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Care for abused children hurt by lack of money

The photograph of Joshua Collins that you readers have seen since he was beaten to death in November 1988 is a far cry from the one that was passed around last week in a Pasco County courtroom. You are accustomed to seeing the toddler in full, healthy form, hustling around with a toy truck under his arm, smiling for the camera. In the other photos, Joshua is dead. He is so skinny you can count his ribs. His head is swollen, and his face is black and blue. The rest of his little body is bruised and on one shoulder is a bite mark. His mother, Mary Lee Collins, says she bit Joshua because he bit her first and she wanted to teach him that biting is not right. But the mark on his swollen, bruised, emaciated body was obviously the result of a vicious attack. The skin is badly torn.

When you see the picture of the dead 22-month-old Zephyrhills boy, you understand why Mary Lee Collins last week pleaded guilty to murder rather than go to trial. She'll be in prison for 25 years, whereas she might easily have drawn a stiffer sentence, or even the death penalty, if a jury had gotten a look at the physical damage done to Joshua.

The guilty plea also avoided a courtroom airing of evidence of how poorly the state caseworkers who investigated the reported abuse of Joshua performed their duties. How anybody could have paid 50 visits to the Collins home and not noted the systematic starvation and physical abuse of the toddler is beyond comprehension.

The plea protected the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) from drawn-out testimony of ineptness. Instead, there was one neatly wrapped story of the details of Collins' sentence, some incredible self-serving statements from the murderer proclaiming innocence from her jail cell, and a quick paragraph from the chief prosecutor indicating that HRS is so much better now at protecting children because of Joshua. Why is that so hard to believe?

Suffice to say that Mary Lee Collins is a pathetic individual who was unable to control her emotions and remains true to the authorities' description of her as a "con" for continuing the charade that she actually loved her baby and meant him no harm. Whether HRS is truly in a better position to prevent such abuse in the future is not as clear cut.

While HRS has made adjustments in the way it conducts investigations of child abuse, it does not have the money to ensure consistent performance. Consider salaries. A protective investigator must have a bachelor's degree and three years' professional experience in a service such as child day care, licensed health care or law enforcement just to qualify for the job that pays $20,603 to start. If that employee can survive all the frustrations that go with such heartbreaking work, he can hope someday to earn the maximum of $34,098.

Jack Levine, the executive director of the Florida Center for Children & Youth, examined Gov. Bob Martinez's proposed budget from his special perspective last week and proclaimed it "thin soup with just a few chunky vegetables." That might be kind. Though Martinez proposes additional funds, he still is about $1-billion short of what the agency says it needs.

"The governor had a real opportunity to address known prevention programs," Levine said, but there is no increase in family-planning dollars, less than one-third in increased vaccinations, less than a quarter increase for child protection and no increase for in-home assistance for families that might keep them strong to prevent neglect or abuse."

Levine passed along a letter from a supervisor for family services who offered him some insight about the frustrations at HRS. He would not reveal the supervisor's identity, but here's the letter:

"Dear Jack: In case you are not aware of this, things grow steadily worse day by day. Every day we face a crisis in placing children. Fridays are the worst. Several of the staff stay late into the night simply trying to find a bed _ somewhere, almost anywhere. I'm talking about shelter for abused little ones and foster care for all ages. In delinquency, we can never assume that we're making a correct placement because we're so desperate for community slots.

"One of our new "performance indicators' tracks the placement of dependents in homes which are within licensed capacity. This indicator is a rarity, I assure you. The great majority of our placements are in homes which are above licensed capacity _ some are overcrowded by more than double.

"Sometimes I wonder why I'm still in this child welfare business. The stress is mounting and the good folks are wondering if there's any hope for these kids."

The Joshua Collins murder indeed may have led to improvements in HRS' methods of investigating child abuse. But this frustrated supervisor illustrates in the letter to Levine the importance of providing a complete service. If would-be victims are going to be rescued, is there going to be a place to put them?

Advocates for children could be forgiven if they let the sad stories of the Joshua Collinses drive them to depression. But Levine sees hope.

"We're making progress," he said. "Of the mind. We have seen some tremendous emotional commitments _ progress of the heart. There is a realization, anyway, that at some point you must pay the bill. The next step is action. It will be the politics of the '90s, so that no child goes without because of the cost."

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