DCF updates lawmakers after ex-foster child death

By KELLI KENNEDY

Associated Press

MIAMI -- The state child welfare agency said Tuesday it was diverting tens of millions of dollars to recruit and train child protective investigators and beef up an antiquated abuse hotline system after the death of a 10-year-old former foster child.

Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins updated two legislative committees, saying his agency has reduced child investigator caseloads by 30 percent and plans to reduce them by another 30 percent. The agency has hired about 100 child investigators, mostly in South Florida, and trained more than 1,100 on interviewing techniques, shifting the focus of the job from social work to law enforcement. Wilkins said DCF needs to do more to train and retain them, calling their position his top priority.

DCF came under scrutiny earlier this year for failing to piece together warning signs from medical professionals and school officials that something was wrong in the home of Jorge and Carmen Barahona in the years before their child, 10-year-old Nubia, was killed. The agency blamed it on a system wide failure, including poor judgment by child protective investigators, overwhelming caseloads and missed opportunities at every turn.

Nubia's decomposing body was found in the back for her father's truck by the side of the road on Valentine's Day. Her twin brother Victor survived, but was badly burned by a toxic chemical. Jorge and Carmen Barahona have pleaded not guilty to a first-degree murder and a slew of child abuse charges. The state has said it will seek the death penalty.

DCF has also asked the legislature for permission to redirect $35 million within their nearly $3 billion budget to revamp technology and overhaul the abuse hotline. The Legislature provided $5 million last year to begin the process.

Most of that funding would go to front-line workers for mobile devices and other technology. When hotline operators currently receive a call, they can't pull up a family's history, showing prior complaints, outcomes and school and medical issues. A centralized database would allow real-time access to all officials.

The agency hopes to retain a vendor by January and have the system running before school starts in the fall of 2012, Wilkins said. Hotline calls typically spike during the school year.

The investigator assigned to check on the whereabouts of the Barahona twins did not have a phone number for the family and didn't know the children had been removed from school and were being home-schooled.

Wilkins said child protective investigators should be able to quickly pull up data when they are following up a hotline call, just as law enforcement would check during a criminal investigation.

A hotline caller warned the Barahona twins were being tied by their hands and feet and locked in the bathroom for days, but DCF officials never contacted the police and the hotline operator didn't flag the call as an emergency. Since then, DCF officials said they have collaborated with law enforcement to develop protocol for future emergencies.

In the past, the hotline did little more than collect information from callers and route it to local offices.

"Quite frankly we weren't even answering all the phone calls that were coming in," Wilkins said. "At this point we've sort of patched the dam."

The goal is to shift the hotline from data entry to data investigation, where operators get details that will make it easier for child protective investigators to do their jobs, he said.

Our Kids, the private contractor overseeing case managers in the Barahona case, was also put on a corrective action plan, stressing that case managers need to take ownership of cases.

DCF has criticized Our Kids and other private contractors around the state for not using the DCF database or entering only incomplete data on children, making it difficult to get a full picture. DCF officials said they will require all contractors and DCF employees to use the system going forward and will discipline those who do not. DCF said some contractors not only failed to use the state's system, but purchased their own system. Some contractors complained DCF's system was unwieldy and difficult to use.

A grand jury report in July made several recommendations following Nubia's death, including psychological evaluations for foster parents seeking to adopt. The report also recommended re-licensing foster parents every two years to make sure they are still fit caretakers and that those who are subject to abuse or neglect reports be placed on probation that would require more frequent visits from caseworkers.

Critics worry the stipulations might deter some from becoming foster parents or subject current foster and adoptive parents to unfair scrutiny.

Wilkins said the agency is still reviewing the recommendations.

"A lot of them are very controversial in terms of how we would do them or if we would do them," he said.