Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Legislator wants state's child welfare system fixed

DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo is working to change the way abuse cases are handled.

DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo is working to change the way abuse cases are handled.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's child welfare system needs an overhaul and repairing the cracks that allowed more than 20 children to die this summer will be the focus of legislation next spring, the head of an oversight committee of the Florida House of Representatives said Tuesday.

"I'm looking for concrete ideas, solutions," Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, told the House Healthy Families Subcommittee at the conclusion of what will be the first of several hearings on the issue. "Let's take this on as a major challenge this year."

Since mid April, at least 20 children known to the Department of Children & Families have died, mostly from abuse or neglect, some of them in particularly brutal ways.

After four children died over a stretch of six weeks, DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned and was replaced by Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo.

Harrell said the goal is to find ways to "change the culture" of the child welfare system as well as examine the need for additional funding and eliminate the counterproductive laws that "create bottlenecks." Harrell's counterpart in the Senate, state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, is also expected to pursue legislation during the regular session that begins in March.

Jacobo, who had been DCF's regional director in Miami-Dade County, told the House committee Tuesday that she has embarked on a sweeping change in the way the agency handles abuse cases. The goal is to shift from an incident-driven review of reported threats to children to one that provides a comprehensive assessment of a family's needs and gets them immediate assistance.

In the department's review of the recent child deaths, she said they have found a recurring theme: "There are chronic issues that we're not addressing that may leave a bad result later on."

Jacobo said she hopes to have in place a new safety framework at the agency by December. But her optimism was dashed by a more harsh critic of the system: Judge Larry Schack of the 19th Judicial Circuit in St. Lucie County.

A 23-year veteran of the bench, Schack serves as the sole dependency judge in his county and, during that time has been responsible for the fate of 707 children, he said, "as though they were my own."

He called the dependency system in Florida broken because "no one is in charge," resources are "woefully inadequate," assistance is illusory and those factors breed a "cycle of tragedy."

"In the 33 years I've lived in Florida, I have observed the repetitive cycle of child injuries, disappearances and deaths and the resulting well-intentioned changes to the system that never cure the problems,'' he said.

While other speakers told the committee that Florida's community-based system is a model for the nation, Schack described it as a fragmented system that deprives the DCF secretary the authority he or she needs to keep the system accountable.

For example, in some counties, sheriffs investigate child abuse cases, in others the secretary controls it, he said. In some counties, DCF controls the attorneys who prosecute abuse and neglect, while others rely on the attorney general. The secretary, he said, doesn't control adoptions and doesn't control who gets what service — because it is contracted out with community-based care organizations.

"The bottom line is that there is no vertical control over the system," Schack said.

Legislator wants state's child welfare system fixed 09/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 9:37pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Forecast: Dry air, hot temperatures remain in control across Tampa Bay

    Weather

    Dry but hot weather will continue Thursday across Tampa Bay with only a 20 percent chance of showers forecast for the afternoon.

    7 day forecast. [WTSP]
  2. Amber Alert issued for Bradenton siblings taken by their mother

    Public Safety

    An Amber Alert has been issued for four Bradenton siblings who were taken by their mother, who does not have custody of the children.

    An Amber Alert has been issued for four Bradenton siblings who were taken by their mother, who does not have custody of the children. [Florida Department of Law Enforcement]

  3. Worker critically injured after falling off truck in Clearwater

    Accidents

    A Zephyrhills man was critically injured early Thursday morning when he fell off the back of a road construction vehicle.

  4. Electricity poles and lines lay toppled on the road after Hurricane Maria hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, September 20, 2017. The strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years destroyed hundreds of homes, knocked out power across the entire island and turned some streets into raging rivers in an onslaught that could plunge the U.S. territory deeper into financial crisis. [Associated Press]
  5. Trigaux: For Class of 2016, college debt loads favor Florida graduates

    Banking

    Florida college graduates saddled with student debt: Take heart. The average debt Class of 2016 Florida grads must bear is less than students in most states.

    University of South Florida undergraduates gather at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa for last fall's commencement ceremony. A new survey finds their average student debt upon graduating was $22,276. Statewide, 2016 Florida grads ranked a relatively unencumbered 45th among states, averaging $24,461 in student debt. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]