1. Opinion

Editorial: A better way to protect children

Published Jan. 24, 2014

Hillsborough County has reversed a horrible trend in the past 18 months, going from multiple homicides in the state's child protection system to zero. Many factors, including luck, could be responsible. But there is one clear difference. The county has a new contractor with new technology and a new approach to handling its most vulnerable cases. The state Department of Children and Families is planning to launch the program statewide this month, and agencies across Florida should embrace it with the goal of replicating Hillsborough's results.

The community reeled in 2011 as reports of nine child homicides within a two-year period surfaced in Hillsborough County. The circumstances of each death seemed more startling than the last. Among the tragedies: A 4-month-old boy died after he was tossed from a car on I-275; a mother choked her 5-month-old daughter to death; and an 18-month-old succumbed after wandering into the path of a car. Each case shared a disturbing similarity. The dead children and their caregivers were the subjects of active DCF cases.

In the wake of the deaths, DCF fired the nonprofit in charge of its child protection cases in the county and hired Eckerd Community Alternatives, which was already working in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Eckerd officials reviewed all 1,500 open case files in Hillsborough and looked for ways to improve monitoring. The agency identified children aged 2 and under as its most vulnerable population and flagged nine areas on which its investigators should focus. They would take a close look, for example, at homes with paramours, parents under 25 or where substance abuse or domestic violence took place.

Eckerd paid a technology company $55,000 to create a software program to monitor the department's most at-risk cases. Using the software, called Rapid Safety Feedback, Eckerd's quality assurance officers comb through cases looking for clues and case management options that its front-line workers might have missed. If a supervisor spots a red flag or a gap in service, the caseworker receives training within 24 hours and gets continued guidance until the case closes or the child turns 3. So far, the results are encouraging. Children benefit from intervention before disaster occurs, deaths are down, and Eckerd said caseworkers are learning and growing through supervisor intervention and mentoring.

The technology is far from a panacea. But in a state that racked up a record 40 deaths of children under DCF's watch last summer, implementing Rapid Safety Feedback is another valuable tool for overburdened caseworkers. Eckerd said all of DCF's lead child protection contractors have agreed to use the new system, and there's some hope they'll have more resources to implement it. Gov. Rick Scott, as he rolls out his proposed 2014-15 budget this week, is expected to repeat that he is seeking an extra $40 million for child protection efforts. But the state should also consider spending another $1 million to fund a pilot project for Rapid Safety Feedback's expansion to include older children, as Eckerd has proposed. It is a small investment toward a potentially major payoff: Keeping children safe.


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