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Too many foster kids reabused, report says

A new state report slams Florida's child welfare programs for failing to properly protect children and train caseworkers, even though the system already is undergoing a massive redesign.

The report, which says too many children who have been abused are "reabused" while in foster care, provides more evidence that Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to privatize the child welfare system is proving more challenging than originally hoped.

According to the analytic arm of the Florida Legislature, the number of children reported as reabused while in foster care or other forms of state supervision was 7.3 percent in the second quarter of 2002 and rose to 9.7 percent by the end of that year. In the first quarter of 2003 it was 9.1 percent.

All of those figures exceed the state's goal of 7 percent and the federal government's standard of 6.1 percent for reabuse.

The report, prepared by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, also says that DCF has failed to clearly define the roles of two different types of caseworkers: investigators who pursue abuse claims and decide whether children must be removed from their homes; and others who work with parents on plans for regaining custody of their children. It says the two kinds of workers _ often employed by different agencies _ sometimes fail to work closely together and help families avoid having their children removed.

As an example, the statewide report cites the Pinellas-Pasco area, where foster care services are coordinated by Family Continuity Programs, which works under a DCF contract.

"The number of children removed from their homes rose 39 percent while the number of investigations rose 10 percent between July 2000 and June 2002," the report states. Putting all these children into foster care burdens the system and "shifts dollars away from services designed to maintain children in their homes."

April Putzulu, spokeswoman for Family Continuity, noted that her agency had recently hired many new caseworkers and decreased caseloads substantially. "We hope to greatly lower our removal rate. We're already seeing changes in that area," she said.

Beth Englander, DCF's director of child welfare and community-based care, acknowledged the report does "identify a number of areas that we need to pay particular attention to." But she said the agency in April implemented a series of improvement plans throughout the state that should provide better monitoring and more attention to high-quality standards for caseworkers and their supervisors.

The policy analysis office's report also criticized the state for its training centers, which it said do not provide new caseworkers with real-world, hands-on training.

Bush and the Florida Legislature have embraced the idea of taking child welfare work away from state employees and into the hands of smaller agencies, generally nonprofits and in some cases, sheriff's departments.

This means the state Department of Children and Families is becoming an agency that buys services and keeps watch on those who provide them. But the quality controls have proved haphazard and must be improved with a new system that is now under development, the report states.

"State oversight of a privatized system is critical," it says.