An internal review by the Department of Children and Families depicts a still dysfunctional agency, with workers feeling “unsupported,” “overwhelmed,” and “defeated.”
The 133-page report, commissioned by DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, was released Thursday afternoon to FloridaPolitics.com in response to a public records request.
It has been referred to informally in DCF circles as the “Sanford Report” after its lead author, retired lawyer Peggy Sanford.
“Secretary Carroll established a work group to ensure the best practices are in place to protect every child we serve,” spokeswoman Michelle Glady said in an email.
“The department is reviewing the child welfare system and will implement further improvements that keep the best interest of every child at the center of its efforts,” she added. “DCF is fully committed to protecting Florida’s most vulnerable population.”
But the first challenge, the report suggests, is “the broader issue of role confusion among” the department’s child protective investigators, case managers and lawyers. In other words, each group doesn’t always know what its job is and isn’t.
That’s because of a “lack of teamwork,” the report says, which “leads each professional to feel both that he or she does not ‘own the case’ and that he or she is doing a disproportionate amount of work on the case.”
Investigators, for instance, “struggle with the definition of their role,” with many expressing “frustration with being forced to be social workers when they believe their appropriate role to be investigative in nature only,” according to the report.
The agency’s professionals said “they do this work for the most part because of a desire to protect children,” the report says. “They say they leave because they are unable to carve out time for their own families and because they feel unsupported in their jobs. They also reported feeling overwhelmed by the paperwork required in their jobs.”
Almost since its creation in 1996 out of the ashes of the old Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, the state’s child welfare agency has been buffeted by controversy and turmoil.
As recently as last year, lawmakers passed new legislation aimed at preventing child deaths after 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck was dropped by her father 60 feet from a bridge into Tampa Bay.
A report after her death “determined the people and agencies meant to help at-risk children failed Phoebe nearly every step of the way before she was killed,” the Tampa Tribune reported.
And in 2014, the Miami Herald’s “Innocents Lost” investigation revealed, “a system that was clearly broken, leaving children unprotected and at risk.”
Indeed, the report says, “outside players such as the judiciary, the GAL (guardians ad litem) and the (news) media exert significant pressure on the professionals, contributing to role confusion and staff turnover.”
Carroll, a 26-year DCF veteran appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in December 2014, formed the Dependency Roles Workgroup last November.
That group was led by Sanford, a former DCF senior attorney and the staff director of the Florida House Select Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect in 1995-96.
Other members include Rebecca Kapusta, the department’s general counsel, and Sandy Bohrer, a partner in the Holland & Knight law firm who has been a DCF special counsel and has long represented the news media, including the Herald.
Among other areas, the work group looked at Children’s Legal Services, which in 2008 began a “prosecutorial model” of pursuing child welfare cases in court.
It hasn’t always worked, the Sanford Report says.
The “attempt to implement a prosecutorial model within the agency context has compounded an already complex dependency system, further confusing the role of CLS and its relationship with other child welfare professionals,” it says. “This confusion is a barrier to the cooperation and communication that is required among these professionals to best … protect Florida’s children.”
Other problems are that “political agendas may play a large role in decision-making” and “the attorney’s personal beliefs about issues such as permanency rather than caseworker expertise dictate what will happen for a child,” according to the report.
After the 2011 death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona, found in a garbage bag in her adoptive father’s truck, the department began what is calls a “new practice model.” The girl was also in the state’s child welfare system.
The idea was to “gather better information (and) relay information faster,” “conduct better‐quality investigations,” and “offer a more effective engagement strategy to ensure the child and family’s safety and independence,” the report says.
“Florida now has what many experts describe as one of the nation’s most comprehensive and complex child welfare practice models,” according to the report.
But the new model has been hobbled by “very limited resources at a headquarters and regional level to provide hands‐on support to front-line staff” and “a lack of alignment of policy, rule and statute with the new practice, which in turn created conflict among child protective investigators, case managers, Children’s Legal Services, and the judiciary.”
At the same time, the Sanford Report says “these challenges were not unexpected and can be predicted to lessen over time as the model becomes more widely understood and accepted.”
The new practice model and the prosecutorial model “have created an imbalance” in the system, the report concludes.
The good news: “Coordinated training efforts (among all the) professionals who will work together on cases … show the potential for a better understanding of roles on the part of all the professionals.”
Jim Rosica (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers the Florida Legislature, state agencies and courts from Tallahassee.
The report and appendices can be read in their entirety here and below: