Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Public safety

We mourn another toddler, but will we ever fix a flawed system?

Little Jordan Belliveau had a small army of protectors.

Lawyers, social workers, volunteers and officers of the court. Each with a different task, but all devoted to the idea that a 2-year-old boy should never have to live in pain or fear.

For most of his life, they circled Jordan’s chaotic world. They rescued him from his parents. They documented indiscretions. They inspected domiciles. They got his mother into counseling.

Eventually, they sent him back home.

And three months later he was dead.

Police have charged his mother, 21-year-old Charisse Stinson, with first-degree murder. Her fate will ultimately be decided by the courts and, some would say, the realm of heaven.

But what of Jordan’s many protectors?

Do any of them share in the blame?

• • •

For the time being, that’s a rhetorical question.

Many of the case’s details have yet to be disclosed, and it’s possible we will never have a satisfactory answer. There are too many layers, policies and agencies involved. In cases such as this, there are typically more fingers being pointed than resolutions being reached.

And that, in and of itself, may be your answer.

The child welfare system in Florida is certainly well-meaning and, in the great majority of cases, highly effective. A growing focus on early prevention and intervention has protected many children before their lives were ever endangered.

But privatization has left the system too fragmented.

And it’s always been terribly underfunded.

"I feel for all of the workers who are involved in this,’’ said Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the state’s Guardian ad Litem program. "The reason they get into this work is because they love children. And the reason they leave is because they don’t feel like they’re making a difference in children’s lives.

"When you’re a case manager for 30 or more children, you’re not going to do the job the way you know it should be done. You can’t make a real difference if you’re hurrying up from one child to another because you need to get all your monthly visits in.’’

When the Department of Children and Families began privatizing child welfare services 20 years ago, the concept of accountability was also seemingly outsourced.

DCF contracts with large non-profits who then sub-contract with several smaller non-profits. Money gets stretched, and responsibility gets blurred.

And at the bottom of the system are the workers in the community dealing directly with the children and their families. They are typically underpaid, and their workload is immense. They are asked to be a social worker, a mentor, a driver, a visitation supervisor, an investigator and a representative in court.

They also are caught between their responsibility to keep children safe, and to follow state statutes that advocate "family preservation or reunification whenever possible.’’ A 2017 federal study suggested Florida was removing children from their families too quickly.

The result of all this is an absurdly high turnover rate among case managers. A recent report from Eckerd Connects in Tampa Bay put the number at 81 percent over the previous 12 months.

Considering Jordan had been in the system for 20 months, statistics would suggest he might have cycled through at least two case managers and possibly more. And each time that likely means someone with less experience who is trying to catch up on a couple dozen cases.

"In a number of cases, the case manager present in court is either filling in for someone else or is a new case manager who doesn’t yet know a lot about the case,’’ said Ari Weisberg, a Pinellas-Pasco public defender specializing in juvenile law and speaking in generic terms about family reunification reviews.

But in Jordan’s case there is a potential smoking gun, right?

A court document shows the Guardian ad Litem objected to the idea of Jordan being taken away from foster parents and being reunited with his mother. So even if the case manager wasn’t raising red flags about the child’s mother, there was still someone in the courtroom suggesting this was a bad idea.

And, truthfully, that should have been enough. In retrospect, the evidence of his parents’ indifference to Jordan’s safety seemed overwhelming.

But there is still a caveat. The Guardian ad Litem waived an opportunity for an appeal, which suggests the opposition may not have been vociferous. An appeal would have automatically alerted the judge who oversaw the magistrate in the case. Instead, the judge approved the magistrate’s decision.

None of this is meant to exonerate, nor affix blame. Because, in the end, the ultimate fault will remain with a mother and father who failed to realize that parenting is the most important job they will ever hold.

Instead, this is a lament. A lament of a child welfare system that is always underfunded and usually overlooked. That is, until tragedy strikes.

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