No more Nubias: Tougher child-protection laws should be the priority
THE MIAMI HERALD | EDITORIAL
No more Nubias
OUR OPINION: Tougher child-protection laws should be the priority
BY THE MIAMI HERALD EDITORIAL
If state lawmakers really want to prevent any other child in the state from meeting Nubia Barahona’s tragic fate, then they will do everything possible to toughen child-welfare laws before attaching her name to them in her honor. So far, it’s been a mixed bag, legislatively speaking. Some proposals bring a dose of accountability and common sense to make the system better. Others, however, show that some lawmakers need to get real.
One bill in the state Senate would increase the salaries of child-protection investigators. These employees are on the front lines. They labor in high-stress environments confronting troubled families, putting in long hours and making what turn out to be life-and-death decisions. They are expected to get it right every time. When they don’t, the horror stories reveal themselves, as in the case of Nubia, 10, allegedly tortured to death by her adoptive parents, and her twin brother, Victor, barely rescued from a similar horrific fate.
Senate Bill 2044 includes a salary increase for child-protection investigators. Their current starting salary is only $34,000, low enough to qualify a worker, depending on his or her personal circumstances, for food stamps. The bill would raise it to $38,000, a move backed by David Wilkins, secretary of the Department of Children & Families. Good.
Despite the budgetary needs in so many other areas, this proposed increase is not simply throwing money at a problem. According to state Sen. Nan Rich, the pay hike will help (1) stem turnover among investigators, which stands at 37 percent. That’s a lot of experience heading for the door. And (2) attract better qualified workers.
The last thing Florida’s abused and neglected children need are poorly qualified investigators brought on board and making more money. Missing from the bill are specifics regarding credentials and training that would go a long way toward raising the standards of who can — and can’t — be entrusted with this sensitive job. It’s not too late to add tougher criteria. Perhaps the work group established by Mr. Wilkins to make recommendations can weigh in here.
On another front, community-based child-services agencies, charged with responding to the unique needs of their communities around the state are under attack in a misguided attempt to consolidate monitoring and services in Tallahassee. We’ve been down this road before — remember another tragedy: the disappearance, and likely death of Rilya Wilson? — that provoked lawmakers to push responsibility down to the local level, where committed and involved people who knew their community best could serve.
Agencies in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties are doing a superb job of carrying out their mandate. However, there are attempts to eliminate the special taxing districts that keep these agencies funded. In addition, there was an attempt to get rid of the community alliances that provide oversight to the community-based-care agencies, helping them work smarter, more efficiently. It’s another layer of needed accountability and, fortunately, the alliances have been restored.
Some errant legislators are waking up to the grim facts. Many failed to connect the dots that show smaller caseloads help improve child protection. But they got back on board after trying to wriggle out of the standards set by the Child Welfare League of America. The League recommends that investigators be given no more that 12 new cases each month. This provision has been restored. It should stay that way.