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    Governor vows to reform DCF

    He backs some ideas proposed by the panel he formed in light of the Rilya Wilson case, but rejects its call for a special session.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 2, 2002

    MIAMI -- Gov. Jeb Bush promised to expand background checks in foster homes. He promised to increase the number of court-appointed guardians for children. And he promised to follow more than a dozen other recommendations from a panel he created to study a department's bungling in the case of Rilya Wilson.

    But he brushed aside the panel's suggestion Tuesday that he call a special legislative session on Florida's Department of Children and Families, and he remained noncommittal about spending more money to increase case-workers' pay and reduce their workloads.

    Bush called the report a "blueprint" for change, but it was clear that some of the lines still need to be filled in.

    "This is a good, solid blueprint to improve the chance of children living healthy and productive lives in our state," Bush said Tuesday, as he accepted a 28-page report from his Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection.

    He added, "We know we can do better, and we have to."

    The four-member panel wrote:

    "The chief issue is -- and always has been -- the same: Florida's child welfare system is overburdened, overwhelmed, understaffed and underfunded. It always has been. And it always will be until the citizens of Florida and their elected representatives, the Legislature, give deserved priority to Florida's dependent children and families."

    The panel urged the Florida Legislature: to improve financing for programs designed to prevent families from falling into abusive patterns in the first place, to increase funding for DCF programs even as it increasingly gives this work to outside agencies, and to increase pay for DCF supervisors beyond the current $38,000 (compared to a nationwide average of $42,000).

    Bush, who is running for re-election this year, formed the panel earlier this month to look into what has become the most troubling social services episode in his governorship.

    DCF lost track of Rilya for more than a year. In April 2000, the little girl was taken by the state from her homeless, crack-addicted mother and placed with Geralyn Graham, who says she is Rilya's grandmother.

    Geralyn Graham filed for food stamps on behalf of Rilya as recently as March. But Graham now says Rilya was taken from her home by someone purporting to be a DCF worker in January 2001.

    The review panel faulted two low-level state workers and Rilya's caretakers for the girl's long-unnoticed disappearance but also said DCF shortcomings were "manifest." The panel spent 30 hours in public hearings with testimony from 61 witnesses.

    Panel member Sara Herald, a banker, Bush confidante, foster and adoptive parent, said "there is nothing that was found in this case" that the state hasn't known for 15 years.

    She said: "We talk about prevention, we talk about ensuring every child is safe . . . but we really don't put the systems and the resources into place to make sure that happens."

    Bush focused Tuesday on other goals, such as the panel's recommendation to find guardians ad litem for every child in foster care and other forms of state supervision. These guardians don't house children but walk them through the court process, making sure they are well-cared for.

    With a guardian ad litem on Rilya's case, Bush said, "This issue would not have happened." He announced creation of another task force to study this need, but declined to set a specific target.

    Bush pledged Tuesday to act on the panel's other recommendations, which include:

    Requiring that DCF caseworkers notify law enforcement immediately when a child is reported missing -- something that took six days in Rilya's case.

    Ensuring that caseworkers really do see children under their supervision once a month; they apparently did not for Rilya.

    Creating a hotline so foster parents can call if caseworkers do not make their required monthly visits.

    Numerous other recommendations designed to improve coordination, training and monitoring of DCF staff.

    The panel also called for the department to conduct nationwide criminal background checks for all people who provide what is known as "relocative and nonrelative care." These are people who act like foster parents, taking in children who are suspected victims of abuse or neglect, but are not formally licensed foster parents. Currently, these caregivers undergo state and local background checks.

    DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney has pointed to the department's $230-million computer system as a powerful tool that could help spot sloppy casework in the future. The panel said the computer network provides promise, but pointed out some caseworkers already don't like the system.

    Bush said: "Don't oversell that as a solution.

    "We can rely on technology so much that we lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day, this is still a human-condition issue."

    Bush also said the Rilya fiasco shows why Florida should continue to take foster care and child welfare work away from the government and give it to nonprofit agencies such as Hillsborough Kids Inc., a group he mentioned in comments here Tuesday.

    He brushed aside the suggestion by some that he fire DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney.

    Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, issued a statement urging Bush to honor the commission's call for a special legislative session.

    The governor and the Legislature immediately should allocate money for the new initiatives, McBride said.

    Janet Reno, who also is seeking the Democratic nomination, said the panel "offered few new ideas," and she complained that its size and scope were too narrow.

    -- Staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Associated Press.

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