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Romano: A fresh start for Florida to protect abused children

In 2015, a memorial was set up atop of the Dick Misener Bridge in St. Petersburg for Phoebe Jonchuck, 5, who was dropped into the water below by her John Jonchuck, according to police. He now awaits trial on a charge of first-degree murder. The Department of Children and Families has acknowledged mistakes in failing to protect her. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Saturday 18 August 2018 08.30

The worst job in Florida is available, once again.

Mike Carroll has announced his pending resignation as secretary of the Department of Children and Families, giving someone else the privilege to be an underfunded, second-guessed punching bag. For no matter how responsive a DCF regime might be, there is no end to tragedies involving children.

By now, we’ve grown used to these departures. The next DCF chief will be the eighth since 2002. Typically, these resignations follow some scandal involving missing children, cover-ups or lawsuits. In that sense, Carroll’s timing is unusual. He leaves after four years of generally positive reviews.

And that makes this a unique opportunity for Florida.

For too long, DCF has careened from one knee-jerk plan to another. That’s to be expected when decisions are based more on political calculations than thoughtful solutions.

But this time can be different. Carroll is not being chased from Tallahassee, and there is no singular headline forcing a new direction. Which means the next leader will have a relatively blank slate.

And that suggests meaningful change is tantalizingly within reach.

• • •

The problems are many. Experts say the answers are not foolproof, but they are clear.

1. Florida needs to get serious about mental health and substance abuse problems. That means adequate funding for a state that has disgracefully ignored an ongoing crisis.

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2. The bureaucracy and overhead created by multiple levels of contractors and subcontractors needs to be reined in. Too much money is going to administrative costs and not children.

3. The state needs to do a better job of recruiting, supervising and retaining social workers. High turnover at the grass roots level practically invites a nightmarish outcome.

Those aren’t the only issues but if you start solving them, it will have a ripple effect elsewhere.

"The importance of continuing, and taking even further, the integration of all these different areas — mental health, child welfare, substance abuse, poverty — is the key,’’ said statewide prosecutor Nick Cox, a former DCF regional administrator. "Taking all of those different silos and continuing to make them work closely together is imperative to getting where we need to be.’’

• • •

Nicholas Cruz. Phoebe Jonchuck. Je’Hyrah Daniels.

Pick any recent tragedy, and the common denominator will likely be mental health and/or substance abuse.

Generations of policy makers have given lip service to addressing these issues in Florida. The state ranked in the low 40s in the nation in per-capita mental health funding in the late 1960s, and is disastrously worse today.

"If you want to create a system that protects children,’’ said former state Rep. Kathleen Peters, who is now running for Pinellas County Commission, "then create something that stops the feeder system.’’

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The figures may vary from district to district, but everyone seems to agree that most of the children who end up in foster care have parents who are suffering from mental health problems or drug addiction. Most observers put the number between 60 and 80 percent.

That makes the state’s lack of investment in mental health services not only tragic for the children involved, but senseless from an economic standpoint. It costs money to subsidize someone unable to hold a job. It costs money to put kids in foster care. It costs money to jail their parents.

Yet instead of tackling the problem on the front end, the state has consistently underfunded the very issues that led to all these other expensive outcomes.

"One is the precursor for the other,’’ said April Lott, president of Directions for Living, which provides both mental health and child welfare services for DCF through Eckerd Connects.

"If we don’t treat and help those suffering from mental health problems and substance abuse, not only are they more likely to hurt and abuse their children, but those children will then grow up to become the very same adults that suffer from mental health and substance abuse problems.’’

• • •

Back in 1998, the Legislature went in a radical new direction. It decided to privatize most mental health/child welfare services with DCF functioning more as an overseer.

Nearly 20 years later, Florida is still traveling mostly alone on that road. And the results, at best, have been mixed.

The idea was that community-based nonprofits would be more attentive to local needs than a one-size-fits-all monolith in Tallahassee. And bringing a business sensibility to what had been a government responsibility would be more efficient.

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Critics, however, say that model does not work. The state has contracts with managing entities and lead agencies to provide these services, and those groups typically subcontract to a variety of other nonprofits. The result is a lot of money going to administrators in the middle instead of into the field.

Making matters worse, the DCF got rid of a lot of its quality assurance people early in Gov. Rick Scott’s tenure, and so there is little oversight of these private agencies.

Workloads are so high, and pay is so little, social workers in the field come and go at a mind-boggling rate. The latest report from Eckerd Connects in Pinellas and Pasco show case manager turnover at 81 percent in the past 12 months.

And these are people tasked with protecting children from abusive adults.

"You can’t even run a Burger King with this turnover, let alone a sophisticated program taking care of children,’’ said Broward attorney Howard Talenfeld, who is president of Florida’s Children First. "No one has proven the hypothesis that privatization of child welfare can effectively protect children who have been abused and neglected.’’

Making a drastic U-turn in care is probably counter-productive at this point, but the state has got to recognize the inefficiencies of sub-contracting so much care and abdicating so much authority.

The next governor, and the next DCF secretary, have a chance to change the trajectory of mental health issues and child abuse for generations to come.

All it takes is putting children above politics.


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