Andrew Skerritt: Mass murder exposes dysfunction in DCF regional office

The state’s Department of Children and Families Northeast Region, which was responsible for the safety of the six children massacred by their grandfather in the rural town of Bell, drastically needs new leadership.

That’s obvious reading recent reports in the Miami Herald about the 18 complaints investigators received about Don Spirit, his troubled daughter and her six children in the months before he killed them and then himself. The reports showed that despite Spirit’s long history of violence and misadventure — he shot and killed his 8-year-old son during a hunting accident in 2001 — and although one third of the complaints had Spirit’s name on them, DCF staffers repeatedly sought Spirit’s help with his troubled daughter, the Herald reported.

The DCF after-action report of the Sept. 18 shooting claims staffers couldn’t foresee the massacre. That sounds like an agency trying to avoid taking responsibility for the most unspeakable and avoidable evil. A competent agency would have foreseen that the accumulation of abuse — the lice, injuries, starvation, neglect and drug complaints foretold tragedy.

But if the massacre highlights the troubled agency’s failings, a recently released 38-page Office of Inspector General report provides an equally troubling inside look at the culture of the office.

The report followed an investigation into the behavior of Northeast Regional Managing Director David Abramowitz, who was accused of creating a hostile work environment by using profane language and racially coded nicknames for black employees, commenting on employees’ weight, referring to staffers as “hoochie mamas” and “hos in nine-inch stilettos.” He was also accused of discriminating by disparate treatment of women and men.

The OIG found that the evidence didn’t support the allegation of creating a hostile work environment but recommended that Abramowitz undergo training. A retired military man, he needs a new career. His entire tone-deaf staff needs rigorous training.

Here are some highlights from the report:

— A staff attorney filed a gender discrimination complaint against Abramowitz following a dust-up in a meeting on April 30. The civil rights office found the claim unfounded. Reading the report, the testimony of those who attended that meeting varied widely, seemingly based on their relationship to the accuser and the accused. Taxpayers should be concerned that a group of professionals charged with protecting children could provide such disparate accounts of what happened that day. The only consistent fact was that Abramowitz acted unprofessionally.

— Abramowitz repeatedly referred to an employee as Biggie Smalls. Abramowitz said in sworn testimony the employee resembles the slain New York rapper. He called another employee Lil Wayne because of the way she wore her hair “high and unprofessional.”

— Abramowitz likened another’s hair to a “bird nest.” Abramowitz testified that he probably said it in jest and that “it looked very nice.” He also said, “I never put anybody down.”

— One employee, who complained about Abramowitz saying he saw her name on the bathroom door, said she was offended but didn’t think he created a hostile environment.

— Abramowitz talked to an employee about “getting some” from her boyfriend.

— Abramowitz said he didn’t see anything wrong with referring to his investigators as “ho’s in nine-inch stilettos.”

For him it’s all jest, “done in humor.” The retired army colonel was trying to make people feel “like a family” and trying to make them comfortable around the organization. Many of his DCF subordinates agreed that there was no hostile working environment. Their attitude seems to be: no harm, no foul.

Outsiders, like me, beg to disagree. But I’m not worried about them. I’m worried about the children, the other children. We know what happens when those charged with protecting children and families cannot recognize dysfunction in their own ranks.

Andrew J. Skerritt is author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. He lives in Tallahassee. Follow him on Twitter @andrewjskerritt. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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