Protecting vulnerable children is no easy job. But Hillsborough Kids Inc. needs to answer for the eight children under the agency's supervision who have been killed in the last two years. For many abused children, the state's safety net is their only chance. The nonprofit needs to examine its training and followup procedures to ensure that these children are receiving the attention they deserve. And the state needs to ensure that the agency has made improvements before considering whether to renew its contract next year.
An article Sunday by the St. Petersburg Times' John Barry chronicled the deaths and the performance concerns about Hillsborough Kids and its subcontractors. Seven of the eight children who died were under supervision because of reports of abandonment, abuse or neglect. The state Department of Children and Families said no other child protection agency in Florida had as many deaths in the past two years. "When you have eight," said Mike Carroll, the DCF regional director, "that raises alarms."
Saving children from abusive environments is difficult enough when everything is done right. But a review of the eight deaths found several shortcomings cited by DCF. Front-line workers failed to understand the dynamics in the most potentially dangerous homes, and supervisors failed to adequately guide them. These are fundamental weaknesses in an operation where intuition and judgment play such a heavy role in life and death decisions.
DCF has issued invitations to other providers, both for-profit and nonprofit, to compete for the Hillsborough Kids' contract when its term expires in June. While going out for bids is routine, the state sent the right message about the importance of child safety, and Hillsborough Kids president Jeff Rainey said: "Message received." His agency has moved against several key subcontractors, paring back their caseloads or demanding better oversight from caseworkers. The organization has expanded its training programs for staff and will institute a new system for flagging domestic situations that pose greater risks. The agency is also seeking to form a special dependency court for the highest risk cases, to be presided over by Circuit Judge Katherine Essrig, a respected veteran of the family law bench.
The training improvements, new tracking capabilities and more focused attention from the courts will all help — but results are what matter. Hillsborough Kids should examine whether it has farmed out too many duties, eroding accountability in the process. There clearly is a need for better supervisory control. Weaknesses at the managerial level can trickle down rapidly in any organization. But a breakdown here affects victims who literally cannot speak for themselves. Better communications and a process for acting on them should at least help caseworkers make more informed decisions.
Hillsborough Kids has been DCF's lead social service agency in the county since the state began outsourcing family and children's services in 2001. In fairness, the agency has helped thousands of children over that time. And there is value in having a local provider with local roots and local connections. But the agency needs to build a new sense of vigilance and urgency in its child protection efforts — and it must do so quickly. The state should take an active and helpful role in advancing that progress in the coming months.