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State too tough on parents, some lawmakers complain

What's wrong with the state's child protection system?

It's too tough on those suspected of mistreating their children, say some members of a legislative committee.

That's why the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee has asked state auditors to study the impact of Florida's child protection system on the families of children suspected of being abused.

"Families are often frustrated and have negative perceptions about the program and have mixed feelings about its effectiveness," said a summary of a statewide survey that will include interviews with 600 families investigated for child abuse or neglect.

"Parents complained of feeling helpless because they were subject to unfounded and harassing allegations."

Florida's troubled child welfare system has come under intense scrutiny because of the deaths of six children since Sept. 8. Gov. Lawton Chiles last week formed a task force to study child protection.

The survey, which began last summer, is being conducted by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

But some lawmakers think the project is a waste of time and money. One children's advocate says such rhetoric sends a signal that lawmakers are more interested in pandering to family rights' groups than in protecting children.

And when the study is over, said Rep. Mary Brennan, D-Pinellas Park, the Department of Children and Families will get the bill.

"I felt it was worthless," said Rep. Barry Silver, a Boca Raton Democrat who is on the auditing committee.

The study is the brainchild of Sen. John Ostalkiewicz, a staunch critic of the Department of Children and Families and its predecessor, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. Ostalkiewicz, R-Windermere, last year co-chaired the auditing committee and requested the study.

"This is an agency that investigates 100,000 families a year," Ostalkiewicz said. "We should certainly look at the impact it is having on families. I think that's pretty reasonable."

Ostalkiewicz takes strong exception to Silver's analogy that the survey is similar to interviewing criminals.

Tens of thousands of families suspected of abuse or neglect are eventually cleared of the allegations, he said. And all it takes to trigger an investigation is an anonymous call to the state's abuse hot line.

"These are good families that have done nothing wrong," he said. "And they have good reason to be afraid of HRS."

Matthew Green, a Lithia resident who was falsely accused of neglect, agreed. In a recent letter to Ostalkiewicz, he said the agency's actions "defy common sense" and rob innocent families of the protections afforded most criminals.

"We are convinced that this agency could care less about the damage inflicted on the many, many innocent parents who love their children and work hard every day to keep them healthy, happy and safe," Green said.

Researchers already have interviewed 150 families by phone, said lead analyst Curtis E. Baynes. The other 450 either will be interviewed by phone or asked to respond to a written questionnaire.

The purpose of the survey, Baynes said, is to determine the impact a child abuse investigation has on the families that undergo one.

Jack Levine, who heads the Florida Center on Children and Youth, a non-profit advocacy group, said researchers are asking the wrong questions, especially in light of the recent deaths of six youngsters.

"The bigger issue here," Levine said, "is on what do we want to invest our precious resources?

"That is an important question, because when all is said about the need to improve our child protection system, all too little substantively gets done. And the talk around town in Tallahassee is less about the victims of these brutal attacks and more about the purported victims of an inquiry."