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Challenges await DCF chief

Lucy Hadi has her work cut out for her. As the new interim leader of the Department of Children and Families, she assumes control at a time of enormous challenge and change for the agency. The good news is that Hadi appears up to the task.

Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Hadi earlier this month to replace Jerry Regier, who resigned amid controversy over influence peddling and no-bid contracting. Formerly chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, Hadi has held wide-ranging positions at DCF and knows the agency inside and out. Though her record is not without blemish _ a 1993 grand jury criticized her for giving lawmakers inaccurate cost figures and approving a major computer purchase without proper review _ she has proved herself to be a capable and creative administrator.

She'll need those strengths if she intends to do more than merely keep the seat warm for the next appointee. Her predecessor, Regier, in his two years at the top post, made good headway in key areas. But the agency and the children it serves still face significant hurdles.

Consider just a few:

Community-based care: The face of Florida child welfare is undergoing a fundamental makeover, as DCF continues to hand off to communities lead control over foster care and child protection. Already, 53 counties have made the switch, and 14 more are close behind. The first "community-based care" provider in Pinellas and Pasco defaulted after three years and had to be replaced. Other counties could experience similar failures, if DCF and state lawmakers are lax on oversight and funding.

Computer system: DCF's computer system, HomeSafenet _ five years late and nearly $200-million over budget _ is still not working as billed. Resolution could be further delayed by a recent protest accusing DCF officials of playing favorites when they awarded the "fix it" contract to a company with ties to Regier.

Child deaths: Though the overall number of deaths from abuse and neglect is on the decline, more children are dying while on DCF's watch. The deaths of children "known to the system" raises as-of-yet unanswered questions about the quality of DCF decisions and supervision.

Missing foster kids: More than 500 foster children are listed as missing, most as runaways or kids "kidnapped" by parents lacking legal custody. That record is even worse than it was when Miami foster child Rilya Wilson, missing for more than a year before caseworkers noticed, made national headlines.

Hadi has already won the confidence of Bush, who says he is in no rush to locate a permanent replacement. She can earn that same trust from other leaders and citizens by dealing honestly with and resisting pressure to sugarcoat DCF's problems.