FORT LAUDERDALE — The state's child abuse hotline got a worried call in May 2008, alleging that a baby's father had passed out while snorting cocaine and that the boy was chewing on a cable wire.
Jarkevis Allen's father admitted smoking marijuana, but denied other drug abuse and refused tests. The father rejected an offer for drug treatment, and the case was closed within the required 60 days. Five months later, 1-year-old Jarkevis was dead. The medical examiner said he had severe liver lacerations indicative of abuse and ruled the death a homicide. His father is awaiting trial on second-degree murder and aggravated child abuse charges.
Child advocates say the Department of Children and Families is spending $208 million a year to keep troubled families like the Allens together by offering them prevention services, but isn't tracking whether the program works. They also say the state's representatives sometimes don't check back with the family until it's too late.
The program is supposed to help families where the problems don't rise to the level of putting the children in foster care, like severe physical abuse or neglect, but their long-term welfare could be at stake. The DCF accepted a federal waiver in 2007 allowing unprecedented flexibility in funding abuse-prevention services, which include parenting classes, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and even emergency cash assistance.
But the agency isn't routinely following up in cases where it could legally remove a child, choosing instead to work with the family. There's also little tracking of high-risk cases where the agency can't legally remove a child. Critics say the lack of followup makes it difficult to determine if the assistance is helping and the situation hasn't gotten worse, unless another report of abuse or neglect is made. Uncooperative parents aren't flagged, so investigators of future problems don't have that information.
Some DCF contractors say they're overwhelmed with families who don't follow through with crucial services, yet they have no way of getting those families back into the system unless another report of abuse or neglect is made.
Uncooperative families signal a child that's in danger and should be removed, said Gordon Johnson, president and chief executive of Neighbor to Family, which works with DCF contractors to provide services to families in Daytona Beach and around the country.
"It's not happening (statewide)," said Johnson, a former head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. "If we're providing services and they're not complying, then the kids are in danger. It seems cut and dried to me."
Services and followup vary regionally, said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center, who is on a DCF committee examining the issue. Some organizations contracted by the DCF to run the program in their region merely send a letter to families offering services, while others make home visits and offer gift cards to entice families to participate.
Andrea Moore, a Broward attorney and child advocate, says there should be a more diligent effort to link at-risk families with diversion services.
"So far there hasn't been, because not every family has services," Moore said.
There's also confusion about who is responsible for getting uncooperative families into the next tier of help — local contractors or child protective investigators.
"If (the family is) not engaging or everybody keeps coming back (into the system), then we might as well not waste our time with that service," said Cynthia Schuler, chief executive of Kids Central Inc., a DCF contractor that provides services in Central Florida. She spoke during a committee conference call.
The DCF says a committee is looking at ways to improve diversion services. A new policy doesn't allow a case to be closed until an investigator can verify a family is actively pursuing whatever services they were referred to.
Last month, abuse hotline counselors began entering a family's information and what services they may need into a statewide database, allowing the agency to formally track whether families follow through with the services and if the services reduce abuse.
"We all agree that we've got to improve access and we need to follow up," said Alan Abramowitz, the DCF's director of family safety. "I think we get better and better in tracking cases and being able to offer services."