Cries for help to DCF hot line go unheeded by design
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
Nov. 16, time unknown: A father is attempting to break into his estranged wife’s home. He says he will kill his children. That call, too, is not accepted for investigation.
These decisions, and thousands more, are the result of a little-known — but potentially dangerous — practice by the Department of Children & Families: Beginning last year, DCF dramatically increased the number of abuse calls considered unworthy of investigation.
In an effort to reduce workload — and the system-wide stress that high case loads generate — intake workers at the Tallahassee-based hot line have been screening out tens of thousands of calls.
Among the screened-out allegations: reports of kidnapping, rape, aggravated child abuse, medical neglect, malnutrition, kids roaming the streets unsupervised and domestic violence that threatens to harm the children.
Among the callers being turned away: school counselors, grandparents, circuit court judges, hospital social workers, day-care workers and juvenile-justice staffers.
The hot line rejected a call from one of the agency’s own child-abuse investigators: On Oct. 15, a state child protective investigator filed a report on behalf of an infant whose babysitters’ own 4-month-old suffered “significant head injuries.”
Details of the screenings have come to light as part of a review of procedures by child-welfare managers in Broward County.
DCF administrators say the policy is a necessary triage that allows investigators to concentrate their energies on children who are most at risk.
Last year, DCF Secretary George Sheldon complained at a meeting of an avalanche of frivolous complaints, including a report from a teacher that a child came to school in mismatched sneakers and a report from another teacher about a boy whose underwear was on backward.
“I think this is still a work in progress,” Sheldon told The Miami Herald last week. “I think we’ve got to continue to refine our risk assesment, both at the hot line and in the field.”
“I think we have started this ship turning. But it ain’t there yet.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
In Florida, hot-line counselors come from all walks of life. Before being allowed to answer calls — which number about 190,000 each year — counselors are given seven weeks of training followed by a two-week supervised “practicum,” said Edward Cotton, a child-welfare consultant who is helping the state revise the program.
Counselors screen calls based on detailed definitions of abuse, neglect and abandonment as spelled out in Florida statutes and a host of internal policies and procedures.
In the past year, records show, DCF has been accepting fewer child-abuse calls to the hot line for investigation.
In January 2009, DCF accepted 14,930 child-abuse reports, down from 17,999 the previous year. In February 2009, DCF accepted 14,724 reports, down from 18,427 in 2008. In September 2009, DCF accepted 14,553 reports, down from 17,709 the year before. And in October 2009, the agency generated 13,188 investigations, down from 17,345 in 2008.
Children are not the only Floridians who may be left in harm’s way. The hot line is also screening reports about disabled adults and elders, including an Oct. 12 complaint that a disabled woman had been raped by another resident at a home for people with disabilities.
A source with knowledge of the new policies says DCF has revised internal guidelines on what constitutes abuse, including a new protocol to reject complaints about children who have suffered bruises or welts from beatings — unless such beatings result in a trip to the doctor or hospital, or “permanent disfigurement.”
And a December 2008 DCF report shows the agency is considering revising the definition of “inadequate supervision” so narrowly that, for example, the hot line would screen out calls where “a parent allows [a] 3-year-old to play with a loaded gun while they are in the room supervising them.
“The hot line would only accept an intake if the 3-year-old shot themselves with the loaded gun the parent allowed them to play with,” says the report, part of a review of several potential policy changes.
DCF’s top child welfare administrator, Alan Abramowitz, said the state will not implement that particular protocol. “It’s not going to happen,” Abramowitz said. “I don’t even think the NRA would agree with that.”
Mark Riordan, a DCF spokesman, said the agency’s senior management had not yet reviewed the proposed revisions and that it is unlikely some of the new definitions will be approved.
Cotton, the consultant, who worked two decades in the Illinois child-protection system and was director of New Jersey’s Department of Youth and Family Services, said Florida does not appear to screen out a higher percentage of calls than other states, though differing hot-line designs make comparisons difficult.
“There is really no national standard for what is screened and what is not,” Cotton said.
As a safety value, Sheldon and Abramowitz said, the agency has asked its “quality assurance” team to randomly review thousands of screened-out calls to ensure proper decision-making.
Child advocates say stepped-up screening is a dangerous shortcut that will claim children’s lives. And, in fact, it may already have.
In July, 1-year-old Bryce Barros was beaten to death after a Broward County domestic violence judge, Eileen O’Connor, sent three faxes to the hot line requesting an investigation into Bryce’s safety in the wake of ongoing family violence by his parents.
“The court is deeply concerned about the welfare of the minor child,” O’Connor wrote in the three faxes she titled “court orders.”
O’Connor’s appeals were ignored.
“Hot-line calls are cries for help on behalf of a child,” said Howard Talenfeld, the Fort Lauderdale-based chairman of Florida’s Children First, an advocacy group. “Any call that is screened out is a cry that falls on deaf ears.”
This fall, the head of the Broward Sheriff’s Office’s child-protection unit teamed with a DCF administrator to study about three months’ worth of reports that were rejected by the hot line but then referred to a prevention program in Broward administered by BSO.
About one in four of the screened calls result in such prevention referrals in Broward. In each case, parents are sent form letters suggesting they seek help. No one follows up with the families to determine whether the services were accepted.
A finding of the joint review: About 46 percent of the cases studied by the two administrators — BSO’s James Walker and DCF’s Kimberly Welles — ultimately were phoned back to the hot line by BSO investigators who concluded the children remained at risk, said Riordan, a DCF spokesman in Broward.
Statewide, Abramowitz said, about 6 percent of prevention referrals are phoned back to the hot line.
Among the screened calls: On Oct. 21, someone alleged that a woman and her five children were living in a car because her husband kicked her out and changed the locks.
Two of the kids were disabled: an autistic 3-year-old and a 6-year-old sibling who is developmentally disabled, failing to thrive, and required 24-hour nursing care to maintain a feeding tube. Local homeless shelters refused to help the family because they wouldn’t accept disabled children.
But DCF turned her away, too.
“So, a child requiring a feeding tube, along with an autistic child, was forced out of the home by the father — thereby . . . forcing his [children] with handicaps into the streets. Isn’t that harm?” Walker wrote in his review of the Broward prevention referrals.
The push to reduce the number of full-fledged investigations began in June 2008, well into the economic downturn. “The Child Protective System is experiencing significant stress due to the high number of reports that [the agency has] been receiving since Oct. 2006,” Sheldon wrote in a June 10, 2008 e-mail, when he was still assistant secretary.
From fall 2007 to fall 2008, the hot line was receiving about 1,320 more calls per month, Steve Holmes, a strategic planning director, wrote nine days later.
“The more reports a child protective investigator receives,” he wrote, “the less time he or she has to conduct a thorough investigation.
“Less time spent on investigations may place an increased risk to the safety of children,” Holmes added. Adding to the strain: For budget year 2008, Florida lawmakers reduced funding to the four sheriff’s departments, including Broward, that conduct abuse investigations under contract with DCF by $2.9 million, or almost 6 percent.
STRAIN ON SYSTEM
Sheldon said he had been told by so-called “professional reporters” — educators, coaches, ministers, pediatricians and judges — that a 1998 law setting penalties for failing to report suspected maltreatment left them little choice but to phone the hot line even with frivolous complaints.
From 2006 through 2008, reports from school professionals, for example, jumped 132 percent while reports from social workers increased 51 percent, a DCF report says.
“I don’t believe it’s abuse, but my sergeant told me I should report it,” was a common refrain from frustrated police officers, Sheldon said.
At about the same time DCF administrators ramped up their screening of hot-line calls, they also expanded a program that allows caseworkers to offer an array of services — such as subsidized child care, rent and utilities assistance, parenting classes, and domestic-violence intervention — to struggling families that are not under investigation.
Abramowitz called the “prevention referrals” a safety net for parents whose troubles do not require a full investigation but who might benefit from a helping hand.
“We created a mechanism to review screened-out calls,” Abramowitz said. “It’s a safeguard. . . . We want to make sure we have engaged families so that we make sure we help them.”
But some child-welfare experts question whether the prevention program can take the place of a quality investigation.
Consultant Norma Harris, who directs the Social Research Institute at the University of Utah and has reviewed Miami’s foster-care system, said children remain at risk if caseworkers don’t ensure that parents accept the services that are offered. Simply sending letters or brochures does not protect children, she said.
And Cheleene B. Schembera, a 27-year DCF child-welfare administrator and inspector general who now works as a consultant, said she has never approved of screening out hot-line calls, because even fairly innocuous allegations, once investigated, can uncover serious threats to children.
“That isn’t child protection,” Schembera said.
© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.
Sudden vacancies at the top are nothing new at Miami City Hall, where some mayors, commissioners and city managers have made a virtual civic tradition of getting evicted from their posts by scandal, indictment or political score-settling.
But these latest events may top it all.
In the space of a few days, a new mayor was sworn in, a nationally recognized police chief stepped down and two commissioners — Angel Gonzalez and Michelle Spence-Jones — were forced out by corruption charges.
Though not entirely unexpected — rumors of the criminal charges had circulated for weeks — the events turned City Hall upside down as the new mayor, veteran commissioner Tomás Regalado, steps into the official suite at Dinner Key.
But the political vacuum may be a lucky break for Regalado, allowing him the rare chance to influence — if not determine outright — the choices to fill two vacancies simultaneously on the five-seat commission.
Tracking the changes, and the potential fallout, almost requires a spreadsheet.
Regalado, who during former Mayor Manny Diaz’s eight years in office was often on the losing side of 4-1 votes, now appears poised to secure a solid commission majority. Both Gonzalez and Spence-Jones were staunch allies of Diaz, Regalado’s political nemesis.
That puts Regalado and his chief lieutenant, newly anointed Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff, firmly in the driver’s seat at City Hall.
“Regalado has a gigantic opportunity to shape the commission,” said Florida International University politics professor Kevin Hill. “He could really shape what he wants to do for the next year or two.”
In fact, Regalado could enjoy the rare political fortune of a commission composed entirely of allies.
In Tuesday’s runoff for the District 4 vacancy created by Regalado’s election, both candidates, Francis Suarez and Manolo Reyes, have been sending out fliers with the new mayor’s picture on it, even though Regalado has stayed out of the race.
Newly elected Commissioner Frank Carollo, meanwhile, has been glued to Regalado’s side since the election. Regalado has taken to calling Carollo “Frankie.”
Carollo — a former cop and brother of former Miami Mayor Joe Carollo — replaced another Diaz ally on the commission, Joe Sanchez, who was crushed by Regalado in the mayoral race.
“I really think that we are going to have a very friendly commission,” Regalado said in an interview. “Remember, the three Manny Diaz votes are gone.”
Only once has there been a worse political vacuum at Miami City Hall: In 1938, voters recalled Mayor Robert Williams and two commissioners — a majority of the commission, since the mayor sat on the panel then — amid allegations of bribe solicitation. All three, members of what The Miami News dubbed the “termite” administration, were charged but later acquitted.
ECHOES OF THE PAST
To some veteran observers, the unfolding scandal carries unwelcome echoes of the trouble-plagued late 1990s, a period of near-constant upheaval at City Hall under Mayors Xavier Suarez and Joe Carollo — bitter rivals nicknamed Mayor Loco and Crazy Joe, respectively, by wags.
“Good Lord, this is like Groundhog Day,” said Miami historian Arva Moore Parks of the newest round of scandals. “I wish we would learn how not to keep doing this to ourselves.”
First, there are those familiar last names, with not just a Carollo back at City Hall, but potentially also a Suarez — the District 4 candidate is the former mayor’s son.
Both Frank Carollo and Francis Suarez, a political novice, have been scandal- and antic-free.
Not so their elders.
Between 1996 and 2001, City Hall at times resembled a revolving door. Going to prison at various times on extortion, bribery or money-laundering charges were a city manager, Cesar Odio; a commissioner, Miller Dawkins; a lobbyist; a finance director; another city manager and one-time police chief, Donald Warshaw; and one more commissioner, Humberto Hernandez, convicted not only in a bank-fraud case, but also of conspiring to conceal vote fraud in a city election.
The first four fell in Operation Greenpalm, a 1996 federal investigation into kickbacks at City Hall. Greenpalm also revealed a stunningly mismanaged city on the brink of fiscal collapse, forcing then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to appoint an oversight board.
Hernandez’s misdeeds carried the gravest consequences for the city. A judge threw out the 1997 reelection of Suarez and handed the mayor’s office to Carollo, citing extensive vote fraud largely engineered by Hernandez’s campaign — including a vote cast in the name of Manuel Yip. Who was dead.
Also convicted in that case: Hernandez supporter Angel González, who received a withhold of adjudication, allowing him to run for office. He then got himself elected and reelected to the commission, until he was forced to step down this week after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in a scheme to help his daughter obtain a no-show job with a contractor.
Note also that Hernandez, too, won his fraud-plagued election after he was indicted — and suspended from office the first time — for money laundering and mortgage fraud.
Xavier Suarez, a Hernandez ally, was not implicated in vote fraud, but his political career was finished.
While still mayor, Joe Carollo later spent a night in jail after launching a tea-carton at his wife’s head during an argument.
Not all of the reshuffling was a consequence of malfeasance.
Shortly after the judge put him in office, Carollo fired Suarez’s city manager, Jose Garcia-Pedrosa. That was on a Monday. Garcia-Pedrosa was reinstated to the post by the commission on Friday, only to be refired by the mayor that same night. Carollo fired Garcia-Pedrosa for the third and final time less than two weeks later.
His replacement: Former top cop Warshaw. While city manager, Warshaw was charged with fraud for stealing from a charity he had started while police chief. It was called Do the Right Thing. Warshaw was sentenced to a year in federal prison.
Perhaps the most tragic case came four years after Warshaw’s disgrace. Facing charges of pocketing payoffs in exchange for city contracts while running the Community Redevelopment Agency, Commissioner Arthur Teele fatally shot himself in the lobby of The Miami Herald in 2005.
Those were hardly the first Miami city officials to fall amid scandal. In 1973, Mayor David Kennedy was removed from office after he was charged with trying to bribe a judge. Though he was cleared, he didn’t run again. A park in Coconut Grove was later named after him.
THE TIMES AHEAD
Regalado, first elected to the commission in 1996, was untouched by the scandals of the day but suffered his own ethical missteps, though no charges were ever filed: In 1999, the state attorney’s office investigated Regalado’s use of his city gas card, which was used to buy fuel two or three times a day, pumping twice what his Jeep’s manufacturer said the tank holds.
That same year, Regalado’s commission paycheck was garnished as the IRS attempted to collect thousands of dollars in back taxes.
But Hill, the FIU professor, doesn’t think last week’s round of scandals bodes a return to the “circus” of the ’90s.
“At least I hope not,” Hill said. “He (Regalado) is well respected by a lot of people. I just don’t see that kind of instability coming from him.”
Just what a pro-Regalado majority on the commission means for Miami’s residents could be harder to determine.
Regalado, who built his campaign on his opposition to big Diaz projects like the Florida Marlins stadium and the planned Port of Miami tunnel, has not articulated a vision beyond looking out for the city’s neighborhoods.
But it could strengthen Regalado’s hand in dealing with City Manager Pete Hernandez — should he decide to keep him on — or give him nearly free rein in choosing a successor. The mayor appoints the manager but needs commission confirmation.
That, in turn, could give Regalado a bigger say in selecting a successor to Diaz’s police chief, John Timoney, who resigned under pressure from the new mayor. The manager technically hires the chief, but a manager beholden to the mayor for his job is unlikely to buck him.
A Regalado commission majority could also spell future headaches for the Marlins. All three commissioners who unwaveringly supported the stadium — Sanchez, Gonzalez and Spence-Jones — are gone.
Regalado said the Marlins should not expect a warm embrace if they come back to the city for more money. Under Diaz, the city agreed to help finance parking garages and commercial space around the Little Havana stadium, which is now under construction.
“They won’t get past Bayshore Drive,” Regalado said with a laugh, referring to the main drag fronting City Hall. “They won’t even be able to come into City Hall.”
Tallahassee will increase unemployment fees to businesses by over 1,000%.
This is because Florida’s unemployment fund is bankrupt. The unemployment fee is expected to jump from $8.40 per employee to over $100 per worker. Tallahassee has already used over $550 million dollars from federal government loans to keep unemployment benefits uninterrupted.
(commonsense305) Straight from the Riptide Live blog of the November 3rd City of Miami elections:
7:00 — Polls just closed. Miami Mayor candidate Regalado has told media he’s already heard from Governor Charlie Crist about stimulus spending, before polls closed. Apparently, if elected, the two will meet next week. But Charlie Crist thought he’d win the senate primary with no problem, so we’re not sure if he’s the best political forecaster.
Continuing discussion describes:
“In anticipation of Regalado’s victory, Florida Governor and U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Crist placed a phone call early last week and made plans for the two men to brainstorm together about ensuring the city of Miami obtains additional federal stimulus funding. Politically this is a good start for Regalado, since it will provide the city an opportunity to use state funds on infrastructure; however, it also is a clever move on Crist’s part, since he needs to find a way to counter the challenge being brought to him in the Senate race by Marco Rubio. Not surprisingly, by cementing a bond with a new Hispanic mayor at the witching hour of victory, Crist can hope to win additional support in Rubio’s back yard.”
“He said he heard earlier this week from Gov. Charlie Crist, and they plan to meet next week to discuss how Miami can snare a greater share of federal stimulus money.”