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Thursday, Dec 18, 2014
Editorials

Editorial: Hillsborough a model for fixing child welfare system

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The Miami Herald has provided a public service by culling through six years of child abuse reports to produce a series of articles that put faces and names to 477 children who died of abuse or neglect after the state had been warned they were in danger.

The articles give urgency to efforts in Tallahassee to fix a child welfare system that hasn’t always been a funding priority. The state’s Department of Children and Families, and the private agencies hired to manage cases in the various districts across the state, are saddled with too many cases and not enough options for diverting addicted and neglectful parents into treatment. As the Herald painfully exposed, the state left vulnerable children in the care of abusive parents and caregivers, precipitating the deaths. The DCF often relied on empty promises from the parents that they would change their behavior.

Bringing the deaths to light during the legislative session all but assures passage of measures that are meant to improve the outcomes when the state is alerted to a child in danger. Gov. Rick Scott has requested an additional $40 million for DCF next year, much of it to hire more child protection investigators. But it takes more than that. Lawmakers should also adopt proposals to enhance the training for investigators and expand services for at-risk families.

Inspiration can be found in Hillsborough County, which is no stranger to the tragedy of children dying after the agency responsible for protecting them had been warned they were at risk. Just a couple years ago, nine children died in Hillsborough over a two-year period despite red flags and tips to the agency under contract to protect those children.

The aggressive response in Hillsborough worked, and it offers a template for the state. The child welfare agency under contract when the nine Hillsborough children died was replaced by the nonprofit Eckerd Community Alternatives, a proven family services organization already operating in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Eckerd developed a system to identify the children most at risk. It boosted the number of foster homes, and it moved more children into adoptive homes. It introduced a second layer of case review and improved communication within the system. In other words, children in the care of chronic drug abusers or mothers with abusive boyfriends are now being flagged for immediate attention.

As fundamental as that may sound, the results of the Herald’s investigation show it wasn’t happening across the state. The series placed some of the blame on an institutional shift toward erring on the side of keeping the family unit intact, rather than placing at-risk children in foster care and sending the parents into treatment. That culture might change now that the deaths of 477 children are getting the attention they deserve.

The state has over $1 billion in new revenue this year because of the improving economy. It should spend some of that money to lower the caseloads for abuse investigators and provide substance abuse programs and mental health counseling for parents. And it should make sure agencies across the state are using systems similar to those Eckerd uses to flag children in immediate danger.

The tragic consequences of the state’s inaction are on gruesome display in the Herald’s examination of the abuse cases. Lawmakers should consider it a call to action.

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