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The right questions can save a child

In two widely publicized cases of children in state-supervised custody ending up dead or missing, caseworkers responsible for monitoring them apparently falsified reports claiming they had made the mandatory checks on the children.

Which prompts a provocative question:

Were the children lost because two caseworkers lied, or did two caseworkers' lies come to light because the children they lied about were lost?

It's a question the governor needs to ask if he sincerely wants to fix the problems that keep the state's child welfare agency from doing its job of protecting young lives.

And when he asks that question, he should offer immunity so he can get the real answer.

Publicly, the governor and Kathleen Kearney, his secretary in charge of child welfare, say the two cases of falsified reports were isolated instances. But that conclusion, unfortunately, expresses their hope more than their knowledge. They don't have a way of knowing. Nobody does.

Even the governor's blue-ribbon commission, appointed in the wake of the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson in Miami, after holding eight public hearings and studying reams of data, found that conclusion difficult to reach. "The department (of Children and Families) could not answer, to our satisfaction: How do you really know what is happening in the field, and how do you know when it happens?" the commission wrote in its report.

That is the pivotal question. Although there are mechanisms for accountability built into the daily duties of case managers, they rely heavily on the integrity of the individual worker. For instance, case managers chronicle their day in 25-minute increments, and they keep a log of visits to the children placed in their supervision. In theory, cross-checking the two documents would reveal discrepancies if a caseworker was lying. But a worker who is more fastidious with his paperwork than his duties, would leave no clue for a supervisor doing a spot check.

Of course, supervisors could check the logs of each of their five or six case managers and call or stop by the homes of each of the clients they claim to have visited, but that is not practical or possible.

I recently spent a day riding with case manager Melanie Callender, regarded by her peers and supervisors as one of the department's best. Most of the day was innocuous and uneventful. The children she visited appeared to be safe and well cared for.

It was not a stretch to imagine a string of such days lulling a less than conscientious worker into feeling safe to make some visits on paper only.

And most of those paper visits would go undetected. Most of the children would not go missing, as Rilya Wilson did, most would not be killed as Alfredo Montes was.

Some current and former caseworkers say the paper visits happen more often than the "isolated" instances the governor and Kearney speak about.

One former case manager, who asked not to be identified because of actions still pending with DCF, said 27 of the 30 case files she assumed as a new case manager showed visits that had not been made. Other workers recalled similar experiences. One said a new client remarked to her that she had not seen her caseworker in months; the file showed the opposite.

These revelations come, understandably, only after assurances that their identities will not be revealed lest they jeopardize their jobs and their coworkers'.

If the governor is serious about fixing the problems in child protection, he needs to hear these workers in a setting where caseworkers feel safe in telling the truth. The answer is not in trying to frighten them with harsh prosecutions such as the example he is making of Erica Jones, the caseworker who apparently made paper visits to check on Alfredo Montes.

The welfare of Florida's endangered children is in the hands of workers almost universally conceded to be underpaid, overworked and undertrained. Successfully upgrading their work obviously means upgrading their work conditions.

It means reducing the incentive for those workers to cut corners and lie about visits, and increasing their incentive for doing their jobs well.

And it means asking the right questions of people who feel safe to answer them. Until then, the governor's focus will continue to appear aimed more at saving face than saving children.

To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail