,000 kids are generally at or near the top in the nation, although such comparisons are difficult. The federal government keeps a yearly tally, but the numbers are self-reported. Some states don’t report their “with priors” totals, including Florida in 2011.

In 2013, the Denver Post looked at six years of child deaths. The Denver Post found 72 in Colorado; the Herald found 477 in Florida. Florida had three times as many children, but six times as many deaths.

Heart-shaped marker

When 8-week-old Kyla Joy Hall was hospitalized with a bleeding brain and fractures to both legs, both wrists and a foot, police could not determine which of her parents injured her. One thing was certain: Someone had inflicted life-threatening injuries on a newborn.

While Kyla healed in a medical foster home, child-welfare authorities moved to strip both parents of their rights to her. But when her mother bowed out of the picture – to become an actress – her father transformed, without explanation, from abuse suspect into fit parent. Josi Hall, Jacksonville firefighter, was awarded full custody despite the misgivings of his own mother.

Ten months later, Kyla’s father viciously attacked her. Her injuries included a “pulpified” liver, knuckle-sized bruises to her chest and, the decisive blow, a cleaved heart that sustained damage similar to “that of a kick from a horse,” an autopsy said.

Prosecutor Alan Mizrahi called the decision to reunite father and daughter a roll of the dice with a child’s life. “Kyla lost,” he said.

The name Kyla Joy Hall is now etched in a heart-shaped headstone in Atlantic Beach. Josi Hall is now prisoner No. J41592 at Franklin Correctional Institution, serving a life sentence.

“There are people at DCF who believe it is riskier to remove a child and place him in foster care than to leave him in even the most dangerous environment,” said Circuit Judge Daniel Dawson, who has presided over child-welfare cases in Orange and Osceola counties for three decades.

History of missteps

Last summer, the Herald detailed the deaths of four children in six weeks, all with a prior family history. The stories elicited an outcry, and the agency’s secretary, David Wilkins, resigned.

His replacement, Jacobo, responded to the critical news articles by hiring a national child-welfare consultant, Casey Family Programs, to study DCF’s operations, including 40 deaths during 2013.

Among Casey’s recommendations: Develop an array of services – including free child care, in-home parenting instruction and respite care – to help struggling families, and do away with “promissory note” safety plans.

The report said that investigations preceding a child’s death were often incomplete, and that DCF fixates on isolated events and ignores both the underlying cause of dysfunction and the broader picture.

“You can’t fix something without understanding it,” said Jacobo, who incorporated some of the consultant’s proposals into her revamp. “I think we have tried really hard to do that.”

Although not one of the deaths examined, Milo Rupert’s story is indicative of the Casey group’s findings. When the agency found a house in Avon Park infested with cockroaches, it saw a pest-control problem, not a mental-health or drug-abuse issue. After exterminators were summoned and the bugs were banished, DCF walked away.

Over five years, there were four investigations of the household. They alleged that the children were malnourished, slept in urine-soaked beds and lived in a home with “cockroaches everywhere.” No one picked up on the degree of child endangerment in the home. Investigators learned later the three girls were being fed mostly Pop Tarts, when fed at all, and were held as virtual prisoners in a bedroom, peering out at the world through a window coated on the inside with bugs.

One DCF supervisor suggested that some serious problems might lie behind the squalor, but that possibility was not explored – until the youngest child, Milo, died of malnutrition. By the time anyone looked in on the 10-month-old, the cockroaches had devoured much of his skin. Milo’s father is serving 24 years for manslaughter; his mother is awaiting trial.

Under state and federal law, removing children from their parents is always a last resort and must be ordered by a judge. Investigators have other options, however, including parenting classes, mental-health counseling, drug treatment and free daycare – which a judge can order parents to accept.

Amid a spate of town hall meetings, legislative hearings and continuing criticism, Gov. Rick Scott last month announced a nearly $40 million proposal to reduce investigative caseloads, increase internal oversight and steer additional dollars to sheriff’s offices that investigate child-abuse reports.

That would be an apparent change in direction. The DCF budget has decreased in five of the past six years, sometimes marginally, other times by a lot. Including vetoes, DCF saw its budget cut $100 million in the current fiscal year.

The governor and DCF say they have increased spending on child protection during Scott’s term by about $10 million, including hiring an additional 150 investigators, even as the overall budget has shrunk. But the agency includes in its child-protection numbers $4 million legislators allocated in one-time funds for redesigning child protection – money that is not used for client services.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, called the state’s child-welfare system “porous” and conceded that “tens of millions of dollars” are needed to make improvements.

“I think in child welfare we have gone on the cheap, and I think that’s been a mistake,” he said.

Family preservation

Florida’s first effort to shrink the number of youngsters in care was as much about pragmatism as philosophy. In 2002, DCF Secretary Jerry Regier inherited a department overwhelmed with more than 30,000 backlogged investigations. Among the remedies: increase the number of children adopted from state care and reduce the number of children taken into care in the first place.

Five years later, when Bob Butterworth took over, the former state attorney general embraced the draw-down, seeing it as a way to conserve scarce resources, shield children from foster care and, whenever possible, preserve families.

“The trauma of removal, many times, is more traumatic than the abuse,” Jacobo said.

But, as more children were left behind in troubled households, spending on services and supervision to protect those children did not keep pace.

From 2003 until the present, the number of children in state care declined from 30,200 to 18,185 – a 39 percent reduction. At the same time, the number of children under in-home supervision or receiving family-preservation services also fell, from 17,300 in 2003 to 12,132 as of January 2014.

As early as 2005, a consultant warned that it appeared investigators were “only working with families who are in the most severe, egregious circumstances.” In a report to a Miami watchdog group, Norma Harris said services and interventions for vulnerable children were declining across the board, adding, “There does not appear to be an explanation for the decreases.”

“Children under 5 years of age are at special risk of death,” the health department’s child-abuse expert, McIntosh, wrote in 2008, because they were often being forced to remain with parents who could not cope with fussy, crying and hard-to-handle youngsters.

Death of Triumph

The short life and cruel death of Triumph Skinner, one of those 5-and-under children, offered an example of how parents were given the benefit of the doubt.

Keith Skinner told investigators he was a “changed man” after following his release from prison, where he was sent after whipping his daughter and punching the girl’s mother. Given his past, the agency could have required that Michelle Ford restrict Skinner’s access to their daughter and Ford’s newborn, Triumph, as a condition of her retaining custody.

It didn’t. The agency wrote in a report that Skinner had “served his time for the crime he committed against his own daughter.”

With Skinner back home in Orange County, Triumph’s world descended into hell. Skinner beat Triumph habitually and would choke the boy into unconsciousness when he cried, reports said. Five months after DCF approved Skinner’s return, he attacked the infant in an frenzy of violence. The catalog of injuries to the 7-month-old, which proved fatal, included a skull fracture, torn bowel, five broken ribs, bruises to his eye, shoulder and back. His sister said he “looked like he got run over by a bus.”

‘I can’t heal’

That miscalculation and others have left loved ones to pick up the pieces.

Michael Barnett visits his three children every other week. They are at a West Palm Beach cemetery. His two sons and a daughter were killed in a September massacre almost three years ago. After a long and violent history, Patrick Dell shot his estranged wife, Natasha Whyte-Dell – Barnett’s former mate – and five of her children, then killed himself.

Dead in the 2 a.m. rampage: Bryan, 14; Diane, 13; and Daniel, 10. Barnett’s oldest son, Ryan, 15 at the time, survived a bullet in the neck. The children’s half-brother, Javon Nelson, also was killed.

Police had responded to Whyte-Dell’s home 34 times over four years and, in late 2009, reported that Dell had threatened her with a knife at a neighbor’s house. As Whyte-Dell and a friend crouched behind a door, Dell screamed at her, “You will be going to the morgue!” He then carved an “X” in the driveway and slashed all four of her car’s tires. Whyte-Dell obtained a restraining order five months later.

After that encounter, DCF concluded the risk to Whyte-Dell’s children was not “serious” and suggested that she and her kids call 911 if her estranged husband turned violent again – advice the agency now concedes was inadequate. In a death review, DCF said the investigator should have at minimum interviewed neighbors and relatives and consulted police.

Barnett, 45, has filed a wrongful-death suit against DCF.

His memories live in old school photos, a necklace crocheted by Diane, a funeral program and three grave markers.

“I sit in my car and cry,” said Barnett during another visit to the grave markers of his children. “I can’t heal. This is a sore that can’t heal.”

Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/03/16/3998596/innocents-lost-preserving-families.html#storylink=cpy



Bill Would Allow Foster Kids to Drive Like Other Teens

By Megan E. Davis
Associate Editor

While a common rite of passage for most 16-year-olds, the opportunity to get a driver’s license remains out of reach for the majority of young people in foster care.

Less than 3 percent of 18-year-old foster youth aging out of Florida’s system have a driver’s license, according to Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program.

Victoria JacksonWhen a teenager gets a driver’s license, insurance rates go up for the parent or guardian adding the young person to his or her policy. In the case of foster youth, most caregivers are unwilling or unable to take on the extra expense, said Victoria Jackson, membership chair of Florida Youth SHINE’s Tallahassee chapter.

Made up of current and former foster youth, Florida Youth SHINE empowers members to become leaders and advocates in their communities.

“This is something many former foster youth continue to struggle with into their 20s,” Jackson said. “We’re not talking about wanting a driver’s license to feel free. We’re talking about needing a driver’s license to get a job and be self-sufficient in society.”

Legislation aimed at easing the financial burden faced by caregivers when foster youth obtain driver’s licenses is making its way through the Florida Senate. 

Members of the Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs last month voted unanimously in favor ofCS/SB 744, the Keys to Independence Act, introduced by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice.

The bill proposes appropriating $800,000 to the Florida Department of Children and Families to create a statewide pilot program that would cover expenses for drivers’ education, becoming licensed, and insurance premium increases for caregivers of youth ages 15-18 seeking driver’s licenses.

“Our current situation is that our young people in foster care are in a situation where they often face barriers to participate in everyday life experiences common to others in their age group,” Detert said during the committee meeting. “It certainly impedes them getting a job and becoming a normal citizen. This is just another way to help foster kids when they leave our system become productive citizens.” 

The bill has three more committee stops, including committees on Transportation, Banking and Insurance, and Appropriations. 

Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs Chair Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, offered praise for the bill.

“These kids have had a tough life,” she said. “They didn’t ask for it, but they got it. I hope we can find funding to help these kids have happy and productive lives like the rest of kids in society.”

Senate Bill Could Help Hand Car Keys To Kids In Foster Care


February 18, 2014 9:18 PM

A bill that would give teens and young adults in foster care greater access to driver’s licenses unanimously passed its first Senate panel on Tuesday.

It’s the latest measure by state Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican known as a champion of foster kids, aimed at keeping them from falling behind their peers.

Not many of the teens and young adults learn to drive mostly due to liability issues, and Detert said that’s a barrier to their future success.

“Only 2 percent of them leave our care as adults knowing how to drive a car,” she said. “And we all know in today’s world and in Florida how important it is to have a vehicle in order to go to work and be a productive citizen.”

The bill, which was approved by the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, would establish a three-year pilot program to cover the costs of driver’s education,  licensure and auto insurance for qualified foster children. It would also cover the costs for foster parents to add kids to their motor-vehicle coverage.

Victoria Jackson, a member of the advocacy group Florida Youth SHINE, told lawmakers that as a former foster youth, she knows what it’s like to have no access to a car.

“So I ask you today, on behalf of all former and current foster youth, to provide us keys to independence — or better yet, our passports to independence,” she said. Also Tuesday, Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, filed the House version (HB 977) of Detert’s bill.

The News Service of Florida’s contributed to this report.

Advocates push for improvements in caring, treating sexually abused foster children



The suicide of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers in foster care shocked the child-welfare system in 2009. It led to a series of recommendations about Florida’s use of psychotropic medications on foster kids and how to protect already-traumatized children from sexual abuse by other abused children.

But nearly five years after Gabriel hanged himself in the shower of his foster home in Margate, the findings that followed his death are mostly unimplemented.

Children’s advocates haven’t given up, though, and will try to move several measures forward during the 2014 legislative session.

In 2008, when he was 6 years old, Gabriel was found in a car with his mother, who was passed out with drugs at her side, authorities said. He was placed in foster care. Documentation in his case files showed that, while living in Ohio before moving to Florida, he had been sexually abused by an older child and shown pornography by an adult relative. Gabriel exhibited sexual behavior problems at school and had lost one foster placement due to his troubling behavior.

“One of the major things we learned was that the reason he was so disturbed was that he had been sexually abused himself,” said attorney Howard Talenfeld, president of the advocacy group Florida””s Children First. “As a victim of sexual abuse, he was acting out. This was a significant part of his problem that went unaddressed.”

Gabriel was also taking two psychotropic medications when he died, and a Department of Children and Families investigation found that neither his parents nor a judge had approved them, nor was the medication he took reflected in his case files.

Then-DCF Secretary George Sheldon appointed two work groups in 2009 and 2010 to study and make recommendations about the use of psychotropic medications on foster children and about child-on-child sexual abuse.

One of the groups learned that in 2009, about 5 percent of all U.S. children were treated with psychotropic medications, but in Florida’s foster-care system, 15.2 percent of children received at least one such medication. Of these, more than 16 percent were being medicated without the consent of a parent, guardian or judge.

Five years out, the verdict is that more progress has been made on the psychotropic medication issue than on the issue of child-on-child sexual abuse.

“I think we’re a lot better. I think we’re a lot better than most states,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, who served in the work group that studied psychotropic medications. “But I think more can be done on alternatives [to medication] and on really making sure that parents give informed consent and that courts have a true understanding of what it means.”

Talenfeld charges that while extensive recommendations were offered to address both psychotropic medications and child-on-child sex abuse, they were dropped in January 2011, when Gov. Rick Scott took office and tapped David Wilkins as the new secretary.

“This report was abandoned, and nothing was done to implement any of the recommendations,” Talenfeld said. “And they were very, very significant.”

In July, when Esther Jacobo became DCF’s interim secretary, Florida’s Children First contacted her and, Talenfeld said, began drafting legislation addressing key recommendations, such as mandatory reporting to the abuse hotline of the sexual abuse of children in state care and a tracking, placement and quality assurance system.

The group is also pushing to eliminate the age distinction for children who act out sexually in the foster-care system. Currently, those 13 and over are reported to the sheriff’s office as sex offenders. Talenfeld — who also hopes lawmakers will pass a claims bill for a client of his who was sexually abused by a foster child — says all child victims should be treated for the abuse they’ve endured, even if the symptoms involve acting out.

Another key recommendation was that the Legislature should provide funding to ensure that each child in the care of the state is assigned a guardian ad litem — an advocate for abused and neglected children in the court system.

“Nothing will get better unless the Legislature fully funds guardians ad litem for every trial,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman. “We are still far behind in that most important recommendation.”

By the terms of both state and federal law, the program should be fully funded, said Alan Abramowitz, executive director of Florida Guardian ad Litem. Currently, there are 29,285 children under court supervision statewide, of whom 76 percent have a guardian ad litem.

This year, Scott recommended an increase that would extend coverage to all children in out-of-home care and 77 percent of those under court supervision. Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, in a work plan for the session, said they hoped to fully fund the program over the next several years.

Abramowitz said the guardian ad litem program will need about $6.1 million in Fiscal Year 2014-15 and additional funds in the following three years to achieve 100 percent representation of all dependent children.

He also said the program “has made psychotropic medication a priority. Our standards require our program to prioritize children on psychotropic medication.”

As to how DCF is handling the psychotropic medication issue five years after Gabriel’s death, Rosenberg said “the state put a pretty good system in place, as far as creating a rule to be followed and attempting to ascertain whether at least a legal authority is there.”

But as a foster parent, she said, she’s also seen the other end of the process.

“I think we still kind of default to, ‘If a doctor prescribed it, then it must be what the kid needs’ — and not enough questions about what information was provided, what did the doctor look at and what else has been tried? … I’m not convinced that everyone on the front line has an in-depth understanding to the extent that they need in order to get good decisions made for each child,” Rosenberg said.


Fostering Higher Education Success – Tuition & Fee Exemption for Florida’s Foster Youth

Tuition Exemption White Paper

This important White Paper concerning the problems and possible solutions surrounding the higher education tuition and fee exemption for our foster youth is a great resource to help promote change and help these kids get the education that was promised.

Fostering Higher Education Success — The White Paper

Tuition and Fee Exemption for Florida”s Foster Youth. The White Paper looks at an examination of the efficacy of existing efforts, barriers to usage, and recommendations for reform. Read the full paper here: Tuition Exemption White Paper – Florida”s Children First

Tuition Exemption White Paper - 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Children First_Page_01

Brief Overview of Children”s Services

Pages from A Brief Overview of Children''''''''''''''''s Services 12-16-13Click here to read the entire report

Letting Kids Be Kids: A Legislative Victory in Florida

by: Christina Spudeas, Robin Rosenberg, and Andrea Cowart
North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
Adoptalk Summer 2013 Edition

“We just want to do the same things as our friends! We just want to be normal!” is the battle cry of youth in foster care–back by their caregivers–across the country. These youth want the chance to play sports, spend the night with friends, go on a class trip, or take a family vacation without the need for state approval or a court order. This year, Florida took a major step toward fixing this issue that plagues so many children in care. In April, the legislature unanimously enacted HB 215, a law intended to “let kids be kids,” as Governor Scott put it at the bill signing. A key factor in achieving this remarkable legislative victory was the role of current and former foster youth who were integral in generation support for the law.

Click here to read more!

Committee seeks changes aimed at preventing future child deaths


The question before the Senate committee was simple: Why did Florida’s child welfare system fail to protect the more than 40 children who are known to have died under its care between January and July?

Six experts, including the secretary of the Department of Children and Families, had theories, but no answers, at the three-hour hearing of the Senate Children and Families Committee.

Child protective investigators and caseworkers are ill-equipped and over-worked, was a common conclusion. The family safety plans —programs designed by the department to keep children safe —are inadequate, ineffective or unused, others said. And all concluded that Florida does little to break the recurring cycle of abused kids becoming abusive parents.

The committee’s goal is to convert those theories into legislation “to create a culture of safety for our most vulnerable children,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, the committee chair.

The experts made recommendations: from hiring skilled social workers, curbing turnover, drastically reducing worker caseloads, restoring budget cuts to providing more resources for mental health and substance abuse programs.

“There are no silver bullets,’’ Sobel concluded. “But I really believe there might be a silver lining if we all work together.”

Christina Spudeas, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Florida Children’s First, chastised the DCF for reducing its quality assurance staff by 72 percent and allowing agencies to contract with each other to provide the required third party review.

“In order for us as a community to put in place the proper system is to No. 1, have an awareness that these things are happening,” Spudeas said. “This recent rash of child deaths is alarming but how do we know this is unusual. If it weren’t for the Miami Herald and that series of reports, I don’t know that we would be here today.”

Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, 365 children have died because of reported abuse in Florida, said DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo, as horrendous as this sounds, she said, it’s lower than in recent years.

DCF asked the Casey Family Programs to study 40 of those deaths in which families had interactions with the child welfare system.

The scathing report, delivered Monday, found that when the agency was warned that children in high risk situation were vulnerable to abuse, it rarely intervened in a meaningful way, botched its investigations and left children in a troubled homes without a plan to protect them.

Jacobo summarize the findings of the Casey Report to the Senate committee and, at a hearing before the House Healthy Families Subcommittee, she outlined her agency’s response. Neither committee had seen the report and did not discuss it.

“We’ve seen these for many years,’’ Jacobo told the Senate committee. “These are not something new.”

Jacobo said a principal focus of her agency will be on training child protection investigators in new safety plans that, she said, will be a “national model.” While there is no additional money set aside the for the program, she was confident there would be more resources in the future.

“We’re already I discussions with the governor’s office about additional resources in child welfare,’’ she said. “So yes, we are going to be talking about more resources.”

Jacobo acknowledged that Gov. Rick Scott has asked her agency to cut its budget next year despite these needs and has acknowledged that if hundreds of positions are not restored the ability of the agency to protect children will be hurt. But, she said, she is confident the cuts won’t come from child welfare programs and is hopeful that previous budget cuts will be restored.

“Less positions in the field or less positions in quality assurance are big issues for us and we are definitely talking about how to restore those things,’’ she said.

She said that protecting children is “a top priority for the governor.”

“We’re going to ask for what we need,’’ she said. “I’m very confident that with the kind of information that we now have, and the kind of analysis, we will get what we need and the governor will be happy to champion that for us.”

She added, however, that she cannot predict there will not be another child death.

“What I can assure everyone is we are working towards making the system better. We are putting in safeguards,’’ she said. “… but can I guarantee it to you and the public? I can’t guarantee what people are going to do to children but we will do our best to keep them safe.”

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, asked why the agency did not follow up on safety plans, as recommended by agency policy.

Jacobo said case workers too often “weren’t educated on what a real safety plans is and what that means.

“You can’t walk away from a family and understand that the loop is closed,’’ she said. “That has been a problem for many years.”

Katherine Essrig, a judge from the 13th Judicial Circuit, said that the vast majority of families she deals with have mental health and substance abuse issues but “we have such a dearth of good services and we really aren’t solving that problem.”

Sobel asked Jacobo what recommendations she had for legislation to fix the problems.

“I will think about it and get back to you, but I’m not prepared to do it today,” she replied.

That brought a scolding from Sobel, who said a summer of bad publicity should have given her time “to formulate legislation so we don’t have the 25 deaths.”

“We could study ideas and philosophies to death,’’ Sobel said. “But its time for us to change the system…I expected from you more of a definitive answer.”

The Senate panel also spent much of the meeting discussing the governmental structure in place to protect children and whether the privatized model that has created local Community-Based Care organizations in partnership with the state is still the best approach.

Kurt Kelly, CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children, the advocacy group for the community based care organizations, lauded the arrangement as so innovative that other states want to model it.

“Under no circumstances, do I want to come in here and say we have arrived,’’ he said. “Florida has done amazing work in this area. Is it perfect? Of course not.”

But Pam Graham, associate professor at the Florida State University School of Social Work, and Spudeas said the system is clearly in need of work.

“I don’t know that one system or the other is better or worse,’’ she said. “It’s looking at what the end results are.”

Graham said the privatized model is fragmented, lacks consistency and inefficiently uses and deploys resources.

Spudeas spoke of the heartwarming story of 15-year-old Damien Only who put on a ill-fitting suit and walked into a Pinellas County church in September and asked to be adopted. Born to a mother in prison, he had been in the child protective system since birth, lived in multiple foster care homes, attended numerous schools and only learned that his mother had died when he asked for a copy of his own birth certificate and looked it up online.

“I know it’s a wonderful story for the rest of the nation, but to me it’s alarming,” she said. “No, we don’t have a perfect system. We do need to look at it. I think the jury’s out.”


The Casey Family Programs Review of Child Fatalities

NovCaseyReportThe Department of Children and Families commissioned a report by the respected Casey Family Programs–a national operating foundation based in Seattle, works to provide and improve foster care systems– after the Herald revealed that at least 20 children from families with DCF histories had died in Florida over the spring and summer.

The report was released to a Florida Senate committee in Tallahassee.

Click the thumbnail to read the report and DCF”s response!

Despite ‘red flags,’ 3-year-old under state supervision restrained to death in blanket


At his grandmother’s Lee County home, life was bleak for Michael McMullen and his three siblings. They slept in an animal’s cage, were apparently beaten, and may have been drugged as well to keep them manageable.

Child welfare workers are supposed to rescue children from such a home.

Except child welfare workers were the ones who put the kids in the home of grandma Gale Watkins — after deciding their mother’s home was too dangerous an environment.

By the time the Department of Children & Families grasped that things were even worse at the grandmother’s home, it was too late for Michael. The 3-year-old was dead. According to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, he died when he was wrapped tightly, straitjacket style, in various layers of blanketing, a form of discipline in the home of Gale Watkins.

The boy was trussed up so tightly he simply stopped breathing.

Watkins, 56, has been charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child, as has the boyfriend of the boy’s mother — 21-year-old Douglas Garrigus — and a 45-year-old family friend, Donella Trainor. The three were charged because all were caretakers at the time of the death.

Detectives said Trainor had developed the unusual method of disciplining Michael. The little boy would be wrapped in a blanket, with the ends of the blankets tied down “so as to prevent movement or escape.” On Oct. 19, the day of his death, Michael was “being disciplined for crying and being too rowdy,” police said. He was restrained in “six layers” of a blanket, placed face-down in bed, and then ignored as he “screamed and pleaded to be released.”

“Michael was so upset he could be heard hyperventilating and gasping for breaths as he cried,” a police report said. Garrigus told the boy to calm down, and then walked away.

Soon, Michael stopped crying.

At the time of his death, Michael had bruises on his forehead and eye, as well as bruising inside his mouth, the Medical Examiner’s Office reported.

Michael is among at least 25 children who have died since spring after DCF had investigated allegations of abuse or neglect and declared them to be safe.

“It’s horrific — a horrific murder of this poor baby,” DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo said Monday.

Both DCF and its private social-work agency in Lee County, Lutheran Services of Florida, should have done a better job of recognizing “the red flags” that were present in the boy’s home, Jacobo said. “At the very least,” Jacobo added, case workers should have significantly increased the number of visits. Investigators and caseworkers also should have seriously considered asking the judge who oversaw the family to remove the four children from the grandmother and place them in the home of either another relative, or a foster family, she said.

Michael’s death, Jacobo added, remains under investigation. “In our work with law enforcement, we feel confident that those responsible will spend many years behind bars for the horrible atrocity they committed against this innocent young boy.”

Lutheran Services of Florida fired two case workers last week, saying they “failed to follow policies.”

“While these policy violations did not cause the death of Michael, LSF will not rest until all questions are answered so we can ensure the safety of children in our care,” the group’s president, Samuel Sipes, wrote in a statement. “Lutheran Services of Florida is shocked and saddened by the tragic death of Michael McMullen, allegedly at the hands of adults responsible for his care,” the statement added.

Michael and his siblings first came to DCF’s attention last year, when DCF received a report that Garrigus kicked one of the children in the head, and a second report that the children were living in a home overrun with seven dogs, five cats and a creature described as a mixture of a racoon and a rat. The animals, the report said, left feces everywhere. In January, the agency received a third report that at least one of the children — described as disabled — was being beaten, and was “unable to communicate effectively.” The boy was seen with “two long bruises, the size of an index finger,” another “round bruise,” and a third bruise on his forehead.

A report said teachers discovered the bruises when they were forced to change his clothes, which were stained with “fecal matter.” DCF asked Samantha McMullen and her boyfriend to sign a “safety plan” promising to “follow all recommendations of DCF.”

The plan did not work. On June 3, 2012, DCF was told that Garrigus smoked “weed,” abused alcohol and used meth and Oxycodone — and that when he was impaired he “becomes extremely violent toward others.”

That was two days after Garrigus reportedly beat his girlfriend, the children’s mother, leaving handprints on both sides of her face and around her neck, and possibly breaking her jaw.

Garrigus was considered so dangerous — the home was believed to contain both guns and knives — that a DCF investigator requested that she be accompanied by police when she visited.

For his part, at least one of McMullen’s children was quite clear about living in the home: “The child is asking that the [investigator] pick up the other children because he does not want the father to kill them,” states a report from the investigation. The report added that the boy told authorities several times that he was afraid of Garrigus, who “needs to go to jail for what he did to his mother’s face.”

The children were removed from McMullen’s custody — but not from danger.

An 11-page review of Michael’s death shows that both DCF and Lutheran Services had observed — and dismissed — a host of critical red flags:

• On July 8, a month after Michael and his three siblings were sent to live with Watkins, DCF’s abuse hotline received a report that Michael and the other children were being forced to sleep in a “cat crate.” Watkins, the agency was told, was caging the children “in an attempt to stop them from getting up at night.”

Watkins said Michael “liked to sleep in the crate with his comforter because ‘he feels safe’?” there, a report said. She denied the children were forced to sleep there, as did Michael’s mom, who was in the home when an investigator arrived to look into the allegations. One of the children confirmed that both Michael and another youngster slept in the crate.

•In August, a Lutheran Services case worker observed one of the children with a “penny-size” bruise, and the girl told the worker her grandmother had hit her. Though Watkins first denied hitting the girl, she later acknowledged the punishment, saying Michael and his sister were biting each other. The case worker saw no teeth marks on either child.

• Though he had been repeatedly accused of beating both McMullen and her children, Garrigus was also in the home, and possibly living there along with McMullen. Watkins told a caseworker that one of the children “pees his pants” when Garrigus arrives — an indication the boy was petrified of his mother’s boyfriend.

• One of the children told the case manager that he and his siblings “sleep a lot” at their grandmother’s house. Police wrote that the family complained that the children were “difficult to get to sleep.” The Herald has learned that authorities believe the caregivers were sedating the children to keep them quiet.

Indeed, records of Michael’s brief odyssey in state care show that the boy was asleep during most of a caseworker’s visits to Watkins’ home:

July 8, 12:21 p.m.: “The children were seen laying down when the case manager arrived. The maternal grandmother stated it was quiet time and they all needed to take a nap.”

Aug. 8, 5:40 p.m.: “Michael in bed…Children were all asleep at visit.”

Aug. 21, 4:15 p.m.: “Dressed in pajamas” and “in bed.”

Sept. 3, 5:15 p.m.: “Maternal grandmother was in bed. Children were all in bed.”

Amid churchgoers, orphan Davion Only pleads for a family

Lane DeGregory, Times Staff Writer
Monday, October 7, 2013 11:56am


ST. PETERSBURG — As soon as they pulled into the church lot, Davion changed his mind.
“Miss! Hey, Miss!” he called to his caseworker, who was driving. “I don””t want to do this anymore.”
In the back seat, he hugged the Bible someone had given him at the foster home. “You””re going to be great,” Connie
Going said.
Outside St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, she straightened his tie. Like his too-big black suit, the white tie had been
donated. It zipped up around the neck, which helped. No one had ever taught Davion, 15, how to tie one.
“Are you ready?” Going asked. Hanging his head, he followed her into the sanctuary.
This had been his idea. He””d heard something about God helping people who help themselves. So here he was, on a
Sunday in September, surrounded by strangers, taking his future into his sweaty hands.
• • •
Davion Navar Henry Only loves all of his names. He has memorized the meaning of each one: beloved, brown, ruler of
the home, the one and only.
But he has never had a home or felt beloved. His name is the last thing his parents gave him.
He was born while his mom was in jail. He can””t count all of the places he has lived.
In June, Davion sat at a library computer, unfolded his birth certificate and, for the first time, searched for his mother””s
name. Up came her mug shot: 6-foot-1, 270 pounds — tall, big and dark, like him. Petty theft, cocaine.
Next he saw the obituary: La-Dwina Ilene “Big Dust” McCloud, 55, of Clearwater, died June 5, 2013. Just a few weeks
• • •
In church, Davion scanned the crowd. More than 300 people packed the pews. Men in bright suits, grandmoms in
sequined hats, moms hugging toddlers on their laps. Everyone seemed to have a family except him.
Davion sat beside Going, his caseworker from Eckerd, and struggled to follow the sermon: something about a letter
Paul wrote. “He was in prison,” said the Rev. Brian Brown. “Awaiting an uncertain future . . .”
Sometimes Davion felt like that, holed up at Carlton Manor with 12 teenage boys, all with problems. All those rules,
cameras recording everything.
Davion wants to play football, but there””s no one to drive him to practice. He wants to use the bathroom without having

to ask someone to unlock the door.
More than anything, he wants someone to tell him he matters. To understand when he begs to leave the light on.
“You may be in a dark place,” said the preacher. “But look for the joyful moments when you can praise God.”
Picking at his fingers, Davion wondered what to say. And whether anyone would hear him.
• • •
Davion always longed for a family. His caseworker took him to picnics, put his portrait in the Heart Gallery. But he had
thrown chairs, blown his grades, pushed people away.
When he learned his birth mother was dead, everything changed. He had to let go of the hope that she would come get
him. Abandon his anger. Now he didn””t have anyone else to blame.
“He decided he wanted to control his behavior and show everyone who he could be,” Going said.
So someone would want him.
“I””ll take anyone,” Davion said. “Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don””t care. And I would be really
appreciative. The best I could be.”
All summer, he worked on swallowing his rage, dropping his defenses. He lost 40 pounds. So far in 10th grade, he has
earned A””s — except in geometry.
“He””s come a long way,” said Floyd Watkins, program manager at Davion””s group home. “He””s starting to put himself
out there, which is hard when you””ve been rejected so many times.”
Davion decided he couldn””t wait for someone to find him. In three years, he””ll be on his own.
“I know they””re out there,” he told his caseworker. Though he is shy, he said he wanted to talk at a church. “Maybe if
someone hears my story . . .”
• • •
The preacher spoke about orphans, how Jesus lifted them up. He described an epidemic, “alarming numbers of
African-American children who need us.”
Then he introduced Davion, who shuffled to the pulpit. Without looking up, Davion wiped his palms on his pants,
cleared his throat, and said:
“My name is Davion and I””ve been in foster care since I was born. . . . I know God hasn””t given up on me. So I””m not
giving up either.”

Upcoming Events!

Save the Date - Feb 27th 2014 1.2Please join Florida’s Children First February 27, 2014 as we honor child advocates in Broward County and raise awareness for child welfare issues. The reception will take place at the 110 Tower in Downtown Fort Lauderdale from 5:30-7:30pm. Business casual attire. Heavy hors d’oeuvres and refreshments will be served. Thank you for supporting FCF and the work we do!

Palm Beach Child Advocacy Awards and Reception

Please join Florida’s Children First October 3, 2013 as we honor child advocates in Palm Beach and raise awareness for child welfare issues. The reception will take place at the Phillips Point Club, Top of the Point from 5:30-7:30pm. Business casual attire. Heavy hors d’oeuvres and refreshments will be served. Thank you for supporting FCF and the work we do!

You are Invited - October 3 - Phillips Point Club 9 11

Gainesville Child Advocacy Awards and Reception

Please join Florida’s Children First September 26, 2013 as we honor child advocates in Gainesville and raise awareness for child welfare issues. The reception will take place at the Home of Cotton and Gloria from 5:30-7:30pm. Business casual attire. Heavy hors d’oeuvres and refreshments will be served. Thank you for supporting FCF and the work we do!

You Are Invited  FINAL

Sarasota Child Advocacy Awards and Reception

Please join Florida’s Children First September 19, 2013 as we honor child advocates in Sarasota and raise awareness for child welfare issues. The reception will take place at The Boathouse at the Hyatt Regency from 5:30-7:30pm. Business casual attire. Heavy hors d’oeuvres and refreshments will be served. Thank you for supporting FCF and the work we do!

You''''''''re Invited with Link 9.13 version

Lawyers ad litem help medically fragile kids leave nursing homes

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

The medically fragile infant was housed in a wing of a nursing home designed for geriatric patients in Tampa, and the child’s parents lived more than 400 miles away in Pensacola.

Guardian ad Litem Executive Director Alan Abramowitz asked Paolo Annino, the Glass Professor of Pu

blic Interest Law at Florida State University’s College of Law, to serve as the baby’s attorney ad litem. Guardian ad Litem Executive Director Alan Abramowitz asked Paolo Annino, the Glass Professor of Public Interest Law at Florida State University’s College of Law, to serve as the baby’s attorney ad litem.

Now, the infant has been moved to a loving medical foster home in Pensacola, where the baby gets held and hugged a lot more, and his parents are able to visit often and are working toward a chance at reunification.

“This is a case where everyone worked together. The amount of work the GAL did was amazing in this case,” Annino said. “Everyone was focusing on the child, and everyone realized the appropriate place for this baby was not in a nursing home.”

Though the infant is a “DCF [Department of Children and Families] child,” where there have been findings of abuse or neglect, Annino said, parental rights have not been severed. Bringing the baby back to Pensacola, he said, “will help the possibility of reunification” and, if that happens, the parents would need to receive a tremendous amount of help to care for their child.

Important right now, Annino said, is the one-on-one attention the baby receives from medical foster parents, where medically fragile children are given “lots of hugs and rubbing heads and hands. With really young children, tactile attachment is so important.”

Annino, who handles such cases pro bono, praised Abramowitz for his efforts at receiving funding from the Legislature to hire attorneys ad litem for medically fragile children and coordinating their legal representation.

Because of a $325,000 legislative appropriation, the number of medically fragile foster children in DCF’s custody has been winnowed down from 35, before the law was passed, to the current 11 living in skilled nursing homes.

Personally visiting each medically fragile foster child housed in Florida’s nursing homes, Abramowitz has witnessed tiny bodies hooked up to ventilators and felt voiceless children’s eyes track him as he moved across the room.

“These children are special. It stays with you when you see them,” Abramowitz said, noting that three Florida nursing homes have closed down or stopped taking kids, leaving the state with only four nursing homes handling medically fragile children.

“In fact, DCF doesn’t want these children there either,” Abramowitz said. “We want them in a homelike setting.”

Abramowitz wants to place the children in medical foster homes, but there aren’t enough of them. He said it takes a “special, caring person willing to commit to a child who is so fragile, and needs a lot of time. You have to be patient. These are top-tier foster parents,” he said, adding that retired nurses make great medical foster parents. “They are out there, and we need to connect with them.”

In an August 22 letter to Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon and Rep. Neil Combee, R-Auburndale, Abramowitz thanked the sponsors of the bill to appropriate $325,000 for attorneys ad litem.

“Because of your support in ensuring dependent children with disabilities who are living in skilled nursing facilities are given an attorney ad litem, these children will now have an effective advocate who will ensure that their medical needs are met, the services they need are supplied, and a more suitable placement is provided,” Abramowitz wrote.

Because many of these children are placed in nursing homes away from their “county of jurisdiction,” Abramowitz said, “the GAL Program and the new attorneys ad litem work closely together for the child.”

“When you see the faces of the children impacted by this initiative,” Abramowitz wrote to the lawmakers, “you cannot help but want to move heaven and earth to ensure that they are not only advocated for, but that they obtain permanency.”

With GALs and attorneys ad litem working together, Abramowitz said, “We believe this advocacy team can reach the common goal of the GAL Program, the DCF, and the Florida Legislature of reducing the number of disabled children living in skilled nursing facilities . . . to zero. We all want disabled children to be reunified with their families, in medical foster homes, or placements that are better suited for children — with more activity, social interaction, permanency, and joy.”

Abramowitz notes that attorneys at the GAL Program, who are experts in dependency law, have caseloads as high as 200. That’s why well-trained attorneys ad litem, who can advocate for long-term guardianships and deal with administrative law hearings, are so essential.

For the FY 2014-15, Abramowitz is asking for a modification of the proviso language to allow excess funds to be “used to reimburse attorneys in other matters which have been court-ordered or for training on matters pertaining to children with disabilities.”

Abramowitz explained that this would allow the GAL Program to “maximize dollars, utilizing pro bono attorneys where available, and attorneys ad litem for children who require guardianships, are considered or are placed in residential treatment centers, or children who are victims of human trafficking.”

The attorneys ad litem on the cases are working.

“Once we put a flashlight on these hidden children, we see they are kids that can work with present services in the community and remove them from nursing facilities, which is inappropriate,” said Annino.

“In my case with the infant, there was no litigation. We were able to negotiate and everyone worked together. Sometimes, there is no litigation because the attorney ad litem is there facilitating, and keeps asking: ‘Why?’ I don’t go in saying, ‘I’m going to sue you.’ I say: ‘Why can’t this happen?’ The role of the attorney is to be an advocate, and what that means is asking the different stakeholders, ‘Why can’t this child be in the community?’ The goal is not to litigate.”

But, for a group of nearly 200 medically fragile children and almost 5,000 at risk, litigation is the vehicle aimed at systemic change. Beyond the 11 foster children currently in nursing homes, there are about another180 medically fragile children in Florida’s nursing homes, sparking two lawsuits that are still pending in the U.S. Southern District.

Annino is using his clinical law students to help in a class-action lawsuit pending in federal court in the Southern District of Florida (Case No. 12-60460-CIV; T.H. et al. v. Elizabeth Dudek, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, et al.) 

(See October 1, 2012, Bar News story, “Law students fight to bring the ‘hidden children’ home.”)

“The good nursing homes at least do a good job of taking care of the child’s body,” Annino said. “But they do a terrible job of taking care of the child’s soul. That’s the substantive matter. Nursing homes are not a good place for children. The state disagrees with that. They also disagree with the law. For me, the law is black letter law.”

Since that lawsuit was filed by Annino’s Public Interest Law Center, Miami disability rights attorney Matthew Dietz, and The Northern Florida Center for Equal Justice, Inc., the U.S. Department of Justice filed a separate lawsuit in July 2013 against the State of Florida. The DOJ alleges that “nearly 200 children with disabilities in Florida are segregated unnecessarily in nursing facilities.”

On August 13, the State of Florida filed its answer, with its first affirmative defense that Florida does not have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act: “In enacting Title II of the ADA, Congress exceeded the scope of its enforcement authority under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Title II of the ADA is therefore invalid and unenforceable.”

State health leaders have gone on the offensive to counter the lawsuits, announcing that they have taken action to improve the care of the children in nursing homes, and changed protocol to help make sure the children are living in the right places to serve their needs.

While the lawsuits are pending in federal court, Abramowitz is on a separate, passionate mission to reduce the medically fragile foster children in nursing homes, by enlisting the expertise of attorneys ad litem.

Ideally, Abramowitz said, these children need to be adopted into forever families.

“It’s the individual attention, the love, just the need for a child to have a family like everybody else,” Abramowitz said. “Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be part of a family. We want children to be part of a family. Every child is adoptable.”


Now, the infant has been moved to a loving medical foster home in Pensacola, where the baby gets held and hugged a lot more, and his parents are able to visit often and are working toward a chance at reunification.

“This is a case where everyone worked together. The amount of work the GAL did was amazing in this case,” Annino said. “Everyone was focusing on the child, and everyone realized the appropriate place for this baby was not in a nursing home.”

Though the infant is a “DCF [Department of Children and Families] child,” where there have been findings of abuse or neglect, Annino said, parental rights have not been severed. Bringing the baby back to Pensacola, he said, “will help the possibility of reunification” and, if that happens, the parents would need to receive a tremendous amount of help to care for their child.

Important right now, Annino said, is the one-on-one attention the baby receives from medical foster parents, where medically fragile children are given “lots of hugs and rubbing heads and hands. With really young children, tactile attachment is so important.”

Annino, who handles such cases pro bono, praised Abramowitz for his efforts at receiving funding from the Legislature to hire attorneys ad litem for medically fragile children and coordinating their legal representation.

Because of a $325,000 legislative appropriation, the number of medically fragile foster children in DCF’s custody has been winnowed down from 35, before the law was passed, to the current 11 living in skilled nursing homes.

Personally visiting each medically fragile foster child housed in Florida’s nursing homes, Abramowitz has witnessed tiny bodies hooked up to ventilators and felt voiceless children’s eyes track him as he moved across the room.

“These children are special. It stays with you when you see them,” Abramowitz said, noting that three Florida nursing homes have closed down or stopped taking kids, leaving the state with only four nursing homes handling medically fragile children.

“In fact, DCF doesn’t want these children there either,” Abramowitz said. “We want them in a homelike setting.”

Abramowitz wants to place the children in medical foster homes, but there aren’t enough of them. He said it takes a “special, caring person willing to commit to a child who is so fragile, and needs a lot of time. You have to be patient. These are top-tier foster parents,” he said, adding that retired nurses make great medical foster parents. “They are out there, and we need to connect with them.”

In an August 22 letter to Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon and Rep. Neil Combee, R-Auburndale, Abramowitz thanked the sponsors of the bill to appropriate $325,000 for attorneys ad litem.

“Because of your support in ensuring dependent children with disabilities who are living in skilled nursing facilities are given an attorney ad litem, these children will now have an effective advocate who will ensure that their medical needs are met, the services they need are supplied, and a more suitable placement is provided,” Abramowitz wrote.

Because many of these children are placed in nursing homes away from their “county of jurisdiction,” Abramowitz said, “the GAL Program and the new attorneys ad litem work closely together for the child.”

“When you see the faces of the children impacted by this initiative,” Abramowitz wrote to the lawmakers, “you cannot help but want to move heaven and earth to ensure that they are not only advocated for, but that they obtain permanency.”

With GALs and attorneys ad litem working together, Abramowitz said, “We believe this advocacy team can reach the common goal of the GAL Program, the DCF, and the Florida Legislature of reducing the number of disabled children living in skilled nursing facilities . . . to zero. We all want disabled children to be reunified with their families, in medical foster homes, or placements that are better suited for children — with more activity, social interaction, permanency, and joy.”

Abramowitz notes that attorneys at the GAL Program, who are experts in dependency law, have caseloads as high as 200. That’s why well-trained attorneys ad litem, who can advocate for long-term guardianships and deal with administrative law hearings, are so essential.

For the FY 2014-15, Abramowitz is asking for a modification of the proviso language to allow excess funds to be “used to reimburse attorneys in other matters which have been court-ordered or for training on matters pertaining to children with disabilities.”

Abramowitz explained that this would allow the GAL Program to “maximize dollars, utilizing pro bono attorneys where available, and attorneys ad litem for children who require guardianships, are considered or are placed in residential treatment centers, or children who are victims of human trafficking.”

The attorneys ad litem on the cases are working.

“Once we put a flashlight on these hidden children, we see they are kids that can work with present services in the community and remove them from nursing facilities, which is inappropriate,” said Annino.

“In my case with the infant, there was no litigation. We were able to negotiate and everyone worked together. Sometimes, there is no litigation because the attorney ad litem is there facilitating, and keeps asking: ‘Why?’ I don’t go in saying, ‘I’m going to sue you.’ I say: ‘Why can’t this happen?’ The role of the attorney is to be an advocate, and what that means is asking the different stakeholders, ‘Why can’t this child be in the community?’ The goal is not to litigate.”

But, for a group of nearly 200 medically fragile children and almost 5,000 at risk, litigation is the vehicle aimed at systemic change. Beyond the 11 foster children currently in nursing homes, there are about another180 medically fragile children in Florida’s nursing homes, sparking two lawsuits that are still pending in the U.S. Southern District.

Annino is using his clinical law students to help in a class-action lawsuit pending in federal court in the Southern District of Florida (Case No. 12-60460-CIV; T.H. et al. v. Elizabeth Dudek, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, et al.) 

(See October 1, 2012, Bar News story, “Law students fight to bring the ‘hidden children’ home.”)

“The good nursing homes at least do a good job of taking care of the child’s body,” Annino said. “But they do a terrible job of taking care of the child’s soul. That’s the substantive matter. Nursing homes are not a good place for children. The state disagrees with that. They also disagree with the law. For me, the law is black letter law.”

Since that lawsuit was filed by Annino’s Public Interest Law Center, Miami disability rights attorney Matthew Dietz, and The Northern Florida Center for Equal Justice, Inc., the U.S. Department of Justice filed a separate lawsuit in July 2013 against the State of Florida. The DOJ alleges that “nearly 200 children with disabilities in Florida are segregated unnecessarily in nursing facilities.”

On August 13, the State of Florida filed its answer, with its first affirmative defense that Florida does not have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act: “In enacting Title II of the ADA, Congress exceeded the scope of its enforcement authority under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Title II of the ADA is therefore invalid and unenforceable.”

State health leaders have gone on the offensive to counter the lawsuits, announcing that they have taken action to improve the care of the children in nursing homes, and changed protocol to help make sure the children are living in the right places to serve their needs.

While the lawsuits are pending in federal court, Abramowitz is on a separate, passionate mission to reduce the medically fragile foster children in nursing homes, by enlisting the expertise of attorneys ad litem.

Ideally, Abramowitz said, these children need to be adopted into forever families.

“It’s the individual attention, the love, just the need for a child to have a family like everybody else,” Abramowitz said. “Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be part of a family. We want children to be part of a family. Every child is adoptable.”

Fix DCF transformation before shaping a new model

Published in the Miami Herald, Friday Oct. 4

I congratulate Department of Children & Families Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo for engaging outside experts to review the safety model, tools and practice manual intended to improve how child-protective investigators and community-based-care agencies perform. She recognized that there were many unanswered questions and that a full analysis was needed.

That was good thinking, because that report is in, and it points to many things that need to be improved before the new system is ready to be started. In fact, one statement from that report alone requires DCF to stop the implementation of this new system when it says, “The safety model’s guidelines are incongruent with child protection practices designed for babies and toddlers, the age group at greatest risk for serious inflicted injuries and maltreatment fatalities.” In other words, the new system does not fully protect the children most at risk.

Secretary Jacobo should heed its recommendations, starting with halting the implementation of the new system until such time as all the components have been revised, tried and tested.

Every Floridian wants child-protective investigators to have the best tools, training and practices to help keep kids safe and with their families whenever possible.

The Casey Family Programs report makes it clear that more work is needed before Florida’s new model will achieve its intended purpose.

Pushing ahead with training and piecemeal implementation is a waste of time, talent and money. It’s time for DCF to stop, regroup and invest needed resources to make sure our new model does what we need it to do — protect Florida’s kids and support families.

Christina Spudeas,

executive director,

Florida’s Children First,

Coral Springs


Critics put Florida”s child welfare system under microscope

Published: Wednesday September 25, 2013
The Palm Beach Post

TALLAHASSEE — After a wave of child deaths since the end of the spring legislative session, Florida lawmakers this week started looking for ways to improve the state’s child-welfare system — and got an earful from a dependency court judge.

“Something in the system is fundamentally wrong,” Circuit Judge Larry Schack told the House Healthy Families Subcommittee on Tuesday. “I submit to you that the system in Florida does not and can’t function effectively the way it’s structured.”

The judge’s remarks came as the panel began scrutinizing how the state could have failed the 20 children who died since April, despite having come into contact with the Department of Children and Families before their deaths.

He described case managers who placed children in homes without conducting safety checks or allowed substance-abusing parents to pick the days they would be tested for drugs.

“I experienced lying and deception in court,” said Schack, who handles cases in the 19th Judicial Circuit, which includes Okeechobee, St. Lucie, Martin and Indian River counties.

Schack’s remarks also put a finger on tensions between the Department of Children and Families, which oversees child protection, and the community-based care organizations, known as CBCs, which are responsible for child-welfare services in 19 areas of the state.

“The secretary doesn’t control the case managers — the CBCs control them,” Schack said. “The secretary doesn’t control adoptions — the CBC controls them. The secretary doesn’t control the CBCs, and I think the former secretary was pretty clearly advised that he could not interfere in how the CBCs were being run.”

The former DCF secretary, David Wilkins, resigned under fire on July 18 — partly due to criticism over the children’s deaths, but partly due to a long-running struggle for supremacy with the community-based care organizations that reached Gov. Rick Scott’s office.

Wilkins was replaced by Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, who addressed Harrell’s subcommittee before Schack spoke.

The judge’s remarks flew in the face of conventional legislative wisdom, which holds that the child welfare system has been greatly improved by the privatized community-based care agencies.

“Stability at the community level is the key to a strong system of care that marches on when leadership changes,” said John Cooper, CEO of Kids Central, Inc., the community-based care organization in Ocala and a former DCF assistant secretary.

Cooper told the House committee that Florida was a leader in national outcome measures for child welfare.

Kurt Kelly, CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the community-based care organizations, said people from other states call him for advice because “Florida is doing it right.”

But Kelly also acknowledged problems, including high caseworker turnover and a high ratio of caseworkers to children. He said the ratio should be 1 to 12 but is closer to 1 to 20.

“That will be a commitment, and the Legislature can look at the resources,” he said.

The CBCs are expected to ask for a substantial increase in the $769 million they currently receive, although spokeswoman Allison North Jones said the amount hadn’t been determined yet.

Jacobo acknowledged that the caseloads for frontline staff are too high, saying DCF strives to have 12 to 15, but “it doesn’t always work.”

But she said that’s not really the issue.

“I think the issue is missing big recurring factors, families that are chronic in our system,” she said. “They’re safe for the moment but there are chronic issues that we’re not addressing that may lead to a bad result later on.”

Harrell asked Jacobo if she was seeing more referrals to the community-based care organizations for services for high-risk families.

“It depends on where you are in the state,” Jacobo replied. “There are places in the state that don’t even have the service available…. It really is incumbent upon us to push our CBC partners to fund those services so we can serve families across the state in that way.”

Harrell said she sees some CBCs working, others not. She said her committee would take on child welfare as a major challenge in the upcoming legislative session.

“I want some concrete solutions,” said Harrell. “I’ve heard the sound of money dingling out there. I’ve heard dollar signs and things — more money in the system…. I want concrete solutions, not pie in the sky.”

As DCF Considers Changes, Former Foster Youth Speak Out



The Department of Children and Families’ recent troubles took center stage at the group’s Child Protection Summit this week in Orlando. The event drew record attendance with 2,500 guardians ad litem, DCF workers, and members of the justice system, along with a group of former foster kids who offered their take on issues facing the department.

In contrast to recent meetings about the rash of children who’ve died recently under the Department of Children and Families’ watch, the Child Protection summit’s kick off seemed more like a concert with music and cheering.

And while Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo said she’s glad to see that kind of passion, she said it’s important to remember the challenges the group is facing.

“Before we talk about our promise, we need to speak several names. (LONG PAUSE) We speak their names because, through no fault of their own, they suffered and died. These are children who we collectively knew as a system of care. We start by speaking these names because they remind us of our challenge. They remind us of our commitment,” Jacobo said.

And as DCF officials worked to change direction, several former foster kids talked about their own experiences and some changes they’d like to see. They’re part of the group Florida Youth Shine, which had a hand in getting a piece of legislation nicked-named “the normalcy bill” passed last legislative session.  The measure gives foster parents more say in what their kids can or can’t do, rather than having to get an okay from the courts. Daniel Pettus, a member of the group, said he thinks the new rule change will really help kids who are growing up in the foster care system now.”

“It feels strange to ask someone if they want to hang out for the weekend or see a movie and you have to tell them ‘yeah, I’d love to do that, let me go ask the judge and see if I can get that passed by Friday. So, it really veers you away from having a lot of friendships and the normal experiences that you can have.” Pettus said.

This year, the group is pushing to make it easier for foster kids to get driver’s licenses.  Right now, it’s hard for foster kids to get licenses because they often don’t stay at one address for long and face both different insurance regulations and concerns about who’s liable if they get into an accident. But, as far as the department’s current problems? Pettus said based on his own experiences, more funding and more services for families would be a big help. He said his mom struggled with a drug addiction when he was a kid and often couldn’t find enough money to make ends meet.

“She loved us to death and she did the best she could to raise us and we all turned out great kids. We just had to go to foster homes because we were in poverty. So, we got taken from someone who loved us to live with strangers when some preventative services could have rearranged that and then we could have lived as a whole family and have had to experience any of that,” Pettus said.

Chelsea Bramblett said she had a similar experience when she was placed in foster care at the age of 15.

“My mother, she loved us to death. The one thing she, the one thing we didn’t lack in our household was love and support. My mother had everything besides the money and the services that she needed,” Bramblett said.

And Bramblett said besides providing more services, the DCF should focus more on educating parents about the services that are available to them now.

“When the court case was opened and they started coming in, she wasn’t really offered those programs and told ‘hey, these programs are available for you.’ If those programs would have been available she would have been on track to get her kids and take care of us, but we were placed into foster care and had to age out of foster care, but if she had had those services we wouldn’t have had to be separated from our family and face those problems,” Bramblett said.

Both Pettus and Bramblett said if a kid must be removed from their home, the state should put more emphasis on keeping siblings together. Bramblett,said it made a huge difference to be placed with her sister.

“I don’t think that I would have been able to make it through the foster care system if I hadn’t been placed with my sibling because as Daniel said we went through it together, we suffered together, we understood the problems that we faced and we were each other’s support system,” Bramblett said.

The group also said helping kids who come into foster care when they’re older — and therefore aren’t as likely to be adopted — prepare for the real world is an important focus. It’s something they say another piece of legislation passed last session will help with. It extends care eligibility to a foster kid’s 21st birthday.

Nursing homes phase out kids’ care

Amid lawsuits and negative publicity, facilities accused of delivering inadequate care to sickly children are shutting down their pediatric units.
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com


Even as Florida health regulators vigorously defend against two federal lawsuits accusing them of warehousing sickly and disabled children in geriatric nursing homes, the homes themselves are quietly getting out of the kids business.

The most recent nursing home to abandon the pediatric market is Orlando Health & Rehabilitation Center, which operates a 40-bed pediatric wing called “Grandma’s House.” Orlando Health & Rehab, in Orlando, notified the state Agency for Healthcare Administration last week that it will voluntarily

close the wing, said Michelle Dahnke, an AHCA spokeswoman in Tallahassee.

Earlier this year, a troubled Miami Gardens nursing home, Golden Glades Nursing & Rehabilitation, shuttered its pediatric wing after the Miami Herald reported extensively about the deaths of two children who had been admitted there.

In July, the Lakeshore Villas nursing home in Tampa announced it would shut its doors after the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cut off all federal funding. At the time, AHCA had also announced its intention not to renew the home’s license. Lakeshore Villas had been one of the state’s most troubled nursing homes, racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

The latest closure comes at a time of significant change and controversy over Florida’s methods of financing the care of severely disabled and medically complex children, whose housing and treatment can be enormously costly.

Florida health regulators will pay more than $500 each day to care for a child in a nursing home, more than double the rate for elders at the same home.

Both the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division and a Miami lawyer have sued the state, alleging health and social service administrators have so badly underfunded community-based care for sickly children that their parents have no choice but to place them in nursing homes, sometimes far from their loved ones.

Advocates also say the homes provide little education or stimulation for the children, who sometimes are raised from infancy in hospital beds with few activities.

Orlando Health & Rehab “made the business decision to cease providing pediatric nursing facility services,” Dahnke said, adding: “This decision did not result from regulatory action by AHCA.”

“Florida does not own or control nursing facilities, and must respect a facility’s business decisions concerning whom they wish to serve,” Dahnke said. “We will continue to support the children and their families at OHRC, and we will assist the families with evaluating care options and developing appropriate transition plans for each child’s unique needs.

A spokeswoman for the Orlando nursing home largely blamed the Justice Department for the unit’s closure, saying DOJ lawyers had been contacting the parents and guardians for the 31 children who live there, and making it more difficult for the home to keep the pediatric unit open.

The spokeswoman, Vicki Johnson, said the home would phase out its pediatric unit slowly in order to cause as little disruption as possible to the children’s lives. There is no firm deadline, Johnson said, and none of the children will be forced to leave the home until social workers have been able to “ensure a smooth transition.”

“Unfortunately, recent actions by the federal government, including direct outreach to families of some of our pediatric patients to encourage them to find alternative solutions, have made operating a pediatric unit in our facility an untenable option,” Johnson said.

“We are proud of the unique and progressive intergenerational program we created and the benefits it has provided to both the children and adults we’ve served for more than 13 years,” she said.

Frequently Asked Questions–Implementation of SB 1036 Extension of Foster Care

These FAQS are in draft form. The Department welcomes your comments and suggestions. Please note that the policies set forth in the FAQ have been developed with the legislatively mandated focus on “Common Sense and Compassion.” Chapter 65C-41, F.A.C. will establish by rule further guidance on each of the issues addressed herein.

Click here to read more

South Florida Radio Spotlite: Forever Family & Florida”s Children First

Florida”s Children”s First Executive Director Christina Spudeas, Florida Youth Shine Member Brandon Burke and Forever Family Founder and CEO, Gia Tutalo-Mote talk with Host Joe Johnson about recent foster care legislation extending foster care in Florida to 21, aging out, and the needs of our youth. July 2013 – airing on Magic 102.7FM, Lite 101.5 FM and 790 The Ticket.

Town Hall On Child Deaths: ”Is Anbody Here Not Outraged?”


Credit Emily Michot / Miami Herald STAFF
Department of Children and Families interim Secretary Esther Jacobo (middle, speaking) has previously said she has a demoralized workforce.


With lawmakers from Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties on hand,hundreds of people turned out Tuesday night for a town-hall meeting about an epidemic of deaths in recent months that has rocked the state”s child-welfare system.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, had called the meeting before The Miami Herald reported Sunday that the death toll had climbed to 20 — all children whose families were already known to the state Department of Children and Families.

Also attending the meeting at the Broward College South Campus was DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, who took the reins of the troubled agency July 18, following the resignation of former secretary David Wilkins. Seventeen of the children had already died, and the others perished shortly thereafter.

“One reason things aren’t changing fast enough is there”s no anger, there”s no outrage in this room,” charged Pat McCabe, a foster parent and Guardian ad Litem. “Unfortunately, the people that would be outraged and angered are dead.”

McCabe said he”d gotten involved in child-welfare issues after the disappearance of Rilya Wilson, who was 4 years old when she vanished from her foster home in 2000. He said he was representing Rilya”s ghost in demanding that the child -welfare system be held accountable.

“We”re all outraged, but we”re trying to keep calm about it,” replied Sobel, who had urged attendees to avoid finger-pointing and look for solutions. “Is anybody here not outraged? We”re outraged and we”re not going to take it.”

Other panelists included Kurt Kelly, president of Florida’s Coalition for Children, the association of community-based care organizations that deliver regional children”s services, attorney Andrea Moore and James Walker, the assistant program administrator for child-protective investigations at the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

Jacobo gave a rundown of her major actions as interim secretary, starting with a directive to review all the deaths during 2013 of children known to the department. She said the Casey Family Programs would critique the findings. She also said she was working to get the statewide child information network fully operational.

“I know from being in the field that the more eyes on a child and the more people making decisions, the better off we are and the better decisions that we make,” Jacobo said.

She also asked the child-welfare workers present — making up most of the audience — to stand. “None of these people wants a child to die,” she said. “They are looking for the answers as much as you are.”

Much of the discussion at the meeting, which was webcast across the state by The Florida Channel, focused on DCF”s elimination of certain checks and balances. Former Democratic state Sen. Nan Rich, who is now running for governor, pointed to the removal of second-party reviews of high-risk children”s cases, a move that is now on hold.

“I think this (DCF) administration has ended up with fewer eyes on children,” Rich said.

Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida”s Children First, pointed to a 72 percent reduction in quality-assurance positions since 2008. She also said records showed that some of the community-based care agencies had contracted with each other to do second-party reviews.

“The resolution of lawsuits against community-based providers for deaths and serious injuries should also be made available for public scrutiny,” Spudeas said.

But Kelly said there was “quite a lot of oversight” at the community-based care organizations he represents. “If there”s been a shining success, it’s the community-based care model,” he said.

Attorney Howard Talenfeld, also of Florida”s Children First, said the Legislature had approved cutting the 76 quality-assurance positions three years ago. “The Legislature needs to restore those positions,” he said. “DCF needs the eyes and ears to monitor what”s happening.”

Of the 20 recent children”s deaths, Talenfeld said, many fell through the cracks due to poor communication by child welfare workers.

DCF gets a grilling from judges over 4-year-old”s care

Article - DCF gets a grilling from judges over 4-year-old''''''''s care 8-21-13_Page_1

By: Carol Marbin Miller, Miami Herald
Published: Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Miami-Dade County”s entire child welfare bench presided over a virtually unprecedented hearing Tuesday in which the five judges grilled lawyers and an investigator with the Department of Children & Families over “systemic” failures that have left children dead or gravely injured.

Click here to read more!

At DCF, an untold epidemic of abuse, neglect and death

Article - At DCF and Untold Epidemic of Abuse Neglect and Death 8-18-13_Page_1By: Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, Miami Herald
Published: Sunday, August 18, 2013

On the day before she died, Jewel Re”nee Howard sat on the porch, in her grandmother”s lap, having her hair twisted into ponytails made pretty with pink and purple beads. She played outside the home with neighborhood children, ate noodles, talked and giggled, as she had so many days before, about her dream of becoming a princess.

Less than 15 hours later, Jewel was dead–her liver torn and mangled, ribs crushed, her tiny body bruised and bleeding internally.

Click here to read more

Girl, 2, pays with her life for DCF”s inaction

Article - Girl 2 Pays With Her Life For DCF''''''''s Inaction - Miami Herald 8-19-13_Page_1By: Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, Miami Herald
Published: Sunday August 18, 2013


Aliyah Marie Branum spent much of her two years alive either homeless, living in a tent or a shed–and being cursed at, neglected and beaten.

Aliyah was born with several disabilities, and her her right eye was deformed and turning inward toward her brain–a condition her mother knew was serious but failed to treat. Her caregivers often didn”t bother to change her diapers, resulting in rashes and bleeding.

Click here to read more

Pinellas case worker fired of foster child”s death


Article - Sheriff''''''''''''''''s CPI Family Support Worker misrepresents facts-child dies 8-17-13_Page_1

In January, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri owned up to his office””s failures after a 5-year-old Clearwater girl died days after investigators pulled her out of a dysfunctional home and put her into foster care.

Elizabeth Holder and her 2-year-old sister were supposed to have received medical screening within 72 hours, but that never happened. She died unexpectedly on Jan. 19, eight days after being taken out of her home at the Gulf to Bay Mobile Home Park.

Click here to read more



Group Asks DCF to Revamp ”Transformation” of Child Safety

by: Margie Menzel

News Service of Florida

Published: August 9, 2013

As the state”s child welfare system rolls out what it callss a “transformation” to a new way of keep children safe, an advocacy group says the changes could leave some kids dangerously defenseless.

The group, Florida”s Children First, asked for a hearing held Thursday on a proposed rule that would change how the state Department of Children and Families conducts its child-protective investigations.

Click here to read more!

CBS4 Shines Spotlight On Super Kids–Brandon Burke from Florida Youth Shine

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – A young man who had a tough life growing up learned to not let his past control his future. Today, he works to help other kids, just like him, have a better tomorrow.

Brandon Burke has a 10-thousand watt smile and is filled with love and hope.

“I’m a lover, not a fighter,” said Burke.

However, he said that as a little boy his heart was broken a couple of times.

At three-years old, Burke ended up in the custody of the Florida Department of Children and Families which expressed concern for his welfare. In an 18 month period, he was placed into three foster homes and a group home.

“One minute you are sitting at the table with your family having dinner the next minute you are with complete strangers,” shared Burke.

Click here to see the video and more!

How the child safety net failed Ezra Raphael

When state child welfare administrators first spoke with Cierrah Raphael in early 2013, they reported she was a 21-year-old prostitute and drug user who had abandoned her baby son with a virtual stranger. She had lost custody of an older child by failing to complete anger management and drug treatment programs intended to make her a better parent.

Department of Children & Families investigator Beth Mack closed her investigation of the Miami-Dade woman on Feb. 21, allowing Elizabeth Wims of Gainesville to continue raising little Ezra Raphael. But Mack left an asterisk in the file: If Cierrah Raphael made any attempt to retrieve her son, Wims was advised to call DCF again.

Wims says she did exactly that, “begging” Mack to protect the boy from his wayward mom. A preschool teacher says she made a similar plea.

Mack insists she got no such calls.

What’s certain is this: Raphael retrieved her son in April, and he was dead two months later. His mother’s boyfriend, Claude Alexis, whipped Ezra to death with a belt, he told North Miami Beach police, because the boy spilled water on a bathroom floor. He was 2 years old.

His mother, Raphael, had been out prostituting that night.

Alexis now faces charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, and is awaiting trial in jail. Raphael was jailed on child neglect charges.

“They killed my baby,” Wims, who lives in Gainesville, told The Miami Herald. “I’m very upset with them,” she said of DCF. “Very upset.”

Ezra is one of at least seven children to die while on DCF’s radar during a bloody Florida summer.

DCF’s interim secretary, who was the agency’s top administrator in Miami when many of the events involving Ezra unfolded, said Thursday that the boy’s death will be included in a comprehensive review of recent child deaths her agency is conducting.

Esther Jacobo said investigator Mack denies having any contact with Wims after she closed her February investigation.

If it turns out she is lying, she could be the latest at DCF to lose a job because of a child death.

“It is because of tragedies, like the heartbreaking and potentially preventable loss of Ezra, that I have ordered a thorough review of all child fatalities due to abuse and neglect in 2013 with prior involvement by the department,” Jacobo said. “We owe it to these children to look at our processes, take corrective actions and improve the way we do our work. No option is off the table as we look for ways to better protect Florida’s vulnerable children.”

To help complete the review, Jacobo said she has partnered with Seattle-based Casey Family Programs, which provides technical assistance to state child welfare efforts. The Casey consultants will help DCF collect and analyze data, identify trends and “offer insights which we can use to improve our processes.”

“My goal,” Jacobo said, “is to do everything we can to engage our partners in our efforts to keep children safe, and this is a big step toward that goal.”

Cierrah Raphael had vast experience with the state’s foster care system. She was partly raised in it.

In 2010, Raphael was transformed from a so-called “child victim” of parental abuse or neglect to a suspected “perpetrator.”

Her young child was taken into state custody, and Raphael was ordered to complete a series of tasks, including drug treatment and anger management classes. But an internal DCF email obtained by the Herald shows Raphael was “non-compliant” with a court-ordered case plan, and the state ceased contact with her on Oct. 12, 2010, placing her older child in the permanent custody of the child’s father. Raphael was ordered to have “no contact” with the youngster.

In February of this year, Raphael’s name appeared once again on the state’s abuse hotline. Wims said she had called DCF herself, complaining that Raphael had all but given her baby Ezra to raise, but was collecting child support and food stamps herself, and refusing to provide Wims with the kind of power-of-attorney she needed to obtain routine medical care for the boy. Wims had to take Ezra to the emergency room for colds and checkups because she couldn’t get the boy access to Medicaid, the state’s insurance program for the needy.

Wims, 49, a March DCF email said, had been “taking care of the baby since June,” but when she asked Raphael to transfer child support payments, “the mom [threatened] to come and get the baby.”

A Feb. 18 email from Mack suggests the agency was strongly considering filing a motion to shelter Ezra — a preliminary step toward initiating a case before a child welfare judge. Records suggest the agency was likely to leave him with Wims — whom investigators believed to be a capable caregiver — but wanted to ensure that Wims had the money and resources she needed to care for him. DCF also wanted to ensure Raphael did not change her mind about raising him herself.

But when Mack closed her investigation on Feb. 21, she concluded there was no reason to intervene on behalf of the child, other than to provide free child care to Wims and resolve the dispute over child support. Though Ezra was at “high” risk of abuse or neglect due to his mother’s lack of fitness, Mack wrote, the risk was “mitigated due to the mother being in Miami” while Ezra was living in Gainesville with Wims.



Mack wrote she had “staffed” the case with DCF lawyers, and a “decision [was] made to not take legal action.” Mack left the door open for intervention later, though, by saying she had instructed Wims to call the department if Raphael sought to regain custody of her son.

Wims insists she made the call in April when both Raphael and Raphael’s former foster mom, a Miami Gardens woman with whom Wims is friendly, called her to demand Ezra’s return. “I called there to Ms. Beth’s office to let her know,” Wims told the Herald. “She said she had closed the case on Ezra and there was nothing else they could do.”

“I pleaded with Ms. Beth to please reopen the case,” Wims said. “But she said sorry, but there’s nothing that they can do.”

Ezra’s teacher at the Small World preschool in Gainesville said she spoke with Mack as well.

“I asked her nicely — I practically begged her,” said 45-year-old Brenda Odom, who lives in nearby Lake Butler. “I said Ezra was in better hands with Ms. Wims than with his mom. I said if [Raphael] is not capable, why chance it with him?”

“She said once the case is closed, there’s nothing she can do,” Odom told the Herald. “If I could have met her, I would have been on my knees begging her.”

By Diana Gonzalez, NBC 6
Published: Wednesday, Jul 31, 2013  


Unprecedented and alarming. That”s how child advocates describe the recent cluster of deaths allegedly due to abuse and neglect.

Three-year-old Dakota Stiles of Vero Beach drowned in a dirty pool July 25 just two weeks after the Department of Children and Families had been called to his home. He is now part of a dozen child deaths under review.

“In the 25 years of working with the department, we have never seen such a series of deaths and that is the ultimate indicator of failure of a child protective system here in the state of Florida,”” said Howard Talenfeld, president of Florida”s Children First.

He was meeting Tuesday in Broward County with Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo. She has been on the job for two weeks and is examining what went wrong in the deaths of five children in South Florida and others across the state. She is focusing on child protective investigators.

“It disturbs me that there are things they are not completing that they should complete. You know I feel like we”re not, in these cases we”re not gathering all the information that we should be gathering to make the right decisions,” said Jacobo.

In Broward and a few other counties child protective investigators actually work for the sheriff”s office.

Jacobo is looking into whether that”s a better system.

“I will tell you that I’m not sure the data is there that says there are any less child deaths with law enforcement than there are within DCF. So before we commit to any of that we would have to look into that,” said Jacobo.

Of the five local deaths this year, two of them were in Broward – Dontrell Melvin and Antwon Hope.

In the case of Jayden Villegas Morales of Homestead, two agencies failed to protect the child – DCF and the Children”s Home Society, which managed the case when the boy was placed with his father. Jayden died a month later.

“We”ve learned since, after we’ve debriefed on the case, that they had concerns about that placement. But I”m not aware of any raised concerns” to date in the court, Jacobo said.

There had been three court hearings in that month. Jacobo said that it was never suggested in those hearings that Jayden and his siblings should not be with their father, who is now charged with second-degree murder.

Jacobo said she is working to move DCF in the right direction and is concerned about the number of deaths.

“In my experience here this is the first time I”ve seen it and it’s alarming. Alarming,” she said.

Despite DCF contact, two more kids die

Published: Monday, July 29 2013

Summer Stiles had no idea her toddler son had been missing for much of an hour.

When Indian River Sheriff’s deputies returned 3-year-old Dakota Stiles to his mother July 12 — he had wandered into a neighbor’s backyard — she acknowledged she had lost track of her children that day. “I guess I’m missing one,” the 34-year-old said.

More shocking, though, to state child welfare investigators was the condition of the Stiles home: One toilet was clogged with feces, and the only working bathroom was in a garage that was filled with garbage, mold and stacks of wet clothing. Dakota’s room was “a pigsty,” piled with garbage, old food and other “filth.”

But it was the pool that concerned the investigator the most: It was described as “exceptionally unsafe… green from disrepair, filthy, filled with unsanitary water and bugs and unknown contaminants.” The report noted Dakota could get to the pool “by merely turning a knob.”

“These conditions, and the parents’ flat reaction to the child victim getting out of the home,” an investigator wrote, “pose a significant risk of harm” to Dakota.

Nevertheless, the Department of Children & Families did nothing to protect Dakota as it continued to investigate his parents. “At this time,” a report said, “there does not appear to be an immediate negative impact on the victim’s safety.”

On Thursday — two weeks after he’d been found in his neighbor’s yard — Dakota drowned in the slimy green pool the department had found so dangerous.

He became the seventh child to die in Florida of abuse or neglect after DCF had concluded they were safe. He’s also the second to die on the watch of DCF’s interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, who inherited a department in chaos after then-DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned two weeks ago.

“Late last week, I learned of the tragic death of Dakota Stiles,” Jacobo told The Miami Herald on Monday. “I am deeply saddened and outraged. We have only begun to review DCF’s prior involvement with this family, but we will now turn our full attention to determining what could have been done to prevent this tragedy. No one will bring a more critical approach to this review than me, because we must fully understand what happened and move quickly to take any corrective action that is needed to keep children safe.”

Among the seven deaths is Cherish Perrywinkle, an 8-year-old Jacksonville girl who police say was raped and strangled by a registered sex offender her mother had befriended. Cherish’s abduction and murder traumatized her native Jacksonville, and the sex offender, Donald James Smith, was indicted on June 21 on three counts of first degree murder, sexual battery and kidnapping. He is facing the death penalty.

Internal DCF records for both Dakota and Cherish were provided Monday to The Herald in response to a public records request.


Dakota first came to DCF’s attention at birth, in October 2009, records say. His mother said she was taking the narcotic Roxycodone for chronic back pain, and the newborn Dakota was born with opiates in his system. Summer Stiles produced a prescription for the pills, and one of her older children, then around 11, told an investigator that although her mother took pills, she “denied it affected her ability to care for” the children.

Two years later, Dakota’s father, Todd Stiles, was accused of chasing his 13-year-old daughter “down the street,” tackling her, and pulling her by the hair back home for refusing to clean her room. In May 2012, Dakota’s brother arrived at school complaining of pain in his head, and said his father had thrown a blanket over him, causing him to fall on his head. DCF determined the children were safe following all three investigations, and took no action.

But by the time a DCF investigator returned to the family in mid-July, it had become clear that Summer and Todd Stiles had profound difficulty raising their children.

The children, a report said, “do not listen” to Summer and Todd Stiles, and could not be coaxed to comply with the “simplest of things,” such as cleaning their rooms.

“The parents appear to be paralyzed in parenting the children,” the report said. A significant challenge was “both parents’ ability to comprehend the severity of the situation, with [the] youngest child escaping from the family home and the parents’ total failure to take several security measures at their disposal.”

Still, the investigator persuaded the couple to sign a “safety plan” pledging to clean the house and better supervise their children. While the investigation remained open, Dakota left the home — again — and drowned July 25.


Cherish was found dead shortly after 9 a.m. on June 22. Her body had been dumped near a church.

Finding a suitable parent for Cherish and her siblings had remained a serious problem for years.

By 2009, when Cherish’s name appeared in abuse hotline reports twice, the girl’s mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, had been diagnosed with severe psychiatric problems, and had tried to commit suicide. She once told the department she had stopped taking medication for her bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and depression “due to not wanting to be addicted.” She threw a plate at her young stepson.

Cherish’s birth father, a sailor with a long history of domestic violence, had been court-martialed for sexually abusing a child.

Perrywinkle and the two boyfriends with whom she shared three children had amassed a lengthy record of investigations that went largely nowhere with DCF, including allegations of physical abuse, domestic violence and claims that Perrywinkle’s history of mental illness made her an unfit mother.

There were two investigations in 2006, when Cherish was 4 and was living with her mom at a homeless shelter, one involving allegations Perrywinkle had “forcefully” shaken and jerked the little girl because she was crying. There was a 2009 investigation involving allegations that Rayne Perrywinkle tried to kill herself by drinking Benadryl and had been involuntarily committed, and another report that year that Cherish’s father had left a “hand print” on the child’s back from beating her.

A May 2009 investigation included the claim that Perrywinkle had thrown a plate at a small child — which she admitted was true, but defended as acceptable discipline. The dinnerware “only hit him in the shoulder,” Perrywinkle told an investigator, and, besides, “it was [his] fault because he was being disrespectful to her.”

A 2012 report to the state’s hotline claimed Cherish was unsafe because her mother’s boyfriend had bruised Rayne Perrywinkle’s arm during an argument. Perrywinkle later dismissed the incident as horseplay, and DCF closed the investigation as unfounded. In DCF’s long history with Cherish’s family, the agency had made referrals for counseling, parenting classes and domestic violence intervention — but the reports kept coming.

The same day Perrywinkle excused the plate-throwing incident, May 2, 2009, she also told an investigator she watches her daughters carefully, because she was “very sensitive to the possibility of her daughters being molested.”

An older daughter, the report said, had been molested while in Perrywinkle’s care, and had moved all the way to Australia to get away from her mother.

“That daughter,” the report said, “no longer speaks to Rayne.”

New DCF head takes over at fiery time for agency


Like so many before her, Esther Jacobo’s ascension to the top of Florida’s long-troubled child welfare agency was forged in a crucible of death.

The administration of her former boss, David Wilkins, the recently departed chief of the Department of Children & Families, was bookended by the deaths of children: He faced the horrific death of a 10-year-old Miami girl, Nubia Barahona, his second month on the job. His tenure ended abruptly last week amid a simmering scandal over the deaths of four other Florida children that DCF had failed to protect.

Three days after Jacobo, who heads DCF’s Miami region, was named interim secretary, another Miami youngster died from injuries inflicted earlier in the week by his mother’s boyfriend.

It is one of the oldest narratives in child welfare: Tiny bodies bearing tiny toe tags do not bode well for an agency head’s continued employment.

Jacobo — mother, former social worker and prosecutor — is hoping to break free of that storyline.

“What I really want to do is refocus everybody toward the safety and well being of kids,” Jacobo, 48, told a reporter a few days after accepting the top job. “I’ve always prided myself on keeping my eyes on the ball.”

On Friday, as the statewide clamor over the deaths mounted, Jacobo instructed one of her top deputies, Pete Digre, a veteran child welfare administrator, to “conduct a thorough review of all child fatalities due to abuse and neglect in 2013 where there was prior involvement by the department.”

Jacobo called the initiative the department’s “Number One Priority,” and asked Digre to “deploy whatever resources are necessary to accomplish this as expeditiously as possible.”

“I am deeply disturbed by the recent child deaths that have occurred around the state due to abuse or neglect,” Jacobo wrote in a memo. “These tragic events demand a detailed examination and analysis so we can fully understand what happened and identify actions we can take to prevent future tragedies from taking place.”

In speaking so openly about the tragedies, Jacobo has broken with the record of her former boss.

With a week behind her as interim secretary, Jacobo wrote emails and gave speeches generously praising her predecessor, who many in the state viewed as stubborn and aloof.

“No one was more saddened and surprised by the resignation of Secretary David Wilkins than I was,” she wrote in an email to her staff last week. “I fully supported him as secretary and respected his leadership, and I continue to be proud of what we accomplished during his time at DCF.”

Behind the scenes, however, Jacobo is making clear that there’s a new sheriff in town.

When 2-year-old Jayden Villegas-Morales died last week from injuries police say he received when his father threw him into a wall, Jacobo released nearly 100 pages of records documenting DCF’s history with the boy. And when a Miami child welfare judge suggested the state consider stripping DCF of authority over child-abuse investigations, and shifting the responsibility to local police, Jacobo sent her an email with the subject line: “Can we talk?”

“I am very interested in your thoughts about outsourcing investigations,” Jacobo wrote Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman. “I very much respect your expertise in this area. I really would appreciate your thoughts as soon as possible. I have a lot to do in a very short time.”

Though Jacobo is expected to remain at DCF’s helm for only 90 days — sources say she told Gov. Rick Scott she did not want the job permanently — she appears to have big plans for that time.

She is scheduled to travel to each region of the state to speak with employees, clients and contractors. She has said she will consider tweaks to what was perhaps Wilkins’ defining initiative, a so-called “transformation” of the child-protection system that includes revisions to virtually every facet. Wilkins viewed it as his legacy. His critics called it misguided and potentially dangerous. Jacobo already has changed the tone of DCF’s conversation with the 19 privately run groups that administer foster care in the state. And she’s elevated DCF’s transparency to levels not seen since the administration of former Gov. Charlie Crist.

“She will build bridges, and shore up those relationships,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, a former boss. “You are going to find her to be more of a peacemaker. It will be less about someone who comes along and breaks all the china.”

Jacobo never planned to run a social services agency. She was a lawyer all the way.

The daughter of Cuban migrants — her father was a businessman who left the island before Fidel Castro seized power; her mother was a schoolteacher who fled afterward — Jacobo moved from New Jersey to Miami when she was four.

She earned her law degree from St. Thomas University in 1992, and took a job as a prosecutor for then-State Attorney Janet Reno, for whom she was already working as a counselor for crime victims and witnesses. Like most newbie prosecutors, Jacobo started out in county court. But she moved steadily up the ladder, from juvenile court to the felony division to a specialty in domestic crime. In January 2001, Fernandez Rundle named Jacobo chief of the domestic violence unit. Jacobo beefed up prosecutions for both misdemeanor and felony domestic battery arrests; she tried the homicide cases herself.

The experience as a family violence prosecutor “really prepared me for some of the things I saw here” at DCF, Jacobo said. Not just working with partners and collaborators such as the police, she said, but learning more about what makes men and women strike out at the people closest to them: spouses and children.

Jacobo left the State Attorney’s office in April 2007 to join the Elser & Foster-Morales law firm, where she remained for only a year. The following February, one of Jacobo’s mentors in the state attorney’s office, Mary Cagle, called. Cagle had been tapped by former Attorney General Bob Butterworth to run DCF’s child welfare legal department when Crist appointed Butterworth DCF secretary. The legal department had been an embarrassment: The Florida Bar had, three years earlier, released an evaluation of the bureau, calling it “accidents and disasters waiting to happen.” The Bar suggested the legal department be disbanded altogether in favor of local prosecutors’ offices.

“I said, Esther, you have to meet me today,” Cagle recalls. The two women sat at a park halfway between their offices. “I said ‘This is our chance to get into an agency and do something to transform how stuff is done. We can raise the bar for lawyers, and do something to help kids…. Esther, you can change the world.”

Jacobo jumped at the offer.

She started as deputy statewide director of Children’s Legal Services. But when Nubia Barahona’s death in February 2011 took DCF Miami administrator Jacqui Colyer’s job as collateral damage, Jacobo slid into the assignment, where she has remained.

DCF’s Miami post has always been the most hellish position in a hellish agency which — like DCF as a whole — seems to cast off administrators with alarming regularity, usually on the heels of a catastrophic and well publicized child death.

“It was one of the toughest, and yet most fulfilling, positions I’ve ever held,” said Samara Kramer, who had worked on and off for DCF for a decade before being asked to run the Miami district in 2003, in the wake of the scandalous disappearance of foster child Rilya Wilson.

Before being appointed to run the district on an interim basis, Kramer had been a deputy secretary and inspector general.

“To be an effective district administrator in Miami,” Kramer added, “it helps to have a big heart, and verytough skin.”

A good record doesn’t hurt.

In Jacobo’s two years as Miami chief, she spearheaded an effort statewide to treat teenaged prostitutes less as criminals and more as victims of sexual assault, an initiative that led to a new state law that largely decriminalizes the actions of human-trafficking victims. She headed up another initiative to improve programs for parents engaged in domestic violence, in order to better protect their children. Long-time child welfare critics say she emphasized smoothing over relationships with a variety of other agencies and stakeholders, lowering the decibel of the agency’s loudest controversies. She is credited with improving the abilities of the agency lawyers who go to court, day in and day out, on behalf of abused and neglected children.

Statistically, Jacobo’s region has performed better than most: She reduced turnover in her region from 50 percent in budget year 2011 to 14.8 percent this year. Likewise, investigative caseloads dropped on average from 25 per-investigator to 12. The region’s food stamp, Medicaid and temporary aid programs are being processed quickly 99 percent of the time; the adult protective services program leads the state with timely investigations — as does the region’s child care licensing reviews; the region’s mental health and substance abuse program was ranked second in the state in overall performance.

Child advocates and regular DCF critics have generally viewed Jacobo’s time as boss in Miami as one of relative calm.

Though Wilkins largely disliked the leadership of Miami’s Our Kids foster-care agency, Jacobo had worked closely with the group’s director, Fran Allegra.

“She came in at a tough time,” Allegra said. “She made it her priority to keep the lines of communication open, and to have good relationships with me, with Our Kids and with our board. While we don ‘t always agree, we have a very positive relationship – and that helps a lot.”

But the cluster of children’s deaths that consumed the agency beginning in May took a particularly heavy toll in Miami. Three of the five deaths — and one case in which another child nearly died of a severed liver — occurred in the Miami region. Indeed, some advocates have questioned the choice of Jacobo as interim secretary, claiming she is as responsible for the missteps as her former boss.

Jacobo’s ascension to the top job at DCF was so unexpected that she has yet to update her resume.

“Literally,” she said, “I got a call from the governor’s office saying the secretary had resigned. Would I step in as the interim for 90 days?”

DCF watchers suggest it would be unwise to expect a significant break from the Wilkins administration, given Jacobo’s shortened tenure, and the overall challenge of steering an aircraft carrier in troubled waters.

Few doubt that Jacobo will leave some kind of imprint.

Friends and colleagues suggest the biggest change in a Jacobo administration will be one of tone. While Wilkins was struggling to stanch the flow of child deaths, he also had opened a second front when he insisted on gaining significant new powers over the 19 private foster-care agencies under contract with DCF — which the local groups fought bitterly. In the end, losing the support of the so called community-based care lead agencies — and their influential boards of directors — may have cost Wilkins as dearly as the well-publicized deaths.

Jacobo, instead, extended an olive branch to the groups almost immediately. She said one of her first moves would be to “tone down the rhetoric.”

“I’m pretty honest with folks,” Jacobo said. “I tell them what I think. But I also treat with respect everyone’s opinions, and view them as valuable.”




Interim DCF Chief Calls On Staff To Refocus; Child Advocates Say It”s A Start

By Sascha Cordner, WSFU
Published: Thursday, July 25, 2013

The new interim head of Florida’s child welfare agency is calling on her staff to refocus in the wake of the recent spate of child deaths associated with the agency. But, some child welfare advocates say there’s more work to do.

In recent weeks, there have been a handful of child deaths linked to the Florida Department of Children and Families and its investigators —the latest is a two-year-old who died over the weekend. The scandal has already caused former Secretary David Wilkins to step down and Esther Jacobo is now the new interim head. And, in a webcast Tuesday, Jacobo told a group of DCF staff it’s time the agency learned from these tragedies.

“So, I encourage you to refocus and look at all the things that we are doing. Every case must be the same importance as every other case on your caseloads. So, you must read every case as if it could be the next tragedy. And, this is not in order to—as they say in the vernacular—CYA. This is because it’s the right thing to do because each child and each family are counting on us to do that,” said Jacobo.

“Well, I think it’s a good place to start. I think there are some critical issues facing the agency at this point,” said Howard Talenfeld, the President of advocacy group Florida”s Children First.

Talenfeld says Jacobo needs to move the department back to being more transparent. And, he says it should start working with more community partners like it did before former Secretary Wilkins took the reins.

“And, if Secretary Jacobo can put this agency back on that track, that would be the first large step toward improving the system and the outcomes and safety for the foster care system,” added Talenfeld.

Talenfeld says he also applauds the efforts of Democratic Senator Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood, who he says will bring even more transparency to the child welfare agency. As the head of the Florida Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, Sobel is expected to hold a hearing on the child deaths in September.

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


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