TALLAHASSEE -- As the three CEOs of Florida’s privatized child welfare agencies faced lawmakers last week, the stakes were high. The House Healthy Families Committee was looking into a recent wave of children’s deaths – children already known to the Florida Department of Children and Families.
There had been 20 such deaths since April, and House Speaker Will Weatherford had asked the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, to lead the House response. At the panel’s last meeting, two weeks before, Judge Larry Schack of the 19th Judicial Circuit had charged that case workers routinely lied to him about the children in their care.
“Something in the system is fundamentally wrong,” Schack had said.
So, on Oct. 8, Harrell gave the three CEOs the chance to make their case for Florida’s 19 community-based care organizations, which provide adoption, foster care and case management services in their regions.
Shawn Salamida, CEO of the Partnership for Strong Families in North Central Florida, said he’d joined the privatized child welfare system in 2001, when it began.
“There were kids sleeping in conference rooms,” he said. “I remember case workers that had over 100 kids on their caseloads. I remember the court docket was so backed up, there were parents who had completed everything on their case plan, but the kids still sat in foster care because we couldn’t get time in front of the judge to get that order to return the child home.
“Those days are behind us, and I don’t believe we’ll go back as long as we continue the path we’re on,” Salamida concluded.
One CEO had dropped off the committee agenda – Emilio Benitez of ChildNet, in Broward County. On Sept. 27, the Miami Herald had reported that Tamiyah Audain, a severely disabled girl in ChildNet’s care, had died on the agency’s watch three days before.
“The severely disabled and sickly 12-year-old had lost more than half her weight, and her lower body was pocked with bed sores and wounds — one so deep her bone was exposed,” the report said.
“This child fell through the cracks,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of the watchdog group Florida’s Children First. “This case should absolutely be scrutinized, publicly.”
On Sept. 30, DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo ordered an inter-agency review of Audain’s death. ChildNet shared responsibility for the girl with the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities, Children’s Medical Services, the Child Protection Team and Guardian ad Litem.
“This is not a finger-pointing exercise,” Jacobo wrote, adding that she would share the results with the House Healthy Families Committee on Nov. 5.
“I think that having a nurse case manager or someone with specialized training would have been able to detect the weight loss of the child,” the secretary said Friday. “So this is about observing what’s happening to a child right before their eyes…I think in this case, we can really do better if we focus on medically-complex children and how to deal with them.”
She also said ChildNet had cooperated promptly with DCF when Audain died.
“I had my folks working through the weekend so that we could get those records out that Monday, after we’d determined that it was, in fact, abuse,” she said.
The girl’s death comes as lawmakers prepare for the 2014 legislative session and the community-based care agencies prepare to ask for an increase in the $769 million they get from the state.
Salamida, Mark Jones of the Community Partnership for Children, which serves Volusia and Flagler counties, and Lorita Shirley of Eckerd, which serves Hillsborough, told Harrell’s committee they’d like to see more funding for caseworkers.
Caseworkers typically start at a salary of $32,000 to $34,000 annually and, when surveyed two years ago, had a 33 percent turnover rate.
Jones, the only one of the three CEOs who doesn’t contract out his case management services, said the turnover rate for caseworkers at his agency was 4.7 percent.
“We do our own in-house case management,” he said. “I think that’s part of the reason we’re so successful with our turnover.”
The Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the community-based care organizations, declined to comment on its legislative agenda Friday.
Both Harrell and state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, said they wanted much more information before crafting any legislation.
People are looking for putting more money in,” Harrell said. “Sometimes more money isn’t the answer. It may be part of the answer, but it isn’t the whole answer.”
ChildNet’s Benitez said in an email Friday that he hadn’t appeared at the Oct. 8 meeting of the House Healthy Families Committee to save money, because there would already be other community based care officials there.
The Senate panel will also take up the child welfare system at its November meeting.