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“Anybody But DCF”: Judge Wants Failing Agency Off Child Investigations After 5th Death

| July 23, 2013

Some drawers won't be opened anymore. (Plage Vinilos y Adhesivos)

Some drawers won’t be opened anymore. (Plage Vinilos y Adhesivos)

In the wake of a fifth child death in little more than two months, a circuit judge Tuesday called for the Florida Department of Children and Families to stop doing child-welfare investigations and transfer that responsibility elsewhere.

“They need to get out of the child-protection investigation business,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman said of the department. Whether law-enforcement agencies or local community-based care organizations conduct the investigations doesn’t matter, Lederman said. “Anybody but DCF.”

On Monday, the department released information about the weekend death of a Homestead child who had earlier come to the attention of child-welfare officials. The death was the fifth such case since May 16 and followed the resignation last week of DCF Secretary David Wilkins, who left amid controversy about his approach to child safety.

The department had the chance to intervene in the cases of all five children. Instead, the toddlers — all 4 years old or under — were left in the care of parents whose lack of ability or inclination to care for them was well documented.

Part of the problem, Lederman said, was that DCF had been unable to establish the need for intervention when it was warranted.

“Cases are coming in with numerous prior (offenses),” the judge said. “The home studies are inadequate. …DCF has conducted a long series of incompetent investigations that have endangered children and you’re seeing the result now.”

For instance in one of the earlier cases, 5-month-old Bryan Osceola’s mother had been arrested several times on substance-abuse charges, but DCF failed to refer her for treatment. At one point, she was discovered drunk in a car that was still in drive — with Bryan also in the vehicle. He died later in an overheated car.

“We get calls every day about kids that are being sexually abused or neglected who are already in the system,” said attorney Howard Talenfeld, president of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First.

The latest child to die, 2-year-old Jayden Villegas-Morales, was taken off life support Sunday. His father, Angel Luis Villegas, is accused of shaking him in frustration over the boy’s repeated vomiting, according to The Miami Herald.

Wilkins’ abrupt resignation Thursday came after the department faced questions about its handling of the earlier child deaths. Gov. Rick Scott, who last month expressed unqualified support for Wilkins, tapped Esther Jacobo of the agency’s southern region as interim secretary.

“My number one priority, and why I agreed to take this position, is that I believe the noise level we have been experiencing in recent weeks has taken us a bit off track,” Jacobo emailed DCF staff on Friday.

“My core mission is to refocus our attention to our primary responsibility—– protecting and serving the vulnerable children and families of our state,” she wrote in the email.

The “noise level” was partly due to the children’s deaths and partly due to Wilkins’ ongoing conflict with the 19 local community-based care organizations, which provide case management, family-support services, foster care and adoption services in their areas.

That clash was based on Wilkins’ desire to gain more control over how the organizations are run. It had reached the Legislature, whose members were being lobbied to protect the CBCs, as the organizations are commonly known.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, had already planned to hold a hearing on the child deaths and the CBC controversy in September.

Now, she says, the child-welfare system needs to accommodate itself to the needs of very young children.

“I notice all these deaths are toddlers under 4 (years old),” Sobel said. “They cannot express themselves as well as older children. Maybe the casework should err on the side of caution…Are the parents getting the social services they need in the cases where you leave kids at risk?”

Wilkins had stressed family reunification rather than taking kids into state custody over signs of abuse and/or neglect. Under his predecessors, Bob Butterworth and George Sheldon, DCF established a federal waiver that funded such services. Now, though, Lederman recalls those days somewhat wistfully.

“We all worked, all over the state, together under (the Butterworth and Sheldon) administrations(s),” Lederman said. “They would admit when they were wrong. If we want to truly reform this system, we have to be open and honest about its failures — failures I see every day.”

Child-welfare experts also called for transparency at DCF.

Alan Abramowitz, executive director of Florida’s Guardian ad Litem Program, said “most of the cases that come into care” are due to neglect, not abuse, and that some parents want services to improve their parenting.

“Parents who want to do right by their children should have the opportunity,” Abramowitz said.

“The starting point for the governor is to appoint a secretary who understands the child welfare system,” Talenfeld added. “It doesn’t have to be a Republican or a Democrat — just somebody that listens and has some expertise.”

Mike Watkins, CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care, agreed with Sobel that the youngest children need extra protection and suggests two-person teams. He also took issue with a Wilkins move to eliminate the so-called “second-party review” and proposed that where toddlers are concerned, that review should take place on the spot, as a field exercise.

“These are community kids,” Watkins said. “They’re not state wards. … There needs to be a strong level of community engagement with their welfare.”

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

27 Responses for ““Anybody But DCF”: Judge Wants Failing Agency Off Child Investigations After 5th Death”

  1. Kip Durocher says:

    Get to the source of the problem ~ get rid of Scott.

  2. Magnolia says:

    5 deaths in a little more than two months is unbelievable. Just because you reproduce does not mean you are qualified to parent. “Services to improve parenting”?

    5 little ones died because children were left with families who never should have had them in the first place.

  3. notherorphan says:

    I have stated for so many years now: Make the governments of each state be totally responsible for the ultimate safety and well-being of each child falling into certain categories; and one of those would be ANY time a child’s welfare is thought to be in jeopardy, take that child and put it into a state run orphanage until there is NO QUESTION as to the mental AND financial stability of the care giver.
    Enough already with us paying for childcare to dirtbag relatives who don’t use our money to benefit their own kinfolks!
    Put the kids into an orphanage and KEEP them there until the person wanting to be responsible for that kid is PROVEN beyond a shadow of a doubt to be certifiably capable of doing just that.
    We need to STOP handing out money to losers at the cost of kids lives and our own financial loss!
    BTW! I am white and I am ONLY referring to white situations of which I am very much in touch with, but it could help all the way around, I think.
    From everything I see happening around me, total collapse of our lives as we are now living them is just around the corner, and we are killing CHILDREN to kill ourselves!
    Is there anyone here who doesn’t think that THAT is sick?

    • Johnny Taxpayer says:

      While I somewhat agree, I don’t know that you can automatically assume an orphanage or group home is actually any better than parents suspected, but not proven, of some type of abuse. There are plenty of orphanages and group homes that are ineffective and abusive where children would actually be worse off. And also we must remember that Parents have a constitutional right to their child, the state can’t just take away a child where the parent is suspected of abuse, there needs to be some proof…

      I think the long term solution is extreme. We need to incentivize people who are not capable of being responsible parents to NOT to have children. We need to offer them $10,000 cash to be voluntarily sterilized. $10k may seem like a lot, but when compared to the cost of having a kid go through the DCF system, easily several $100ks, it’s a pittance.

      • jim reed says:

        DCF workers need to be trained better. Here they are messing with me just because some who doesn’t like me called And said i’m using and selling drugs. They came out tested everyone in the house. Everyone came up clean. No drugs found in the house. Yet they kept coming back. I know they’re only doing their jobs, which is why i say they need to be trained. They need to know where they need to be spending their time and effort. On the cases where there is real evidence of abuse ir neglect!

  4. Anon says:

    Five deaths in children under the age of 4. Innocent little children. This is worthy of raising awareness and holding those responsible accountable.

  5. Sherry Epley says:

    This from NBC Miami, May 2011:

    The Department of Children and Families is cutting nearly 500 positions to save the state $48 million as Gov. Rick Scott tries to balance the state budget and slash spending by nearly $4 billion, the agency said Monday.


  6. A.S.F. says:

    I am a Social Worker licensed in another state. This is not a problem being experienced solely by the state of Florida. Governer Scott is an extreme example but it seems as though no one is willing to put forth the money that is needed to do the job that is required by any of our child protective agencies, private non-profit or government run. Most of the caseworkers who work for agencies like CPS are not licensed social workers. They all too often lack the education and training necessary to do the job that needs to be done. Most direct line staff stagger under overwhelming caseloads and this inevitably leads to inadequate supervision of target homes. I have personally experienced going head-to-head with administrative supervisors who have objected to the amount of time I have felt was necessary to ensure the safety of children I felt were in danger. I was personally called onto the carpet once when I insisted on a safety plan being done in a home in which I suspected there was ongoing sexual abuse, despite the mother claiming that the stepfather had moved out of the home. I had reason to believe from interviews I had conducted that the stepfather was sneaking back in at night, when the mother thought no social workers would show up at their door.The mother involved, while paying lip-service to the safety plan (which I finally managed to have put into the record), simply seemed incapable of change, for whatever reason. At that point, the reason for her behavior was secondary to the health and safety of the child involved (or so I felt.) I sought to have the child removed from the home. A judge ignored ny recommendation and denied motion for removal. People need to realize that judges often have the final say, not caseworkers. Reunification is a worthwhile goal but it is simply not realistic in all cases. But treatment and alternative placement costs money, that is the bottom line. As a society we need to figure out what our priorities really are. It seems to me that reading news stories like this one and clucking over them for a day or two is not an adequate response. We should INSIST on competence from ALL our social agencies but we also need to be willing to pay for it. Governor Scott is definitely not but his policies are only a reflection of the citizens who put him in power and keep him there. We need to demand change–and be willing to put our money where our mouths are. These innocent children deserve our help. This is an area in which politics should be put aside and the needs of the children be put first, foremost and last.

    • snobird says:

      As a grandmother who has lost 3 grand daughters to the over-zealous system of “child protection”, I see absolutely no reason for CPS to even exist, let alone get more money for wrecking homes, families and children’s lives. I read stories almost everyday of the corruption in the system that is supposed to be paid to “protect” children but have yet to find out, and we have asked the caseworkers we were involved with, what are they protecting children from?
      I say defund the system of CPS, DCF, HHS, HRS, whatever alphabet name they want to go by and let law enforcement and the justice system do what they are paid to do. If a crime is committed, arrest the perpetrator and do an investigation into what happened, a REAL INVESTIGATION!!! Law enforcement is not based on feelings or a desire to pad ones’ pockets. If a child is in danger or truly abused and needs a safe home, the family should be the ones to step in and provide for that child/children until or if the parent/parents can provide a safe place. CPS works against families and children.
      A.S.F., No amount of money that anyone throws at you will fix what’s already broken. Fostercare is a joke. No parents are paid to “parent”, so why should foster “parents” get paid to house other people’s kids. There are some good people who love kids but the majority are in it for the money. More children are killed or abused in fostercare than kids whose parents are accused of abusing. More foster kids are drugged with a mix of psychotropic drugs than those who live in homes with their parents or family members. Tell me why that is?

      • A.S.F. says:

        I am sorry to hear of your family troubles but there needs to be a safety net for children and families besides the police and the courts. I have already stated that the courts are often the ones who make these final decisions NOW. I have seen too many instances where police have been called out to take care of domestic situations that end in tragedy because they simply are not trained to handle situations that involve mental illness and addiction (like many of these kinds of situations do.) I take exception to your sweeping statement that “n amounty of money that anyone throws at you will fix what’s already broken.” Money COUPLED WITH WELL-THOUGHT OUT SOLUTIONS THAT RESULT IN WELL-DESIGNED PROGRAMS STAFFED BY PROFESSIONALS WHO KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING certainly do help. I am sorry if you have never had the good fortune to experience this personally. This does not mean that we should stop trying or that others should be denied.

  7. Geezer says:

    Oh, DCF, where do I begin with my complaints?

    I believe that there’s 5 agents covering Flagler, Putnam, and Volusia Counties!
    5 AGENTS! Are you kidding me???

    If you call the DCF hotline to report elder or child abuse, you first have to sit through
    recorded threats of felony charges if it’s determined that you called in phony complaints.
    LOL!!! Why LOL? I called in a complaint about a “grand” rehab facility in Palm Coast
    and spoke with a “Jackie,” I went on to tell this person about an incident of abuse I observed there.
    Jackie put me on hold for ten minutes…..Jackie returns, and informs me: “I spoke with
    the supervisor of the facility and she says that she doesn’t believe that any abuse occurred”.
    Good God. That’s like calling the wolf to ask if the chickens are secure in the henhouse!
    Wow, the facility has “connections” within DCF. Now Medicare and is investigating.

    The ER in our fabulous hospital on 100 has DCF on speed-dial as a terrorist tool.
    I know a caregiver who cares for an elderly person who has Alzheimer’s and is a frequent visitor at the ER. At the ER works a physician’s assistant (PA) who likes to send people home when they need to be admitted. The caregiver said some choice words to the PA and insisted that the patient be admitted
    because of very low blood pressure. The PA spun this into a case of abandonment and called DCF.
    DCF investigated and stated that nothing can be done about these phony reports. (one week later)
    “There just aren’t enough people for that” was the response by the DCF agent.
    Yes, they are aware of the “sic ’em” phone calls. BUt they allow it to continue.

    Meanwhile there’s victims of incest, sexual molestation, child abuse, elder exploitation, and elder abuse
    who have to wait for help. When help arrives it’s too little, too late, and toothless.

    It’s a disgrace. The vulnerable people of Florida are a low priority.
    Thank you, Governor SKELETOR.

  8. RHWeir says:

    I have 37 years experience in state government and an MPA. 5 years of that experience is right here in Florida. Thank god I had the foresight to get out of here and go up north in 79 and have a 30 year career in a state up north and secure myself a nice pension. The problem with DCF and other state agencies is that they do not pay. You cannot recruit and retain qualified staff for the wages that the State of Florida pays. I would absolutely hate to be in need and have to turn to DCF. Sorry folks things won’t get better until we pay our public employees or we privatize it. I’m for privatizing it. It’s too far gone now to keep it public with broadbanding wages and all so, turn it over to private corporations and hold them accountable.

    • Enough says:

      I must say that I agree totally with Weir above, you sometimes get what you pay for, and while I am sure there are DCF staff who are very caring, and competent, my interaction with that agency, leads me to believe that those above are few and far between. I agree with Judge Lederman, enough is enough. This problem has been around thru both Democratic and Republican administrations. There is simply no accountability in that agency, never has been. I don’t see this new Secretary as any improvement when she comes from a region where many of these tragic events occurred. I would like to know who is the person in charge of overall child abuse investigations in Miami? Why is he or she still employed there? These are sad, sad days in this state. Agree with Lederman, “anybody but dcf.”

      • RHWeir says:

        I can tell you this about DCF, the pay is so low, that at least half of the caseworkers in my office were receiving Food Stamp benefits. For the most part, upper level local management is politically appointed. Line staff at the local level are normally people who could not get something else due to geographic restrictions or have put so much time in, they can’t leave. Employees are sucked in by the pension carrot but the pensions are so meager, they have to wait till 65 or 66 or whatever the age will be and combine with SS retirement. Even with the SS, a lot still end up on the Food Stamp rolls. Point is, employees may care but they’re burned out and frustrated and poor. Due to broad banding the coworker you have to constantly cover for and carry makes the same as you and they are very careful about getting rid of anyone for poor performance. The Bush years took their toll on this bureaucracy. Younger and qualified people with anything on the ball, do not join DCF. Lots of former and current public assistance recipients are employees. Privatize it and hold the contracting firms accountable.

    • snobird says:

      That’s just passing the buck. The fact is that the system doesn’t hire qualified staff because too many get in thinking they’re doing something to help families and see the abuses and corruption in the system and don’t want any part of it. State wages and benefits is about to collapse under the weight of it’s own desires and future expectations. There is not enough money coming to secure the pensions, insurance and retirement that the state has promised. Where will the money come from if there are more state workers expecting to collect and less private sector workers who are working and paying into the pool?
      DCF workers want the power they are given to make life and death decisions about children and families but don’t want to be the ones who’s heads will roll when a tragic situation occurs.

  9. Kendall says:

    How about holding the DCF Caseworkers and Supervisors that let this happen criminally accountable?

    • A.S.F. says:

      The caseworkers can already be held accountable. The judges who refuse to award petitions for removal of children at risk, alas, are not. It is a multi-prong problem that demands a multi-prong approach and it should be undertaken NOW, with thoroughness and intelligence. This problem should not be reduced to the level of a political slogan–nor should we settle for blaming a few scapegoats (however well-deserved their comeuppance might be) and then settle back into our patterns of comfortable complacency.

    • Anonymous says:

      So, we should make all cops accountable for all the crime that happens? DCF Investigators don’t have any real authority and they aren’t given any respect and they can be turned away at the door. People don’t and most often won’t cooperate with them at all. So, how can they be held criminally liable for what happens behind closed doors? Half the state is a legion of overweight, addicted, insane morons and it there isn’t enough time, money, or power to save all their doomed children. The blame is on the sick individual that did the crime and the LAWYERS who were against intervention in that case. DCF works 24/7 and the amount of retarded individuals out there who have no clue on how to raise children is beyond comprehension. The real solution is sterilizing people before puberty and making them take an IQ and Psych and Drug test before they can be allowed to have children with their SPOUSES. Then, it’s likely that you people wont kill your children anymore. Until that day, blame yourselves citizens of Florida, you suck and the state can’t help you all.

  10. Liana G says:

    I remember meeting an 8 year old mentally disabled child once whose parents were both “mildly” mentally disabled and had two other siblings – one in 5th grade who was both mentally and physically disabled (wheelchair), and another in kindergarten who was also mentally disabled. When I met mom, she was pregnant with child number four. The 5th grader would often come to school in the same diaper that he was sent home in the day before.

    All three kids were always dirty and scruffy with serious dirt under their nails and between their toes. The teachers would often clip and clean their nails, buy them clean socks, underwear, and collect clothes for them. Multiples complaints were made to social services but nothing was ever done. When I questioned why these parents were allowed to have more kids, I was told that parents have rights! What about the rights of kids? Who speaks for them? All I hear is the rights of the individual. Are these kids not individuals too?

    I guess as long as multiple individuals and organizations exist to service the needs of this family and countless others, there is no incentive to really do anything.


    Yesterday on the train, there was a little kid – he was around 5 years – with his dad. The kid was crying and and kept asking his dad, “what’s the matter daddy? Are you angry with me daddy? Are you hurt daddy? Daddy, talk to me daddy…please daddy.” And that asshole would not make any attempt to comfort the child. Even when the child stretched out his little tiny hands to give him a hug he brushed it away. It was only when he saw me purposefully staring him down that he attempted to talk to the child. I so wanted to take the child. And I started thinking about the father’s very own upbringing and his current situation and if he uses drugs. Because I remember reading research that parents who use marijuana are less emotionally involved with their kids because the sensations block their ability to register any discomfort or distress or emotional neglect the child is experiencing.

    • A.S.F. says:

      …But you’re against sex education of any kind in schools and abortion, right? Oh, maybe you’re championing forced sterilization instead. Never mind.

  11. Sherry Epley says:

    Yes ASF! There definitely seems to be a tragic disconnect between requiring women to be treated like farm animals with no will of their own. . . denying the need for sex education, contraception and yes even early term abortion. Conservatives require every woman to give birth to and be permanently responsible for every child that is conceived no matter how that conception took place and no matter the circumstances of her life. BUT. . . then when some of those same tragic women cannot cope with the huge responsibilities involved in providing a healthy up bringing of that child, the conservatives have no compassion, offer no assistance, do not want THEIR tax dollars spent to help those who they put in the terrible position to begin with. On top of that, the conservatives place the BLAME solely on the woman . . . judging her negatively in a thousand different ways.

    That’s why the term should be changed from “pro life” to “pro birth”.

  12. devrie says:

    If you read the sentiments here, you can see part of the problem. “DCF people get to involved and are too eager to remove children.” …and, “they’re not paid enough or trained enough to effectively make a difference.”

    I wonder how many children’s lives have been saved by DCF workers? I used to forecast the weather, and you can go years doing tough forecasts…getting it right, spot-on every single day. One day when there isn’t much data or information and you over-forecast a store that seems dangerous, then bam, “Those weather guys are useless.” You don’t notice the times it’s right. You just notice when something goes wrong.

    Perhaps the caseloads have grown significantly, and that’s why, statistically, the horrors of child abuse and neglect are increasing.

    Yes, we need to visit the standard operating procedures of DCF workers. Yes, we need to address how effective they are at performing their job; however, we don’t know how many homes these people are visiting; how often they are visiting them, nor what restrictions they have when trying to remove children or offer interventions. We don’t know how many children’s lives they’ve saved, either.

    It’s a very fine line to walk when determining the types of intervention a family needs. A messy house is subjective. “Good parenting” is subjective (although, that’s debatable). There needs to be clearer standards on neglect and abuse; however, nobody’s really the perfect parent. At what juncture could DCF take people’s children away if the parents find themselves in financial turmoil and lose electricity for a few days?

    DCF workers have a tough, scary, highly responsible job. We shouldn’t forget that they are working under the main assumption that parents have the right to hit hard times and that children should remain with their family unless they could face harm or neglect. So, if your ex-spouse or kid-in-law has a personality disorder, no job, and lives in a travel trailer with holes in it in another state, you’re not likely to get DCF intervention to stop him or her from driving the kid out of state on a half a tank of gas with no money in his or her wallet unless there’s some sign of abuse.

  13. A.S.F. says:

    I am afraid that many people would like to assume that child abuse, elder abuse and abuse of other vulnerable individuals is strictly a “lower class” problem or a problem you only find in houses of color or in poorer neighborhoods. This is not necessarily true. It is also not correct to assume that people on assistance for any length of time are of minority status. As a Social Woker, I have served many elderly clients on assistance of some kind or another, disabled individuals , who may have become disabled at birth or after, as in the case of Traumatic Brain Injury. Assistance goes to many White families, especially in situations that involve women with young children who lose their contributing partner through death or accident. Some women find themselves in dire straits after being deserted by, or divorced from, their boyfriends or ex-spouses, who neglect to pay child support, regardless of whether there is a standing court order to do so or not. Some of these families might have been considered middle class before misfortune struck them. Not everyone on welfare or in need of Social Service assistance, even the assistance of family and children’s services, is unwilling or unable to change their circumstances if they get the right kind of help and support. I am not saying that the stick may not need to accompany the carrot, especially in situations where there is any question of abuse. But we should remain aware that the truism, ” There but for the Grace of God, go I,” applies to all of us and we should act accordingly. Ask yourself where you would turn, if you, or someone you cared about, found themselves in a situation that required immediate and critical attention. Think of how you might feel or react if that help was not available and what you received instead from the world around you were sneers, unsolicited judgements and kicks in the pants.

  14. gator slayor says:

    I concur with the judge 110 percent. I was in custody of HRS now DCF as a child and was abused and beat nearly to death on a daily basis while social worker’s were well aware of what was going. Living hell.Bastards r worthless.

  15. Hands tied says:

    My step child’s mother was found with a bag of cocaine in her car as well as unidentified pills. DCF discovered all of this and asked the mother to take a drug test and she refused saying she had anxiety. They went back a 3 weeks later she took it and it came out clean, that was plenty of time to get clean. These DCF people have been called several times by the school, the child’s therapist, and the father. Also, They spoke with the child ,who is 13, and she told them about all of the abuse physical and mental she has had to endure from her mother and they do nothing. They closed the case saying the child is in no danger and they can’t prove whose drugs were in the car. The poor children are the ones who suffer and these DCF don’t help they leave these children in these environments without any help. If this was the other way around with the father he would of been locked up and child taken away. Something has got to change!

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