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    A Times Editorial

    Unprotected children

    The disappearance of a 5-year-old girl from state care is not an aberration, and casts a pall over an already-reeling child-protection agency.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 5, 2002

    Few failures are as tragic -- or infuriating -- as the one involving young Rilya Wilson, the Miami girl missing from the state's care for more than 15 months. The 5-year-old was forsaken not just by one caseworker but by a system too often shockingly inept at its core mission: caring for those too young to protect themselves. What makes the case all the more pathetic is the realization that Rilya's disappearance is not an isolated aberration. More than 370 Florida children, supposedly under the care of the state Department of Children and Families, are on the streets or otherwise unaccounted for.

    And we call this a child-protection system?

    Rilya's disappearance has cast the darkest pall yet over a child-welfare agency already reeling from recent setbacks. DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney showed the right instinct earlier last week by accepting "full responsibility" for the "abysmal" casework underlying Rilya's disappearance. But her statements since then have been far less forthcoming and encouraging. Kearney owes the public better answers on how such a unconscionable lapse could have happened -- and what her agency plans to do to ensure that it doesn't again.

    That explanation has to include a more honest assessment of the hundreds of foster children DCF has similarly "misplaced." No doubt most are runaways: kids who have left foster care, not been pulled from it like Rilya. But advocates rightly warn that many are on the streets because DCF couldn't keep them safe at home and didn't try to locate them once they fled. As Floridians cling to hope that Rilya will be found alive (her disappearance is now being treated as a possible homicide) they should press for greater protection for the other Florida children her case has served to spotlight.

    Responsibility for those foster children, as for Rilya, rests in Tallahassee. No one should excuse what appears to be serious fraud by Rilya's caseworker (who continues to deny wrongdoing). According to DCF, the caseworker failed to visit the child, filed falsified reports with the judge saying she had, and then sought reimbursement for visitation costs she never incurred. She should be prosecuted.

    But it cheapens what has happened and disserves other children at risk to dismiss the case as merely the deviant handiwork of one person. Why weren't her failings detected by the system's built-in double-checks, including the required reviews by a second supervisor and an adoptions counselor? Rilya's caseworker was responsible for more than 30 kids at a time -- when caseloads are not supposed to exceed 17 children -- and other caseworkers in her unit were checking on children as required only about half of the time, according to reports. What was being done to correct that outrage?

    Lawmakers will no doubt be putting those and other questions to Kearney as they proceed with their oversight. But just as Kearney cannot scapegoat one caseworker, the Legislature cannot lay all blame at Kearney's feet. Child-protection in Florida has been mostly an exercise in damage control, not harm prevention. Lawmakers usually get worked up only after a child has died -- or, as here, been inexcusably lost. Real child-protection will come only when it registers as a first priority, not an afterthought.

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