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    DCF could use help rather than another dose of reform

    By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 12, 2002

    MIAMI -- Child abuse disasters strike Florida nearly as often as hurricanes smash into our shores. Both types of tragedies bring new names to the headlines: Andrew, Bradley, Elena, Kayla. And for Floridians who have lived here long enough, each name evokes a sharp memory.

    Our child abuse disasters seem so regular that we can almost chart them. The maelstrom surrounding the Department of Children and Families, as it struggles to discover how it lost track of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson in Miami for more than a year without noticing, already is following the historic pattern:

    Legislators have expressed outrage.

    A blue-ribbon commission has launched a study.

    A series of recommendations will follow soon, along with a news conference and a statement vowing this "must never happen again."

    People outside the government seem to be complaining that "nothing ever changes with that agency," alluding to all the kids who have died on the state's watch. But the department is changing dramatically, perhaps more dramatically than ever before. The better question may be: Is it changing for the better?

    The spotlight on DCF -- especially in the Miami-Dade area -- is necessary in the midst of the Rilya mystery. But it's ironic that later this year the department plans to award contracts to non-profit companies here to do much of the work now handled by DCF employees. The agency is essentially handing over most jobs except contract monitoring to someone else.

    It would be harder to imagine a bigger reform than that. Similar ones already have taken place in Pinellas and Pasco counties, where DCF employees now handle virtually none of the child protection work, from foster care to child abuse investigations. A similar privatization of foster care and other services is under way in Hillsborough County.

    None of this means DCF doesn't deserve even more reform. But it shows what reformers are up against. They're going to reform an agency already in flux, which has been reorganized 22 times in 32 years, which looks much different today even than it did on the day last year that Rilya disappeared.

    How should Florida respond to what happened to Rilya?

    That depends on what really did happen to Rilya. As of Friday, police were still looking into the story that Rilya was removed from her caregiver's home by someone claiming to be from DCF. They also were investigating whether a DCF caseworker falsified records to make it appear that she had checked on Rilya. While DNA tests had ruled out a match between Rilya and a slain girl in Kansas City, police in Miami said the caretaker who handed Rilya to a welfare worker failed a lie detector test.

    The blue-ribbon task force is led by four respected Miami-area leaders and chaired by former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr., who has become a noted advocate for early childhood programs. But with reports due May 20 and June 3, the committee could be forced to make its recommendations before the police have finished investigating the case -- and therefore before the full picture of Rilya becomes clear.

    It's worth remembering now that child abuse is not meteorology, and our response to it should not be so predictable. Rilya is not a pattern. She's a girl, or perhaps was a girl. It is uncertain if she's alive.

    What we do know is that parents addicted to cocaine -- as Rilya's mother apparently was when the girl was put in foster care -- are more likely to neglect their children than parents who aren't. But funding for substance abuse programs remains scarce.

    This is just one small point, not any kind of answer to the questions Rilya will raise. But this also is worth remembering. Most experts agree the best way to guarantee success in foster care is to make sure children never enter it.

    Last week, Dr. Charles Mahan, a former state health officer and dean of the school of public health at the University of South Florida, was asked to comment on the current situation. He said that, rather than one more blue-ribbon commission, he would like to see statewide full funding for Healthy Families. This program identifies families with significant levels of stress. It provides them with support workers who help them learn how to obtain proper medical care, housing, nutritious food and other needs that are basic to a stable home. Those are the kind of homes where abuse is less likely.

    This is no silver bullet. But while the latest commission dissects the bureaucracy of DCF, real solutions may lie outside the agency.

    -- Curtis Krueger is a staff writer for the Times who frequently writes about the state's social services agency.

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