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Overburdened HRS fails to protect children, judges say

Florida's welfare agency isn't protecting the state's at-risk children because its workers are overburdened with cases, turnover and stress, two judges told a state panel. "Most of them leave because, in their words, they've "been used,' " Circuit Judge Emery Newell of West Palm Beach said Friday before a blue-ribbon Study Commission on Child Welfare.

"I have never seen a system so awful," said Circuit Judge Dorothy Pate of Jacksonville. "It's the worst functioning system I have ever seen since I started in 1959 with the old welfare system."

State Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) officials conceded the judges' criticisms and blamed a tight budget.

The agency needs a 20 percent increase _ from $7.5-billion to $9-billion _ says an HRS report to the study commission. That proposal for the fiscal year starting next July would pay for 3,199 new child welfare jobs.

HRS caseworkers aren't even doing old-fashioned casework _ observing, reporting on and helping troubled families in the home, Newell said.

Instead, they hand judges psychological evaluations of parents suspected of abuse or neglect, but those don't show whether the children are safe at home, he said.

They also write performance plans requiring parents to go to parenting classes or get counseling, often impossible when parents have no money or car, he said.

The judges' comments were supported by commission director Chris Giblin and a procession of parents and foster parents complaining that HRS mishandled their cases.

Giblin gave the commission a survey of 250 child abuse investigators, 31 percent of the total, which indicated:

Investigators spend 17 percent of their time entering information into the HRS abuse registry _ more than on any other task. They devote 14 percent of their time to traveling, 11 percent to interviewing suspected victims and 5 percent to assessing risk to children. They waste 8 percent trying unsuccessfully to reach people.

Nearly two-thirds of the investigators don't want to investigate minor cases, such as reports of children with head lice, or those they think are unfounded.

More than one-fourth don't even want to fill out risk assessment forms, a way to check for danger.

When children must be taken from their homes, only 7 percent of the investigators report always having an appropriate place to put them. Two-thirds of the rest said they stayed with the child in an office, car or police station until a shelter bed could be found.

The panel, led by Florida Supreme Court Justice Rosemary Barkett, asked HRS Secretary Greg Coler to attend. He instead sent J. Sheffield Kenyon, an assistant deputy secretary, who presented a slide show on agency achievements.

Lawmakers created the study commission in November in response to the murder of Lakeland toddler Bradley McGee, who was abused and killed by his stepfather in July 1989 while under HRS protection.