“The work of our department is challenging. We are the safety net for Florida’s most vulnerable children and families. But with the challenges of our work come great rewards. Our vision is this – to deliver world-class and continuously improving service at the level and quality that we would demand and expect for our own families.” — Secretary Mike Carroll
Guest post by Judge James Seals.
The death of a child at the hands of a caregiver, someone a child trusts, is indeed one of our community’s most tragic events. It’s even more tragic when the child is under the watch of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), but it will continue to happen as long as humans have the capacity to make mistakes – which is always.
Child protection system professionals, like physicians, airline pilots, builders, and police officers, to name some, make mistakes which can directly or indirectly cause the loss of human life. Their duties require them to gather information, process it, exercise judgment, reach conclusions and make decisions – all human functions – usually under some measure of situational stresses and the pressures of time. With risky endeavors, having insufficient information, or lack of time to consider all the information, or drawing an erroneous conclusion can lead to bad decisions which in turn can cause a death or other tragedy. Expecting zero deaths in professions where human judgment and high risk intersect every day is a fool’s wish.
Rather than pass judgment and sentence on DCF on the few bits of anecdotal evidence gleaned from the media – which covers less than 1% of all cases handled – the better response is to ask whether the child protection system is learning from mistakes made, and how. As a veteran of 15 years in the child protection system, my answer is yes, but I must quickly add that learning from mistakes will not guarantee that child mortality by abuse will always decrease over a given period of time. Every day the child protection system encounters new, different and increasingly bizarre ways that parents and caregivers manage to endanger their children. If child abuse and neglect were stationary targets, then systemic improvements would consistently reduce child abuse and neglect. Child endangerment, however, is and always will be a moving target pursued by humans who, no matter how competent, will always fall short of perfection. The best we can hope for is a steady downward trend over the long term.
The child protection system, which includes our legislature (policy), the courts (oversight and final decision-making), and the child welfare agencies (investigations and case management), is constantly searching for new and better evidence-based best policies and practices to prevent child maltreatment, to ensure child safety and to improve families’ capacities to safely and competently parent their children.For example, investigations now go far beyond just focusing on the alleged maltreatment to information gathering on surrounding circumstances, child functioning, adult functioning, general parenting practices and general discipline practices within the family under investigation. This enables system professionals and courts to make better safety-related decisions right from the start of the case; it improves the system’s capability to assess and control the dangers to vulnerable children through safety planning; and it helps caregivers through targeted case planning to improve family functioning by removing or reducing the threats to child safety.
Costly mistakes are most likely made out in the field where system workers come face to face with offending parents and victim children. Throughout Florida there are many well qualified, well trained, passionately motivated workers out in the field. However, the turnover rate of these key players in child safety and welfare is very high. The good ones get promoted out of the field or move on to better paying, or less stressful jobs in other careers. The ill-suited are either terminated or resign. High turnover in field personnel is the incubator of error. Even the best child protection system available, staffed at the higher echelons with the best leaders and experts, will always underperform without a stable, qualified, motivated cohort of investigators and case workers at their command.
Constant and diligent efforts at controlling risks and dangers will never eliminate the human capacity to err. Regrettably, airplanes will continue to crash, bridges will collapse, brakes will fail, parents will abuse children, and people will die. That’s life, pure and simple. I’m not suggesting we look upon child abuse with resignation or acceptance, nor am I suggesting we throw away accountability. I’m advocating for responsible, well-informed, constructive accountability which asks the right questions instead of making the same old ill-informed, ill-advised, illogical demands.
We can begin by acknowledging that Florida’s child protection system is blessed with many great generals and colonels, but it is also plagued by high turnover and low morale among the troops. Not taking adequate care of the troops may well be the worst mistake of all. Why this is happening is one of those right questions to ask.
Guest blog post by Glenn Broch, DCF Southern Region Family & Community Services Director. He tells this story to help DCF staff cope with working with abused, neglected children.
A week ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of watching my 20-month-old granddaughter Emily. It was the first time we would be putting her to bed because her parents were going out to eat. Before dinner, we took Emily to the park, which is within walking distance from her house. She has a teddy bear named ‘Bo-ji’, (which happens to be the same bear her father had as a young child) that she wanted to take to the park with her. She also wanted to take her Elmo, so while she walked to the park next to my wife, I pushed the stroller with ‘Bo-Ji’ and Elmo strapped into the seat.
Emily wanted to swing at the park, so while my wife pushed her on the swing, I had to push ‘Bo-Ji’ and Elmo on the swing next to her, all the time wondering what the other kids in the playground were thinking about the old guy with the toy dolls.
After dinner, Emily wanted me to put on her favorite song (‘Brown-eyed Girl’), which we danced and listened to four or five times before it was time to get ready for bed. My wife got her into her pajamas, and then we took turns reading her favorite Bible stories to her. After that it was time for prayers, hugs, and lights out.
As Emily lay in her crib, cuddling with ‘Bo-ji’, I could hear her quietly reciting names – “Daddy, Mommy, Anma, Anpa (that’s me).” Whether she was praying or talking to her bear, I knew she was listing all of the people who surround her with love and take such delight in her.
I began to think about how this is what life should be like for a child – secure, happy, loved, always laughing, dancing … and then I thought how different it is for so many of the children we work with every day – frightened, abused, with sad empty eyes. I want all of the children in our community to have what Emily has. I want every child to know the peace and security that comes from having loving parents who tuck them in at night and make each day such a wonder. It is that thought that motivates me each day to recommit myself to make the world a better place for all children.
I challenge my DCF management team: When you become discouraged and tired, and wonder whether you can muster the energy to fight the daily battle against abuse, look into your heart and find your own ‘Emily.” Then determine that you will give your best to ensure that every child we work with has the same opportunity to be surrounded with the love and affection that Emily has.
Guest blog post by Sherrie Gainer, DCF Adult Protective Investigator in Northwest Florida
We received a report of neglect regarding an 18 year old who has cerebral palsy, Dandy-Walker Syndrome, is completely bound to a wheelchair and cannot speak.
The report says the young man is no longer eligible for Children Medical Services because his mother kept canceling appointments. Therapists are concerned that his skin and bone could give way and the mother fails to keep appointments. It is believed he may not be getting his prescribed medications. In addition to the lack of medical care, his personal hygiene has also suffered.
When DCF received the report, I was assigned as the adult protective investigator on the case. I immediately looked into the family’s history. No neglect cases had been reported in the recent past. I contacted the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to ask about services the young man may be receiving.
After getting some history, I visited the young man’s home to speak with his mother and to assess risk. When I arrived, I observed the home to be hazard-free. The utilities were on, the home was furnished, there was food available and the prescriptions were current.
The mother denied neglect of her son. She appeared to have a good support system and we discussed problems she had with her son’s medical needs.
After talking to the mother, I contacted the young man’s APD support coordinator to ask about her experiences with the family. She also has trouble getting in touch with the mother, which concerned her, but she was unaware of any missed appointments.
The primary concern of school officials was the mother’s lack of parental involvement. She doesn’t return calls and she misses scheduled appointments. The young man’s personal care is lacking. The young man has occupational and physical therapy at the school, but the mother doesn’t communicate with the therapists. The young man was a patient, receiving medical oversight and services through Children’s Medical Services, but they said CMS will no longer be involved because of the mother’s non-compliance.
I went to CMS to discuss the reasons for discontinuation of their services and was told the young man is still a patient, but because of his age they now need his signature or “mark” on all forms for service, not his mother’s. In addition, the mother is now responsible for making appointments for her son. The mother doesn’t understand the changes or the transitioning from pediatric to adult medical care. She is slow to return documents to the medical staff.
The physical and occupational therapist has been working with the young man since 2009 and communicate with the mother in writing. The mother does not keep appointments with them either.
I talked to family members who were determined to be supportive of the mother. Family income is limited. The home consists of children and grandchildren and the mother’s part-time job is necessary. The family’s transportation is dependent on her support system. The phone is often disconnected and her number changes when she gets a new phone, making it hard to communicate by phone.
When her son was a child, the medical providers played an important role in keeping his health services in order. Now that he is 18, the responsibility is the mother’s. She’s been used to providers taking the lead with her son’s treatments and that is no longer an option because of his age. Also, the mother has difficulty reading and understanding the forms and has to depend on her support system for explanations.
I am concerned that most of the issues between the mother and medical providers revolves around communication. Providers are from different agencies and they are unaware of other agencies involved.
The goal is to make sure communication flows between providers and the mother. I will make sure all providers are aware of the different agencies involved as well as keeping the mother informed of my activities.
I will also work with the providers to educate them on the needs of families with special needs children. It is important to start preparing caretakers when patients are 15 so that they are prepared to manage the patient’s medical needs.
I will continue to stay in touch with the family and believe the communication changes will make a big difference.
Hundreds of thousands of reports are called in to the Florida Abuse Hotline every year, most of them for neglect. DCF investigators do everything they can to work with and educate families and community providers so families can remain intact.
If you suspect someone may be the victim of abuse or neglect, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-962-2873. Even if charges are not made, our investigators may be able to help the family overcome difficulti