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Florida's kids still wait for a good guy to stand up

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2002

I wrote the other day that Gov. Jeb Bush hadn't done much for the Department of Children and Families.

I wrote the other day that Gov. Jeb Bush hadn't done much for the Department of Children and Families.

I was half right.

He's done some. Although the numbers will sound large, it's just not enough.

His administration has doubled the amount of money spent on child welfare.

While the caseload of complaints rose 60 percent, the administration increased the budgeted number of child abuse investigators and counselors by the same percentage.

The numbers, on paper, would lead you to think everything ought to be hunky-dory at DCF. But that's the trouble. These numbers are on paper only, as many jobs wait to be filled.

State Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, is chairman of the state House select committee on oversight of the Department of Children and Families. At the moment, she said Friday, 751 jobs in the agency are vacant, and most of them are investigators or case workers. By the department's own numbers, 30-plus percent of the staff quits every year.

Now you know why the caseloads remain high. Now you know why there are some children DCF doesn't get to until it's too late.

The governor's statistics also hide a curious detail. Of the millions set aside for employees, Murman said, not a cent has been set aside to raise the base pay of DCF workers and supervisors. Not a cent. This has long been an issue at DCF. You get what you pay for.

Here's another curious fact. According to Murman, Florida's child welfare agency has never sought accreditation from the Child Welfare League of America. We can't. The caseloads for workers, even now, is several times higher than the Child Welfare League believes should be the maximum.

Sure does make you proud to be a Floridian, doesn't it?

Twenty-two times in the last 33 years, the Legislature has directed the agency to clean up its act.

Twelve times since 1985, special committees have been convened to investigate the agency.

The only thing that clearly changed was the name. The Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services is now the Department of Children and Families.

What's striking, though, is that over the years a consensus has slowly formed about what needs to be fixed in the agency. Nothing that was said the last time -- in a report issued after the disappearance of Rilya Wilson -- was new. And the people who wrote the report knew it.

"The chief issue is -- and has always been -- the same," they wrote. "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, give deserved priority to Florida's dependent children and families."

I said at the start Gov. Bush had done some, but not enough.

The report issued in May after the disappearance of Rilya Wilson called for a special session of the Legislature on DCF. The committee wanted the governor to tackle pay and caseloads, which Bush has so far refused to do.

Shame on him. If he means what he said in May when he declared, "We can do better and we have to," he has to follow through.

It is true that this crisis did not begin on his watch, that years of Democratic neglect were dumped on his lap. But it's his turn now.

Forget for a moment the principles at stake here. You'd think Bush would want to rise to the challenge, just for the I-showed-them pleasure of it -- to be the governor who accomplished what none before him would or could do.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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