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DCF finds no basis for slam of firm

Florida canceled its multimillion-dollar contracts with a Pinellas Park company this year after allegations that the firm performed shoddy work and falsified records in child abuse investigations.

The state also sued the nonprofit company for $12-million, saying it had fraudulently billed the government for work on child abuse investigations it never performed.

This week, the state Department of Children and Families had something very different to say about the company: Nearly all allegations against it were unsupported.

The inspector general's office of DCF investigated 14 allegations and said 12 were unsupported by the facts. Of the two cases where the inspectors found fault, DCF's own staff shouldered the blame in one.

"I knew all along that this was the way it was going to come out. We never did anything that we weren't asked to do," said Tracy Loomis, vice president of the company, called the Florida Task Force for the Protection of Abused and Neglected Children.

The task force was created and led by people with expertise as child abuse investigators to help DCF finish investigating abuse cases that had taken too long to complete. The task force had been paid more than $4-million over about two years to help the state reduce its backlog of cases.

But former employees told the department and reporters that task force employees were pressured to finish their investigations quickly. Some former workers said that made it impossible to do their work properly, and to make sure children were truly safe.

The inspector general's findings clear the task force of the allegations that prompted the 66-page report, which took eight months to complete. It was not clear what effect, if any, that would have on the lawsuit, which remains pending.

Loomis said she has applied repeatedly for a job with DCF since the contracts were canceled. "I feel that I lost my job wrongfully, and I feel that they need to make up for that," said Loomis, who was paid $87,500 a year by the task force.

She said the task force, which once employed 50 people, had little or no assets left. "Basically, the attorneys' fees ate up everything," she said.

The inspector general's office cleared the task force of five allegations that it had falsified records, including having an employee claim credit for an interview conducted in Spanish when she actually did not know Spanish.

It also cleared the task force of purported misdeeds that would have violated normal standards for investigating abuse cases, such as having employees close cases when children were still in danger, and asking workers to limit the scope of their investigations so they could complete them faster.

But inspectors did fault the task force for hiring former DCF workers who had been fired from their positions and were not eligible to be rehired _ something the contracts outlawed.

It also faulted a DCF supervisor for combining a new child abuse investigation with an old one the task force was looking into. Under the contracts, the task force's role was to close old cases, not begin new ones.

DCF spokesman Bob Brooks declined to comment on the report because of the pending lawsuit.

_ Curtis Krueger can be reached at kruegersptimes.com or by calling (727) 893-8232. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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