Much still to do for Florida's children

The Department of Children and Families and its partners have made substantial progress over the last four years, but the two recent horrific child deaths in Central and South Florida bring us to the stark realization that much is left to do to improve child welfare services in Florida.

It is for that very reason that we need to remember the underlining principles behind those successes and trust them to guide us. But this does not mean it is time for sanguine reflection or a fear of an unknown future. It is time to reinforce our tested ideas and use them as a fuel to make the additional changes warranted.

Pessimism was, for many years, the overriding characteristic people attributed to the child welfare system in this state. People felt, rightly in many cases, that our system was dysfunctional and broken.

"Today," as one national advocate put it, "Florida stands for something else. It stands for openness, innovation and progress."

The work over the past four years has created well-earned optimism. Other states want to copy us, and our federal partners have recognized the work we do as the nation's best. More children are living with safe and permanent families. In the past four years, Florida has seen more than 12,000 children adopted out of foster care and over 16,000 go into permanent guardianships; 30,000 children have been reunified with their parents after removal; and re-abuse after reunification is down.

Florida has made renewed efforts to integrate domestic violence, mental health and substance abuse services into everything we do, whether for children facing abuse or adults facing crisis.

Optimism is well placed, but it will become a quickly fading memory if not bolstered by a daily diligence toward improving and rethinking every detail of what we do. We are at a crucial time. The gains we have made will recede quickly if we do not maintain constant review and find ways to do things better.

Over the coming years, Florida will be tested. The recent deaths of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona in Miami and 16-month-old Ronderique Anderson in Tampa are glaring examples of that. There will be a temptation to get cautious.

There will be a temptation when mistakes are made to circle the wagons behind confidentiality, as the DCF of old. There will be a temptation to rely on regulations adopted in the name of avoiding liability rather than commonsense decisionmaking.

I have had the opportunity to get to know the new secretary, David Wilkins, and have found his commitment to transparency strong and his desire to do the right thing on target. I firmly believe he can guide the department through the current crisis by demanding facts and setting a course to correct whatever went wrong.

Transparency, openness and collaboration are the secrets to success — quickly admitting mistakes when things go wrong, learning from them and working diligently to ensure they don't happen again. Underlying all of this is the fine line between using a business model to manage your operations and the risk of not addressing real-world needs that exist.

To me, No Child Left Behind is not just a crisply named education initiative. It should be our guiding mantra every day. No child — for that matter no adult — regardless of age, past experience, current plight, special needs — no one should be left behind and certainly not as a result of business decisions which may determine that spending in one area is a safer investment than in another. In business, you can write off bad debt. In our work, we cannot write off one child, one individual or one family.

George Sheldon was the head of Florida's Department of Children and Families until early this year.

Much still to do for Florida's children 03/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 4:16pm]

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