Skip to main content /US
CNN.com /US
CNN TV
EDITIONS






Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection

Foreword

On April 25, 2002, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) revealed that one of its Miami wards, 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, had disappeared 15 months earlier from her custodial home and had not been seen since. This revelation, and others subsequently, engulfed DCF in scandal.

In response, Gov. Jeb Bush on May 6 appointed a four-member Governors Blue-Ribbon Panel on Child Protection to investigate and report back to him quickly. The governor named David Lawrence Jr., current chairman of the Florida Partnership for School Readiness and former publisher of The Miami Herald, to chair the panel, joined by child welfare expert Sara Herald, former regional vice president of the Childrens Home Society and now group chief administrative officer of Union Planters Bank; Carol Licko, the governors former counsel and now a partner in the Miami law firm of Hogan & Hartson LLP; and Sister Jeanne OLaughlin, president of Barry University. (It's worth noting that Ms. Herald was a foster parent and is an adoptive parent.)

The governors announcement said in pertinent part:

These community leaders bring a wealth of experience and wisdom to the task before them. They can help us all be sure that we are doing everything possible to keep our children safe.

The recent case of Rilya Wilson has raised very troubling questions about the states performance in protecting children in the child welfare system. It is essential that we resolve these issues quickly and ensure that children in the care and custody of the state are properly supervised and cared for. In the case of Rilya, the system failed. We must guard against failure in other cases.

I am asking the Panel to focus its attention on the safety of children in the child welfare system. The Panel will also specifically focus on the adequacy of oversight and accountability within the Department of Children and Families.

The governors announcement concluded by saying that the critical importance of the task - protecting our vulnerable children - demands urgent action.

Pursuant to the governors mandate, Chairman Lawrence scheduled four public hearings - later expanded to eight. Those hearings occurred at Miami-Dade Community College on May 8, 10, 13, 15, 17, 20, 26 and 27. All told, the Panel heard more than 30 hours of testimony from a wide spectrum of local, state, and national experts on child welfare, law enforcement, Guardians Ad Litem, foster parents, adoptive parents, Florida legislators, juvenile judges, and academia, as well as from parents whose children DCF had taken and placed in custody. In addition, the Panel received and reviewed a three-foot-thick stack of reports, studies, charts, graphs, transcripts of testimony and e-mails as well as numerous newspaper articles. Moreover, Panel members individually reviewed, in confidence, Rilya Wilsons records that courts subsequently made public on May 23 and 24. In addition, several Panel members attended demonstrations of HomeSafenet, DCFs new web-based computerized system of tracking child welfare cases.

The following report constitutes the Panels findings and recommendations to the governor. Daunting though its task was, the Panel undertook it enthusiastically, conscientiously, and with the fervent hope that its work proves beneficial, now and in years to come, to the children and families involved in Floridas child welfare system.

Anatomy of a Tragedy

Rilya Wilson has been missing for 16 months. Her caregivers, two Miami sisters who say they are - but in fact may not be - her great aunt and grandmother, claim that a woman from DCF took Rilya from their home in January 2001 for testing. The sisters have said from the outset that they haven't seen Rilya since. Miami-Dade Police detectives are pursuing a criminal investigation into her disappearance. They fear that she may be dead. We can only pray that somehow, somewhere, Rilya will be found alive and well.

Except for her disappearance - which, granted, is a huge except - the route by which Rilya became a ward of the State of Florida is not at all exceptional. It is, in fact, quite normal. It is a sad route traveled each year by thousands of children in Florida and by tens, indeed hundreds, of thousands of children across the United States.

These children - many so tiny, all so vulnerable, each so full of promise if only each could get love and nurture and opportunity - are the innocent victims of others flaws. Drug abuse. Deep poverty. Homelessness. Neglect and cruelty by their parents or caregivers, or physical or sexual abuse. Lack of timely medical care or mental health services. And the challenges for children go on: Lack of Guardians Ad Litem to assure their rights in court. Ineffective, or at worst indifferent, protection from government agencies mandated to safeguard children - commonly because of these agencies infighting. Each agency jealously guards its own turf. Each is suspicious of the others competence or motives. Cooperation too often is viewed as capitulation when, in fact, it is vital. This infighting contributes to a malign culture of self-protection that all but strips meaningful protections from those who need it most: the vulnerable children. So it long has been. So it was with Rilya. So it will ever be until - unless - Floridians resolve to guarantee dependent and abused children the protection they deserve. This resolve will require the fullest efforts of the governor, the Legislature, DCF, the courts, the schools, the Guardians Ad Litem, law enforcement, neighborhoods and individual citizens as well as volunteers without whom agencies working on behalf of children cannot function.

Rilyas case illustrates perfectly why this multi-pronged approach is so crucial.

Rilya was born on Sept. 26, 1996 to a homeless, allegedly crack-addicted mother, Gloria Wilson. Gloria Wilsons first child, Rilyas older sister, is now 7-1/2. She has lived for seven years with a Miami pastor and his wife. They want to adopt her. They and their foster daughter remain anonymous because, the pastor says, the child doesnt know of her connection to Rilya. The pastor also says his foster childs DCF caseworker, Deborah Muskelly - who also was Rilyas caseworker - never visited their home after January 2001. Nor, he told The Miami Herald, has any other DCF caseworker visited there in all those months. (However, it should be noted that the pastor signed blank forms acknowledging home visits without such visits occurring.)

Deborah Muskelly and her supervisor, Willie Harris, both have departed DCF. The department says that Ms. Muskelly falsified records in another case. Her resignation led to DCF going over all her cases, which is when Rilyas disappearance was discovered. She said she had regularly visited Rilya Wilson when it turned out that, in fact, she had not. Mr. Harris failed in his duty to supervise Ms. Muskelly. She resigned in lieu of termination; he retired in lieu of demotion. It should be noted that Ms. Muskelly was terminated on two previous occasions by DCF; on one of those occasions she was rehired by a different department, and the second time she was reinstated and demoted.

Moreover, The Miami Herald reported on May 8 that Ms. Muskelly had been a substitute Miami-Dade Public Schools teacher on at least 22 days when she supposedly was working at DCF. On at least 12 of those days, the newspaper said, she collected pay from both DCF and the school system. On seven days, Ms. Muskelly allegedly called in sick to DCF, collected sick pay, and went to her teaching job.

Clearly, a central fact in the Rilya Wilson situation is the utter dereliction of duty by Ms. Muskelly and her supervisor, Mr. Harris. But their terrible performance would have been detected had DCF had in place a system to assure that caseworkers in fact visit their assigned children at least once every 30 days. The requirement was and is there. The enforcement was lamentably - and for Rilya perhaps tragically - absent.

Soon after Rilyas birth, DCF - at her mothers urging and with a court order of placement - awarded custody of the child to Pamela Kendrick, a family friend of Gloria Wilson. DCF made that placement expeditiously, as it should have. But in April 2000, a Miami-Dade juvenile judge awarded custody of Rilya to Pamela Graham, who lives with her sister, Geralyn, in West Kendall. Pamela Graham says she is Rilyas great aunt, and Geralyn Graham claims to be Rilyas grandmother because she says her son, Kenneth Epson, is the father of both Rilya and her younger sister, Rodericka, now almost 3. Rodericka had been placed with the Graham sisters before Rilya was.

Whether the Graham sisters are even related to Rilya is itself in doubt. Court records, and his own assertions, say that Rilyas father is Manville Cash. He's now in the Miami-Dade County Jail. His 15-year criminal record includes half a dozen offenses. DCF records and court files list Manville Cash as Rilyas prospective father. But in terminating his and Gloria Wilsons rights to Rilya, a Miami-Dade judge ruled that Mr. Cash had neglected and abandoned the child.

Equally in doubt is Geralyn Grahams credibility. More in doubt is whether, had it discovered her record beforehand - which, alas, it did not - DCF ever would have placed Rilya or Rodericka in her home in the first place. (DCF is the first and only social services agency in the country to be granted access to the database of the National Crime Information Center for the purpose of screening caregivers for emergency placement. Only since last July has DCF had the legal right to do background national screenings on relative caregivers, which it has not yet completed due to the lack of equipment and funding.) Geralyn Grahams record shows that she served prison time in Tennessee in the 1980s for food stamp fraud. She also served five years probation in Florida for grand theft. This record alone should have disqualified her from being a caregiver. And depending on which newspaper account one accepts, she has used at least 20 aliases, or as many as 38. She has sued others at least eight times, and been sued at least a dozen times. DCF records show that since Rilya Wilsons disappearance, Geralyn Graham applied four times for welfare and food stamp benefits. The applications stated that she was caring for Rilya. The last application came in March 2002 - or 14 months after Rilya disappeared. DCF records also reflect that she continued to receive and cash relative-caregiver subsidy checks until March 2002, long after she claimed Rilya was gone. One of Geralyn Grahams lawsuits, filed in 1996, sought $2.5 million in damages from the Alamo car rental company. She claimed to have suffered serious injuries when, she alleged, Pamela Graham backed a rented Alamo van into her. Coincidentally, Geralyn Graham had said that she was born in the Bahamas as the daughter of Lynden O. Pindling, the Bahamas late former prime minister. In discovery proceedings in her lawsuit, Alamos defense lawyers found and introduced in court her birth certificate. She was born, it says, in Mississippi.

On May 1, 2002, given Rilyas disappearance, DCF removed Rodericka from the Grahams home and placed her elsewhere. This occurred even as DCF and Miami-Dade Circuit Courts chief juvenile judge, Cindy Lederman, were struggling over who had the right to place the child where. Judge Lederman had insisted that the court has ultimate authority to decide a dependent childs placement even if that child is in DCFs custody. DCF said absolutely not, that it alone had sole authority when parental rights have been terminated and the court has given custody to DCF. The immediate dispute revolved around whom - DCF or the judge - ultimately could decide where Rodericka would be placed after DCF, citing fears for Roderickas safety, removed her from the Grahams custody on May 1. The matter went before the Third District Court of Appeal, which quickly ruled in Judge Ledermans favor.

Meantime, the Miami-Dade Police Department gave polygraph tests to both Geralyn and Pamela Graham. On May 10, Miami-Dade Police Chief Carlos Alvarez said both women showed deception on those tests. What they tell us, we have to take with a grain of salt, Chief Alvarez said. He added: The people we talk to who supposedly saw this child alive, theyre not telling the truth. One of the Grahams attorneys, Ed Shohat, said the womens polygraph responses were skewed because of their anxiety over news reports suggesting that Rilya might be a dead child called Precious Doe, who had been found decapitated in Kansas City, Mo. Subsequent fingerprint and DNA tests disproved any connection between the two children.

At a hearing on May 14, Judge Lederman found that Rodericka had been neglected because the Grahams had not arranged proper medical care for her, nor had DCF carried out its responsibilities. In fact, Judge Lederman had ordered in February 2000 - more than two years earlier - that Rodericka have a complete medical and developmental assessment. DCF failed to do that because caseworker Deborah Muskelly never followed up, and her supervisor failed his obligations.

Judge Lederman said of Rodericka: This child cannot draw a circle. This child cannot name the colors. This child is so delayed, she cannot lace beads on a string. Every normal 3-year-old should be able to do these things. In addition, Judge Lederman said, Roderickas language skills are a year behind, and the child also has wandering eye syndrome that requires corrective treatment.

The story took another turn when The Miami Herald reported on May 22 that a medical professional, whom Miami-Dade Police would not identify further, had treated Rodericka in February 2001 and that Geralyn Graham brought Rilya along on that visit. Not so, says Geralyn Graham.

Despite all this, little Rodericka finally will get, at age 3, the medical attention that Judge Lederman ordered for her at age 1. As voluminous evidence shows, the ages from 1 through 3 are crucial for development of a childs brain. On that development hinges the childs cognitive, social, emotional and physical growth and, in many demonstrable respects, the child's progression through the teen years and into adulthood.

Roderickas development may be - or may not be: we cannot yet know - stunted by DCFs lapses. But Rodericka is luckier than her sister Rilya: DCF and Judge Lederman at least know where Rodericka is. Nobody can say the same for Rilya.

Findings and Recommendations

Fifteen months after the fact, Floridas child welfare agency, DCF reveals that a 5-year-old child has been missing since January 2001. Worse, DCF waits six days before reporting Rilya Wilson missing instead of calling the Miami-Dade Police Department immediately. As police launch a criminal investigation, the DCF is mired in a swamp of scandal.

Again.

Sixteen times since 1985, other scandals have prompted governors to appoint 11 special panels, and states attorneys to convene five separate grand juries, to investigate DCF or its predecessor agency, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. Now this gubernatorial panel, the 12th, has answered a governors call to do the same.

Again.

Twenty-two times in the past 33 years, the Florida Legislature has mandated that DCF or its predecessor reorganize in ways great or small. Please ponder that fact, even if just momentarily. It means that Floridas child welfare system has undergone some form of reorganization - a nip here, a tuck there, a turn-inside-out-and-shake-upside-down over yonder - on average every 18 months! How many private businesses, much less sprawling governmental agencies, could flourish amidst such organizational tumult?

There are only two credible answers, both self-evident: None, and Not Many. Now looms the Legislatures greatest mandate of all. Its for DCF to switch to a system of community-based care by the end of 2004. By then DCF must hand off to nonprofit agencies (which must be at least in the process of obtaining national accreditation) the great bulk of its funding and responsibilities except those of investigations and keeping tabs on the agencies.

While laudable in concept, community-based care is yet to be fully proven in practice in a state as large, as ethnically and culturally and geographically complex, as Florida. Those familiar with it say that community-based care, by deeply involving the local community agencies, holds immense promise for enhancing child welfare. Yet no matter what results from the Rilya Wilson case, the switch to community-based care means that Floridas child welfare system now faces significant change.

Again.

It was against this background that Gov. Jeb Bush appointed us, the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection. It was against this background that we held our hearings and submit herewith our findings and recommendations.

First, though, elemental fairness requires that we say this:

From the moment that her agency revealed Rilya Wilsons disappearance, DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney has been under sustained, sometimes vehement, criticism from near and far. So has Charles Auslander, the director of DCFs District 11, which serves Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. (It is worth noting that the local Community-Based Care Alliance expressed strong support for Mr. Auslander and urged the Panel not to recommend a change in the top District 11 administrator.) Those calling for Secretary Kearney's resignation or dismissal include former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Secretary Kearney insists that she has no intention of resigning, and Governor Bush has expressed his steadfast support for her. We come away from the public hearings with the impression of fine people throughout the ranks of the department - from top administrators to people in the field. This is not a department populated by stodgy, uncreative human beings; we heard and saw considerable examples of innovation - most especially community-based care. We also come away with an impression that this is, at its heart, a case of human failure - which, of course, cannot be excused. The department could not answer, to our satisfaction: How do you really know what is happening in the field, and how do you know when it happens? Many of our recommendations speak directly to areas of quality assurance. Fairness also demands that we say this: This system has no real way of working unless children and families are seen as a community responsibility - that is, everyone. This means, yes, that DCF plays a lead role, but there is no chance of sustained and lasting progress unless this is also the mission of the Department of Juvenile Justice, the courts, law enforcement, providers, neighborhoods, Guardians Ad Litem, the school system, the civic and business community, the faith community, government, the Legislature and, yes, parents.

We saw, at times, some defensiveness at the Secretarys level. There is no question of Judge Kearneys knowledge, vision and her commitment to children. She does, in fact, fight for children, with a constant juggling act of how best to spend the resources in prevention vis--vis other areas. Perhaps, as Judge Kearney repeatedly insisted, the Rilya Wilson case is isolated. But none of us felt the department was doing yet enough to make the possibilities of tragedy as slim as humanly possible.

Acknowledging that, and moving to take steps to do something about that, would be the healthiest course possible for the Secretary and all in the department. Judge Kearney seems to have a problem greater than she acknowledges in communicating with provider agencies in a spirit of partnership. She can fix this, if both she and provider agencies proceed in full good faith. We are acutely aware of the supercharged political atmosphere in which we were appointed, in which we served, and in which we present our report.

Despite the political thunder and lightning crashing around the Rilya Wilson case, we undertook this challenge simply and solely to serve and protect Floridas most vulnerable people: Its children. We see no constructive purpose in changing DCFs leadership at this juncture, either in Tallahassee or in Miami, despite this awful, and still potentially tragic, lapse in its performance. Rilya Wilson did not disappear because of top-level misfeasance by either Secretary Kearney or District 11 Administrator Auslander. Rilya Wilson disappeared because of in-the-trenches malfeasance by her DCF caseworker, misfeasance by that caseworkers supervisor, and the malfeasance by the caregivers. These two employees, especially caseworker Deborah Muskelly, thwarted long-established policies and mechanisms - built from the lessons learned from previous tragedies involving children - designed to prevent exactly what these two allowed to happen. And while Secretary Kearney and Mr. Auslander accept responsibility for this breach of regulations, they didnt cause it. That is an important distinction. It deserves not to be forgotten.

Throughout this process, Secretary Kearney and her Tallahassee staff, and Mr. Auslander and his staff in Miami, have been wholly forthcoming and cooperative. All that we have asked them to do or provide, they have done or provided. To the soundest advice that our parade of witnesses offered, they have been receptive. Indeed, in her opening testimony at our very first meeting on May 8, Secretary Kearney vowed: We pledge you our full cooperation. We pledge you our full accountability.

We expect Secretary Kearney to keep that pledge. We expect Governor Bush to see that she does.

In further fairness to DCF and its predecessor agency, we need to dispel a long-standing myth that really amounts to a libel upon those agencies dedicated employees and administrators - which, we believe, includes most of DCFs 26,000 employees. This myth is widely spouted, hence widely believed, and yet it is demonstrably false. It holds that the findings of this Panels 16 predecessor investigations have been largely shelved, ignored, dismissed without effect or action.

This is simply not so. Amidst our hearings, and at our request, DCF produced a 91-page report that examined and detailed, one by one, actions taken (or not taken) on the recommendations of those previous 16 panels dating back to 1985. The report shows that DCF or its predecessor have implemented the great majority of those recommendations. Of many of the recommendations not implemented, the report notes that DCF concurs with the goal but that the Legislature either did not pass the required implementing law or did not provide the necessary funding. Other unimplemented recommendations were outside DCFs authority - as, for example, those requiring action by Florida's judicial system.

In noting this reports findings, we by no means intend to downplay, much less to whitewash, DCFs shortcomings. They are manifest, especially in the Rilya Wilson case. Basic things do need to be fixed, and we outline those below. But if a record is to have genuine probative value, it must be true, credible, and generally viewed as such. If it achieves nothing else, we hope that this report at least puts to rest allegations that DCF has ignored recommended reforms. Those allegations, simply put, are manifestly untrue.

The record proves it.

That said, the record also proves that throughout its history, Floridas child welfare agency has borne the stigmata that stains it today. DCF is underfunded, understaffed, underappreciated and overworked. So it ever has been. So it remains.

The search for the culprit, however, rightly should not point only toward DCF. It should also point toward the Florida Legislature, which does not give - and never has given - DCF the resources needed to cope with the enormous burdens that it faces.

Our state continues to develop funding formulas and services based on cases, not children. (The OPPAGA Justification Review report on DCFs child protection program analyzes worker caseload in numbers of cases rather than the number of children per counselor.) Cases in the national definition of the Child Welfare League of America and the Council on Accreditation refer to a single child as a case. In Florida, DCF and the Legislature refer to a case as a dependency petition, which could have any number of children.

Hence, comparison of caseloads and investigations in Florida vis--vis elsewhere tend to be inaccurate and unhelpful because of the wide variation in the number of children served.

In its eight hearings, the Panel heard from 61 witnesses (including the perspectives of foster parents, caseworkers and supervisors) and received hundreds upon hundreds of documents that stand more than three feet tall. As with DCF, the Panel had the fullest cooperation of those witnesses, including courtesy from those hostile to DCF because it had taken their children and placed them elsewhere. We tried to invite the broadest possible spectrum of opinions that our compressed, crisis-driven deadline would allow. We were heartened to hear one major witness - Shay Bilchik, president of the Child Welfare League of America - which with 1,175 agency and governmental members (including DCF) is the nations largest child welfare organization - say: I am encouraged by the breadth of presentations that you have called in.

Our recommendations to DCF and Governor Bush follow.

Part I presents our Immediate Priorities, to be achieved or at least begun within 90 days. Some, though not all, can be implemented quickly, and at negligible cost.

Part II presents our Longer-Range Priorities, those extending beyond 90 days. Some of those will require new legislative action and/or funding.

Part III focuses on our thoughts for the Florida Legislature. Part IV presents our Rationale for Our Recommendations. This rationale is based on testimony presented to us and on individual Panel members personal knowledge of or experience with the tortured, tattered, and all too frequently tarred-and-feathered history of Floridas child welfare system. Readers will note that our Findings and Recommendations are long on narrative and short on numbers, charts, graphs, and other statistics. Those are included in abundance in our reports Appendix. Taken together, the documents in the Appendix illumine the scope of DCFs responsibilities, challenges and funding. The Appendix also includes excerpts of selected witnesses testimony.

Therefore, we chose in our Findings and Recommendations not to serve up a stew of statistics that many, perhaps most, readers might well find indigestible. We chose instead to try to focus, in clear, straightforward prose, on the pre-eminent issues facing Floridas child welfare system.

The chief issue is - and always has been - the same: Floridas child welfare system is overburdened, overwhelmed, understaffed and underfunded. It always has been. And it always will be until the citizens of Florida and their elected representatives, the Legislature, give deserved priority to Floridas dependent children and families. If there is anything almost as fraught with fear and uncertainties as to be a child in the custody of Floridas government, it must be - as those childrens protectors always have been - to be a mere stepchild of that same government.

Part I: Immediate Priorities

Beginning immediately: DCF personnel, community providers and caregivers must notify law enforcements missing-persons division when they have any reason to believe a child is missing and before they check other locations. Law enforcements missing-persons division must immediately enter that information into the Florida Department of Law Enforcements Missing Child Information Center system.

By June 15: Foster parents should be notified that they can lose their license if they sign visitation forms in blank or falsify records on which DCF relies.

By July 1: Ensure that DCF caseworkers and community providers personally visit each child under DCF supervision every month (with the obvious exception of runaways, absconders and out-of-state placements). District 11 now says it meets this goal 91% of the time; only 100% ought to be acceptable. DCF needs to develop, and report on, a credible verification system that goes into effect at the same time.

By July 1: The guidelines governing handling of runaways should be revised to require immediate notification of law enforcement, followed by issuance of a pickup order and a further diligent search by DCF.

By July 1: District 11 and its community-based providers, in consultation with representatives from foster-adoptive parent organizations, should implement a foster care mediation board to resolve conflicts arising between foster parents and DCF and/or providers caseworkers.

Beginning July 1: DCF will conduct local, state and federal criminal-history checks on all new relative, non-relative and foster care placements.

By July 1: The local Guardian Ad Litem office will report on what would be necessary to have a Guardian available to represent every child in every dependency case in District 11. It also will determine what resources are necessary to support administrative, supervisory, space and other infrastructure requirements.

By July 15: DCF headquarters will determine the cost of equipping every caseworker with a laptop computer and prepare a legislative budget request for same.

By July 15: District 11 should conduct a half-day Guardian Ad Litem-District retreat of volunteer, counselor, supervisory and administrative staff. The retreat should be professionally facilitated to identify issues and establish a mechanism for conflict resolution.

By Aug. 1: Buy and install Live Scan machines here and throughout Florida -- with DCF potential users trained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. These machines, at $21,000 each, would enable DCF to transmit fingerprints to the FBI and receive a report back within 48 hours rather than todays norm of up to two months or so. To do this, the Legislative Budget Commission needs to approve the departments budget amendment request. Moreover, DCF needs to obtain legislative funding to maintain the equipment and make sure each district has enough machines.

By Aug. 1: DCF headquarters should initiate an independent system of care review in District 11, facilitated by national consultant Paul Vincent, as already performed in seven other Florida DCF districts. This should include full involvement by the local Community-Based Care Alliance.

By Aug. 1: The Miami-Dade Community-Based Care Alliance should expand its membership to include significant representation from the business and civic communities, with a goal of enhancing the visibility of and commitment to community-based care. We would hope that United Way and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce would take the lead in helping the Alliance to achieve this. Building a stronger Community-Based Care Alliance will necessitate full consultation and cooperation with the Alliance for Human Services work groups.

By Sept 1: Current placement and home visitation information for all children must be completely up to date in HomeSafenet.

By Sept. 1: All foster parents as well as relative and non-relative caregivers should be provided with a hotline number to call if they do not receive a home visit for every child in their care every 30 days.

By Sept. 1: Require that DCF and provider files contain a current photograph, fingerprints and birth verification (or evidence of a diligent effort to obtain) of every dependent child. By that same date, make recommendations about the feasibility of a DNA swab for every dependent child.

By Sept. 1: District 11 should complete a plan with local law enforcement and the juvenile court to streamline the process of pickup orders and ensure that law enforcements missing-persons divisions know of all children for whom pickup orders are issued - and that staffs are trained on the same.

By Sept. 1: The Miami-Dade Public Schools will work with the Miami-Dade School Readiness Coalition and DCF to arrive at shared recommendations to notify DCF whenever a child under the departments supervision misses three consecutive days or is otherwise not regularly attending school. Moreover, Miami-Dade Public Schools will need to work with the Department of Juvenile Justice and DCF to develop an electronic method for sharing school information, including attendance data, with DCF - and a way to do so consistent with legal requirements.

By Sept. 1: All caseworkers should have access to cameras with date-stamp capability. Every child needs to be photographed quarterly, thus keeping each childs file current (with the only potential exceptions being runaways or absconders).

By Sept. 1: The District 11 administrator should prepare recommendations on how to expand family case conferencing now taking place in one court division and one neighborhood in Miami-Dade County.

By Sept. 1: The district administrator will have conducted a study to understand why District 11 has a significantly lower rate of employee dismissals than other DCF districts and what, if anything, should be done about that. The aim is to make sure by this date that personnel policies reflect swift and fair action vis-a-vis employees who are not fulfilling their obligations for first-rate, caring service.

One further suggestion: This Panel would be willing, if so asked, to convene again in September in public session to listen to a District 11 and state DCF progress report on these recommendations. We would suggest the governor add two or three people to the Panel to reflect more fully the diversity of our community.

Part II: Longer-Term Priorities

Put together a Children and Families Summit in Miami-Dade, called by the Department of Children and Families and the Community-Based Care Alliance. It should have full representation from the courts, law enforcement, schools, care providers (foster parents, relative and non-relative caregivers and biological), the Department of Juvenile Justice, the medical and health community, the Guardians Ad Litem, the Foster Care Review board, the School Readiness Coalition, various chambers of commerce and the business community generally, the Alliance for Human Services, United Way, the philanthropic community, the faith community, local governments, the legislative delegation and others. Perhaps the summit would focus on two major issues: (1) Building relationships and developing shared commitment among all involved, and (2) building a long-term plan for issues involving adolescents. (By Nov. 1.)

DCF headquarters should develop a detailed plan to achieve accreditation in its core functions by national organizations. That plan needs to include the necessary budget request for appropriate funding. Accreditation is the gold standard that certifies compliance with rigorous, national qualitative measures. The plan should consider having DCF certified as to administrative functions, and on an expedited basis. (By Nov. 1.)

The department will compare the performance and longevity of child welfare staff with degrees in social work or other behavioral sciences vis-a-vis other degreed staff. DCF also ought to review caseworker job descriptions vis-a-vis actual practice to determine if these are in keeping with national standards for social and child-welfare work. The Panel has heard testimony suggesting that employees with social work degrees are frequently better prepared to work with, and more attuned to the needs of, children and their families. (By Jan. 1.) We also suggest that DCF work with all Florida universities toward a program where graduates could receive certification as a child welfare specialist.

Statewide implementation of HomeSafenet, DCFs new web-based system for tracking its thousands of cases. Partially implemented in 2001, HomeSafenet, being rolled out in phases, is scheduled to be fully operational in 2005 at a cost of $230 million. Its DCF champions herald HomeSafenet as a vast improvement over the paper-clogged present system of record-keeping. They made a strong case. Yet we heard testimony from others complaining that HomeSafenet is not user-friendly and that it only adds to caseworkers record-keeping burdens. We cannot, for sure, know the answer for that now, particularly with the system only going up. We wonder: Are concerns of user-friendliness matters of reality or perception -- or are they, more likely, both? At the very least, DCF should convene this summer a series of local conferences of HomeSafenets authors, DCFs information technology experts and the many private providers who must learn how to use the system. (We would suggest that at least a handful of legislators be there, too.) The Panel supports DCFs efforts to deploy computerized information systems that cross agency lines so that pertinent information can be shared appropriately by schools, law enforcement, provider agencies, the courts and the Guardian Ad Litem program. Technology is not the answer to the future - human beings are. Yet technology, done well, can be a most vital tool for progress.

District 11 needs to take a close look at the effectiveness of its human resources operations, including its performance in hiring first-rate people, terminating inadequate performers, training for knowledge and sensitivity, coaching, interviewing, ethical standards, recruiting and retention. (By Dec. 1.) We sense that training is still too steeped in regulatory and statutory compliance, and more emphasis needs to be on best practices. We also clearly state that employees terminated for cause ought never be rehired within DCF. DCF needs to ensure that employees who resign in lieu of termination are so indicated in the system so as not to be eligible for rehire. (Also: The state DCF staff ought to be accredited by the Society for Human Resource Management.)

DCF will develop a plan to arrange better almost-instant hotline access for calling in English, Spanish and Creole. That is a fundamental need in District 11. (By Dec. 1.)

All medical information will be supplied and updated for foster parent, relative and non-relative caregiver placements. Supervisors must be required to contact caregivers to confirm that they have received this information. (By Jan. 1.)

A task force should review DCF policies and procedures with a goal of streamlining, condensing and consolidating all policies so as to assure a focus on prevention of abuse and neglect on behalf of ongoing child safety, well-being and permanency. (By March 1.)

A task force needs to develop policies around the issue of placements with relatives and non-relatives who have a positive criminal background check. (By Jan. 1.)

Within six months after legislative clarification and appropriation on this issue of relative and non-relative caregiver background checks, DCF shall complete background checks on all existing relative and non-relative caregivers.

The Legislature should recognize that child protection, both investigation and services, depends greatly on the active involvement and practices of local law enforcement, the judiciary and other agencies. Therefore, DCF and the Legislature should develop performance measures that accurately reflect those outcomes that are reasonably within the control of DCF. While examples abound of such, three are worth mentioning here: (1) Investigations that exceed 60 days because of judicial proceedings or criminal investigation should not be counted as untimely investigations. (2) If median length of stay of children under supervision is to be measured, then legally appropriate and court-ordered long-term relative and non-relative placements should not aggravate the length-of-stay measure. (3) Children who came under supervision under major policy changes, such as the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, which was not incorporated into Florida law until late 1998 or implemented until the appointment of Secretary Kearney, should be considered when evaluating the performance of the child- protection system.

We suggest the governor use his White House connections to urge Washington to make DCFs District 11 a national model program in which federal-state funding restrictions can be waived to pursue innovative approaches to child welfare. At present, these restrictions often make such innovation far more difficult and sometimes impossible.

Fully support Foster Care Review panels. (Moreover, building on the positive experience in such places as Volusia County, we urge judges to ensure that a child and caregiver appear together at least every six months.)

We urge the governor to use his moral suasion with the Florida Bar to recruit more pro bono attorneys for children in DCFs custody. The Miami-Dade County Bar Association already has an exemplary pro bono program. But the need is statewide. Why? Because while a nonlawyer Guardian Ad Litem may represent many children perfectly well, other children may have needs that conflict with those of his or her parents (foster, biological, or both) and/or DCF. A child may well require an attorney to protect his or her interests in court.

Both District 11 and law enforcement should jointly review current lease obligations, space needs and staffing to determine how to expand additional co-location and shared responsibilities of child welfare staff and law enforcement officers. DCF caseworkers already are based at police offices in Miami Beach and Homestead. (By Oct. 1.)

Part III: Priorities for the Legislature

We realize full well that some priorities will require legislative action, and the Legislatures next regular session is 10 months away - in March 2003. Even so, these priorities must be addressed if Floridas children ever are to have the protection, the help, and the hope that they deserve. The Legislature needs to find the dollars that DCF needs to fulfill the overwhelming demands placed upon it. Never has DCF had adequate funding. Never have the demands on DCF been greater. We think it worth the governor considering a special session of the Legislature focused on these issues. Among some of the most important areas:

• Fully fund the Guardian Ad Litem program to ensure that every child has a Guardian Ad Litem.

Florida shortchanges preventive care even though evidence shows clearly that it can help keep troubled families together rather than removing their children and placing them elsewhere. The state already has workable preventive programs, among them Healthy Families of Florida, Healthy Start and Neighborhood Partnership Projects. The Legislature should fully fund Healthy Families - a proven prevention initiative -- within Miami-Dade County (and other major urban areas with high numbers of children in care). Worthy preventive programs are starved for funds even though money devoted to them now would save infinitely more money in years to come. Unless the Legislature devotes more money to prevention, to keeping families together, it inevitably will have to face far larger bills for caring for children displaced needlessly from their families. (It should be noted that the Legislatures own OPPAGA report on child protection doesnt address prevention at all.)

• Establish an estimating conference that clearly delineates funding streams and provides budget projections and requisite FTEs (including an allowance for training time) based on numbers of children, not cases.

Community-based care: Every single witness who has dealt with this concept praised it. But every witness who spoke of costs warned us - and we hereby alert the governor and Legislature - that community-based care costs more, not less, than the services now provided via DCF. So along with great promise, community-based care carries great peril unless it is funded and supervised adequately. DCF should analyze its capacity to support its field operations and community care providers with quality-assurance, quality-monitoring and fiscal staff.

The Legislature should provide a quick-response mechanism to allow the DCF secretary (or any other department head, for that matter) to shift appropriated funds from one program to another to meet emergency needs. Current law allows such shifting only with the Legislatures approval. This can take months when the emergency demands a response today. We fully understand the Legislatures determination not to allow any department head to thwart its intent by shifting to another function funds appropriated for a program that the Legislature values but that a given department head personally might consider unworthy or unwise. Surely the governor, DCF and the Legislature can reach a compromise that satisfies the interests of all involved. The priority here is to serve Floridas children.

DCFs caseworkers and supervisors must be paid better based on meritorious performance, and they should be held fully accountable for their performance. Under-performers should be counseled to improve; if they do not improve, they should be let go. DCFs director of human resources, Amy Karimipour, testified that the agencys supervisors earn an average of $38,000 a year statewide and $37,000 in Miami-Dade versus a nationwide average of $42,000. They sacrifice their own families, Ms. Karimipour said. They work ungodly hours. Theyre [always] on call. These workers deserve the publics support, Ms. Karimipour continued, adding that the misdeeds of a few must not be allowed to taint the dedication of the many. We wholeheartedly concur. (Statewide, caseworkers, also called counselors, earn $30,697 on average. That compares to $30,829 average in Miami-Dade and $33,436 nationally.)

• All DCF employees should be selected-exempt under the Service First initiative and not part of the career service system.

The OPPAGA Justification Review of DCFs family-safety program has identified several areas of deficiency that deserve close legislative attention and commitment of resources. The Legislature and DCF need to agree on measurement strategies for such matters as: Timeliness of response to, and initiation of, investigations; closing investigations; preventing recurrence of abuse-neglect; ensuring children have safe, stable and permanent living arrangements. Legislative commitment is also necessary to address high staff turnover, foster parent turnover and HomeSafenet implementation.

We suggest the Legislature figure out how we can ensure that dependent children at age 5 be enrolled in kindergarten.

• Develop an expedited rule-making process since DCF is required to respond in an expedited fashion to the needs of Floridas families and children and cannot be hindered by lengthy and bureaucratic challenges.

• Amend mandatory reporter statute to include all individuals, including clergy, who volunteer with children.

• Amend foster parent licensing requirements to enable DCF to revoke the license of any foster parent who falsifies records documentation. Such changes also should preclude placement, or permit removal from relative or non-relative caregivers.

• Make funding available to institute a supervisory-management course that focuses on the behaviors and competencies that ensure outstanding managers. Competencies for all levels of management need to be fully defined.

Part IV: Rationale for Our Priorities

Most of our priorities require no explication beyond that expressed above. Are DCF employees underpaid? Surely some are. Are DCFs programs underfunded? Yes. These are no-brainer questions. Other of our priorities, however, have subtler significance that may not be - indeed probably will not be - evident at first mention. Among them:

Guardians Ad Litem: A number of witnesses urged us to place Guardians Ad Litem among our highest priorities. In full concurrence, we place this priority first. Why? Because if there is any program that costs the least and benefits the most, this one is it.

Simply put, a Guardian Ad Litem is a court-certified adult who has completed a mandatory training course to become an advocate for a childs best interests. These guardians are an indispensable intermediary between the child and the court, between the child and DCF. In addition, Guardians Ad Litem are the childs sentinels against any DCF or provider caseworkers - and perhaps these are few - who might be uncaring, insensitive, incompetent, or worse. Guardians can - and often do - alert DCF officials, and if need be a judge, when DCF or a provider is not doing its job. Without their Guardians Ad Litem, many of Floridas at-risk children would have no one to represent them as individuals, as small people with big individual needs, thoughts, problems and aspirations.

Some Guardians Ad Litem are lawyers, but most are not. To qualify, one need only be a Florida resident of good repute and have an abiding interest in protecting at-risk children. After completing relatively brief training, the Guardian Ad Litem becomes court-certified to advocate for children.

These Guardians Ad Litem span the full spectrum of Floridas people. They are homemakers, business executives, office workers, teachers, retirees - you name it. Like the children whose interests they represent, Guardians Ad Litem also span the full spectrum of Floridas racial, ethnic, age, income and cultural milieus.

While each Guardian Ad Litem serves as an advocate for a given child, the role is frequently bigger than that. When a childs own family, school, and neighborhood roots have been eroded to bedrock, a Guardian Ad Litem can be - and not uncommonly is - the life-sustaining mulch around those roots that allows that child to grow. A dedicated Guardian Ad Litem can help a bent twig of a troubled child grow eventually into a straight and fruitful tree.

Guardians Ad Litem, in a word, are more than a dependent childs advocate in court. Ideally these guardians become the childs friend, protector, mentor, trusted adviser. A guardian can change a childs life for the better, forever. So can a child change the guardian. Miami-Dade Countys Guardian Ad Litem program is widely lauded, and justly so. Its longtime executive director, Joni Goodman, supervises a staff of 50 who work with 400 volunteer Guardians Ad Litem. Those guardians provide representation to 65 percent of the children under DCFs supervision in Miami-Dade County. Thats materially better than the statewide average of 50 percent representation.

In DCFs District 11, which encompasses Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, about 5,400 children are under the agencys supervision. Thats down from about 6,800 in the year 2000. (The numbers have declined for several reasons: Children are moving more rapidly through the system; adoptions are increasing, and cases no longer in need of supervision have been closed. All these point to progress in District 11.) Of the 5,400 children under DCF supervision, some 1,600 - less than a third - are in licensed foster homes, and another 800 are in licensed shelter care. Thus the majority of District 11s dependent children - some 2,900 to 3,000 - are in unlicensed care. Because of where they are rather than what they are, because of their status rather than their needs, these do not get Guardian Ad Litem representation.

There arent enough funds.

Thats unacceptable. Floridas goal should be - must be - that every child in state supervision have a Guardian Ad Litem. As they consider their pleas to the Legislature, advocates for the program might take to heart a compelling case offered to us by Miami-Dade County Circuit Court Judge Jeri Cohen. She has been a juvenile judge since 1996, so she has seen the full panoply of problems - especially with adolescents.

The problem with adolescents is a killer, Judge Cohen told us. It tears your heart out because these are throwaway children - thats the perception. Most of the kids who are running away run away continuously. Judge Cohen then offered a vivid argument for why, in her words, Every child [in DCFs custody] needs a Guardian Ad Litem. One day such a Guardian brought a 17-year-old runaway girl into her court, Judge Cohen said. The girl had been found living in a motel with her boyfriend. Neither of them was using drugs or alcohol. The problem, the judge related, was that the girl needed to see a doctor but her caseworker wouldnt approve this unless the girl first came back into DCFs custody. No way, said the girl.

No doctor, then, said DCF. Judge Cohen says she broke the impasse by ordering the girl medically evaluated.

Foster Care Review panels: We heard compelling testimony attesting to the value of these panels of citizen volunteers. And again, Miami-Dades Foster Care Review program offers a model that merits expansion here and emulation statewide. It was started as the result of a United Way community initiative that called together Miamis leadership to develop a proactive solution to the foster care shift of the Eighties. Miami-Dade has 18 Foster Care Review panels, each composed of five unpaid volunteer members. Each panel meets once a month and reviews, typically, 12 to 14 DCF cases per meeting. Because of crushing caseloads, juvenile court judges may spend only minutes on some cases, though some cases take much more time because of the complexity and severity of the case. The Foster Care Review panels normally average 40 minutes on each case. They review the childs (or childrens) records. They hear from the DCF caseworker and the childs Guardian Ad Litem and/or attorney - if such there be - and at times the child and others.

If they spot something awry, the Foster Care Review panels can go to the judge and say, Hey, somethings amiss here. Please intervene. Because they recognize that these volunteers are an extra set of dedicated eyes and ears, both for the court and for DCF, judges do not easily disregard the panels counsel.

Yet at the very least there appears to be - and we stress the phrase appears to be - a sometimes disconnect between Foster Care Review and DCF. To this end, the testimony of Octavio Verdeja, a Coral Gables CPA and respected longtime civic leader in Miami-Dade County, is at once instructive and disheartening. Mr.Verdeja spent 10 years as a Foster Care Review panelist and once was a panels chairman. His recitation of his experience should give DCF deep pause because we heard in others testimony their concerns about some DCF caseworkers unpreparedness for or indifference to their responsibilities.

Hear Mr. Verdeja on his experience as a Foster Care Review panelist: In many, many cases the DCF counselors that we had to deal with were ill-prepared and frequently appeared uninterested in the case at hand, he said. When you sit down in a panel and ask a DCF counselor When was the last time you saw [this] child? and the counselor has to start going through the records in order to answer, Mr. Verdeja said, you know youve got a major problem. Similarly, he added, his panel routinely would ask the caseworker what DCF had done for the child at issue during the last six months. Too frequently, he said, the caseworker had only lame excuses that translated to Nothing.

Something's wrong, really wrong, when this occurs, Mr. Verdeja added. The hiring, the training, the actual supervising, the motivating of these people must improve.

We need to take his counsel seriously.

DCFs woeful pay: This lament, heard for decades, is as true today as it was when first uttered. Few people, either in private enterprise or in government, are paid as little to endure as much stress as DCF caseworkers and supervisors. Nor are there many public agencies or private businesses in which supervisors frequently earn less than persons they supervise. Want an exception? Well, try DCF.

Our witnesses on May 13 included, back to back, DCF caseworker Reggie Horton and a supervisor, Sergio Gomez. Mr. Hortons basic pay is $33,000 to $35,000 per year. Mr. Gomezs pay, he told us, is $32,000 per year. Floridas pay scale lags the nation. The governor and Legislature should act at the next opportunity to close that gap. At a minimum, vacant or newly created positions need to be available, and so funded, at the mid-level of the salary range rather than the base level.

Ironically, Mr. Horton not only earns more than Mr. Gomez in base pay, but in total he makes $49,000, about 35 percent more than Mr. Gomez. Thats because Mr. Horton serves as a volunteer (and paid) mentor and spends one weekend a month on 24-hour call to respond to emergencies. Those after-hours duties, which bring him an extra $14,000 a year, are not available to DCF supervisors.

In this light, a reasonable person well might ask: Why would somebody take on the responsibility of a DCF supervisor when they can make more money as a caseworker or protective investigator?

During his everyday duty hours, Mr. Horton said, emergencies are the norm. Make a perfect calendar for a given day, he mused, and something unforeseen will muck it up. Consider the afternoon not long ago when, planning to do something else, out of the blue he received an emergency call. Two teen-age girls had missed their transportation home from school. One girl called a friend, a 38-year-old man, to ask him for a ride. Sure, the man said. He came for the girls, bought them food at McDonalds, and started toward their homes.

But first, he said, I need to stop at my apartment for a minute. The girls went inside with him. Quickly his sexual designs became clear, and the girls ran out to the street and flagged down a passing motorist. Fortunately, that motorist turned out to be a plainclothes police officer. For the teen-age girls, it meant a possible horror diverted. For Mr. Horton - as for others in comparable roles with DCF - it was just another day of a planned schedule thrown askew because children cried out for emergency help.

At the door, an elephant

Of all the changes that the Legislature has decreed for Floridas child welfare system, none even remotely approaches in breadth, depth, difficulty - and, yes, unprecedented promise - as the one that lies just ahead. This is the mandated change to a system of community-based care.

This concept is easy enough to grasp. Instead of DCF running the system statewide, as now and in the past, the system within each DCF district will be locally run, tailored to local needs and drawing, ideally, on local institutions many of which heretofore have been largely untapped. (One added benefit of community-based care is that local people are more likely to help a locally based lead agency than they might be DCF.) In each of its districts, DCF will negotiate with whats called a lead agency to administer its programs. As the system is implemented in each district, DCF will turn over to the lead agency the responsibilities and funding for running child welfare programs. That lead agency in turn will contract with appropriate qualified providers to handle services, including shelters, foster care, medical services - the whole gamut of child welfare responsibilities. The 1998 Legislature mandated this change and originally set 2002 as the year to complete its implementation statewide. But legislators soon realized that this schedule was too ambitious, the changes too sweeping and complex, to be done that soon. So in 2002 the Legislature pushed the deadline for final implementation back by two years, to 2004. District 11 is scheduled for that year.

Clearly, community-based care is the elephant at the door. The challenge is to open the door gradually and entice the elephant in and coax it to do the elephantine tasks that must be done. Otherwise the elephant simply will break the door down and menace everyone and everything inside. Already the switch to community-based care is under way in a few areas, and it has been achieved with notable success in Manatee and Sarasota counties. Off to a strong early start seem to be Hillsborough (Tampa) and Volusia (Daytona Beach) counties. Judge Julianne Piggotte testified to the very positive trends she is seeing within the Volusia initiative. The lead agency in the Tampa area is Hillsborough Kids, a nonprofit run by Chris Card. Hes a respected child welfare advocate. In testimony to our Panel, he spoke in glowing terms of what community-based care can achieve. One example that he cited illustrates this promise with heartwarming clarity. A Hillsborough family already had foster children in its care and wanted to take in another child. But the family home was too small and the family couldnt afford the $10,000 cost of adding another bedroom. Mr. Card reached out to executives of his communitys branch of Uniroyal Technologies, a major national corporation. Those executives visited the home, liked what they saw, and readily agreed to pay to add a new bedroom. But then something happened that Mr. Card said neither he nor the Uniroyal Technologies executives had ever envisioned. Instead of just adding a bedroom, the company decided to pay to remodel the whole house. In the end, the companys $10,000 commitment to child welfare had zoomed to $250,000.

Mr. Card then concluded this story, beaming, with a poignant ending. On Christmas Day these Uniroyal Technologies executives went to that home and gave out presents that they had bought for the foster children there.

This is an inspiring example of what can happen when child welfare truly is focused within a given community, with committed, hands-on, community involvement. To achieve such involvement, of course, its essential to have capable and fully dedicated leadership at the lead agency - leadership such as Mr. Card is providing through Hillsborough Kids.

A lead agencys outreach effort cannot extend merely to local businesses, of course, although their involvement is vital. The outreach must extend as well to the public schools, to local colleges and universities, to the courts and Bar associations, to law enforcement, to the faith community, to foundations - in short, to every possible source of help throughout the community.

If wisely planned and ably implemented, community-based care can vastly improve the services that children so desperately need. It has done so elsewhere. It can do so everywhere in Florida. Every Florida communitys commitment to this worthwhile cause should be as broad, as deep, and as enduring as the broad, deep, enduring needs of every Florida communitys children.

The HomeSafenet Challenge

DCF is now implementing a new, computerized, web-based computer system called HomeSafenet whose use will be mandatory statewide in due course. HomeSafenet is due to be completely implemented by 2005. The federal government is presently paying half the systems cost, with the ultimate bill at a projected $230 million.

Secretary Kearney and other DCF officials insist that HomeSafenet will be markedly superior to the previous system of paper files, which continue to be used. Ultimately all of DCFs records on each person in its supervision or care will be kept on HomeSafenet, enabling near-instantaneous access to all available information about clients, providers, and the like. But DCF has a problem. Testimony before our Panel showed that not a few caseworkers and providers already dislike the system. Their chief complaints seem to be that HomeSafenet is cumbersome to use and that it requires maybe even more time than the two to three hours a day that one caseworker witness told us that he now spends on updating records and writing reports. State Rep. Nan Rich of Broward County, who has a background in child welfare, said that she has heard from many providers who are deeply unhappy with the system.

The Panel came away from its information-gathering unsure of the depth of the problem, but convinced that there is a problem, though much of it may be perception. Clearly, DCF has a potentially severe problem if such perceptions continue. Morale among DCF employees and service providers is at stake; so is performance. When actual files were viewed, it was clear that many files were not fully updated in the system. Rectify that quickly, or confidence in the system will be in terrible shape.

Thus, we urge DCF to convene, this summer, a series of local conferences of key employees, providers and other agencies with which DCF must interact. An honest dialogue - real listening - should lead to fixing what needs fixing. HomeSafenet is a long way from its final version. Like any computerized system, flaws or shortcomings emerge with use and must be rectified. That said, it is vital that DCF instill in all affected users the highest possible confidence that the system will in fact ease, not further burden, their workload.

A complementary system, called Unity One, is now being tested in two Florida communities. The system initially was developed at the request of Pensacola's Lakeview Center in Pensacola, which is Baptist Memorial Hospitals nonprofit community-based care provider. Childrens Home Society in Orlando now is piggybacking on the Pensacola pilot project.

Unity One is being designed to work in conjunction with, not in place of, HomeSafenet. No matter what complementary system any provider might choose, all must use HomeSafenet, as must all DCF employees.

Three Panel members attended a briefing and demonstration of Unity One in Miami on May 24, and came away with a strong sense that it shows promise of being a great asset in DCFs and providers work. Unity Ones developer is DCFs chief data-processing expert, Glenn Palmiere, who has been widely recognized for his creativity and leadership in information technology. His demonstration of Unity One suggested the system can keep virtually any sort of data imaginable, retrieve it instantly, and use it for whatever comparisons or elaboration a provider might wish to set up. Moreover, it is the local interface with data from law enforcement, schools, et al. Mr. Palmiere and DCFs information systems chief, retired Marine Col. Randy Niewenhous, said they couldnt say when Unity One might be ready for statewide use, but anticipated it would be within the next year.

We saw Unity One as a potentially invaluable asset in compiling, comparing and analyzing a virtually endless array of information.

Some Final Words

If we are to have real progress toward, and genuine ownership of, the solutions to the problems that face children and families in Florida, we must achieve a genuine partnership. A partnership with commitments from every sector. The deepest compassion. The fullest public awareness - that sort of awareness that not only embraces this cause as a moral imperative, but also a practical imperative that speaks to the future of our community and of all of Florida. Think of what the faith community could mean in this if each church or temple were to mentor a foster child, or perhaps many. Think of the media not only covering this important story in full and contextual terms, but also finding ways to mentor foster children themselves. Think of the United Way and Chamber helping to ensure a broad and deep business and civic commitment, and resources, to children and families with special challenges. Think of all of us - together - making that commitment. Our children - all our children - deserve our full commitment.

Finally, we note that when the governor asked us to undertake this investigation, none of us could have predicted how interesting, how challenging, how exhausting, the task would be. But each of us on the Panel comes away from this experience grateful for the opportunity to serve a cause that we all hold dear: The well-being of Floridas children.

The Governors Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection: Sara Herald, Carol Licko, Sister Jeanne OLaughlin and David Lawrence, Jr. (Chair)



 
 
 
 







RELATED SITES:

 Search   

Back to the top