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Published Jul. 26, 2007

Bob Butterworth, secretary of Florida's Department of Children and Families, has said and done the right things in the aftermath of the botched handling of Courtney Clark, the 2-year-old former Pinellas County girl who went missing for months from state care before turning up in Wisconsin. His candor in accepting responsibility and moving to publicly air the record will help the agency learn and regain public trust in the months ahead.

But here's the fundamental question: Why does the state and its stable of privately run providers keep making the same mistakes that have plagued the child welfare system for years? It was almost preordained that the state's internal review would blame inattention by caseworkers and bureaucrats for the toddler going missing.

According to Butterworth, a caseworker waited four months to report Clark missing to local law enforcement, and officials at the agency and the Sarasota Family YMCA, its subcontractor, did little follow-up. "There was no sense of urgency," Butterworth said. Workers failed to follow rules, overlooked abuse, relied on e-mail and succumbed to interagency bureaucratic barriers.

Fixing the system is one thing. DCF needs a tighter rein on the 20 community agencies that administer child welfare services. The fact that Clark bounced around from place to place should have raised red flags at DCF, which bears ultimate responsibility, long before the girl was reported missing in January. More than a dozen mistakes officials cite point to deficiencies in computer-held data sharing and communications between providers, DCF and law enforcement. The process for tracking these children needs to be seamless, whether across bureaucratic jurisdictions or state lines. The state's internal review called for several of these steps, including speedier reporting to law enforcement, which should raise the profile of missing cases and bring about a needed dose of accountability.

But some mistakes are with people, not the process, and they seem the most enduring. Poor judgment, laziness and an unwillingness to bump bad news up the line can undermine any reform put into place. A broader review by the agency's inspector general, expected this month, should help Butterworth form a long-range strategy. A Pinellas-Pasco judge can help this week by agreeing to a joint request by DCF and the St. Petersburg Times to open the records in this case.

The state and private providers must be held accountable. Neglect is what brings kids into the system; it should not be a continuing feature of the system itself.