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Lots of blame for everyone in child abuse case fiasco

By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2002

In case you missed it, the state of Florida just had to fire the private outfit that was handling a huge backlog of child abuse cases.

In case you missed it, the state of Florida just had to fire the private outfit that was handling a huge backlog of child abuse cases.

Child abuse cases.

Not widget-counting. Sorting out allegations of child abuse. Hitting. Bruising. Hurting. Neglecting. That sort of thing.

Sure, what the heck! Let's rent out that job. That way we can run government more like, you know, a business.

The private, non-profit corporation that got the business, starting in mid 2000, was called the Florida Task Force for the Protection of Abused and Neglected Children. It is based in Pinellas Park.

Nice name, at least.

The decision to fire the task force came after revelations that its employees were under tremendous pressure to declare, one way or the other, that cases were closed.

By whatever name, there was a quota.

One task force worker, temporarily assigned to another city, said he wasn't even allowed to come home each weekend until he had closed enough cases.

In its need for bodies, the task force even hired workers who had earlier been fired by the state -- one of them fired for, guess what, falsifying records in abuse cases.

A spot check found that three-quarters of the files sampled did not contain documentation of a required background check on the adults living with an abused or neglected child.

Given all this, it's no wonder that the Department of Children and Families canceled the contracts, which had rapidly amounted to more than $6-million.

At least $2.4-million worth of those contracts were no-bid contracts, because of a loophole in state law -- you know, to make the government more "efficient."

Like a business.

Kathleen Kearney, the secretary of the Department of Children and Families, is the one who finally dropped the ax.

The state should get some credit, Kearney says. She points out that the department's own investigators revealed questionable work and acted on whistleblower allegations.

Kearney told St. Petersburg Times reporter Curtis Krueger, whose work on this story I am quoting, that her action "shows, frankly, that there was appropriate oversight."

But should Kearney's department get off the hook so easily?

No. In earlier, happier times, her deparment shared in the glory of bragging about how the case backlog had been "reduced."

Her department was part of the culture that created the pressure and made the numbers game so important.

Besides, 18 months is a long time for letting things get out of hand. You would think that in hiring outsiders to handle child abuse cases, the state might, you know, want to keep fairly close tabs on things right out of the box.

Guess not.

It took both the public and private sectors to create this failure.

In its own defense, the task force complains that the state dumped onto it the worst and most complicated cases, which the state was supposed to retain.

The task force says that the state's files were in terrible shape when it took over, with records so poor or nonexistent that a lot of time was wasted in duplication.

The state's own internal auditors complained that the state had not been investigating child abuse cases aggressively. An inspector general's report last year found that state records were missing or lost.

So, having led the department into this sorry state, the Florida Legislature then declared that, oh my goodness, isn't government terrible? We need the private sector.

Now here we are.

I do not think it is some wild, commie, liberal thing to expect the state government of Florida to protect little kids from child abuse.

Sure, there are things the private sector does better than government. But the next time you hear a politician say that more parts of the government should be run "like a business," just make sure they don't mean Enron.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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