Child-care workers say system is working

Published March 17, 2007

TAMPA - Two caseworkers entrusted with checking on the safety of children in state custody have been accused of faking reports saying they kept tabs on them.

The two Tampa workers hadn't seen some of the children in months, state investigators found. When supervisors realized this, they followed up on the neglected cases and learned one boy had been passed on to a relative before he ultimately landed in a juvenile detention facility.

A Department of Children and Families investigative report revealed the allegations.

On Friday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that it had charged one of the caseworkers, Robin Melissa Schofield, 31, of Tampa, with two counts of falsifying official state records related to child welfare services. She was released from the Hillsborough County jail on $5,000 bail.

State criminal records show she had been arrested for check fraud in 2005, which didn't stop her from being hired.

Margaret Haq, the other Tampa caseworker, hasn't been charged.

Welfare workers who falsify documents related to anyone in state care have faced felony charges since the publicized disappearance of Rilya Wilson, a Miami girl who vanished in 2002. A DCF worker had not visited her in more than a year.

Schofield and Haq worked for Children's Home Community Based Care, which is a subcontractor to Hillsborough Kids Inc. Both women have been fired.

Hillsborough Kids is a private agency the state hired to oversee child custody cases.

"Why would anyone in their right mind do this?" Gerard Veneman, chief executive officer of Children's Home, asked.

Veneman said the children the women oversaw are safe. He said his agency notified DCF of the fabrications, which were caught thanks to a strong system of checks and balances.

Jeff Rainey, chief executive officer of Hillsborough Kids, backed Children's Home, which has a $2-million contract to supervise child welfare cases.

DCF spokesman Al Zimmerman said, "We have complete confidence in our community-based system of care. Unfortunately, if someone is going to be dishonest, they're going to be dishonest. If they let you down, fortunately the process is in place where we catch these people."

This fiscal year, 39 DCF or contracted employees have been fired and referred to law enforcement agencies after they lied on reports.

"Since the system has improved so much, we're able to weed these people out," Zimmerman said.

Haq, 52, came to Children's Home after working as a DCF child investigator and family safety care manager from 1997 to 2002. Assigned as a care team coordinator, she led a team of three caseworkers.

In four child welfare cases, investigators found that Haq entered 12 falsified entries into the computer between Jan. 31, 2006, and March 18, 2006.

Here is what they found:

In the first case, Haq reported she had visited a child three times in three months. But a guardian said she never met with Haq.

Another caseworker eventually tracked the child down at school because the address Haq listed was no longer valid.

In the second case, Haq reported that a child was with his guardian. In reality, the guardian had given custody of the boy to his adult sister after she couldn't discipline him.

A caseworker, following up on Haq in April 2006, learned that the boy hadn't seen a caseworker in about four months.

During that time, the boy spent 21 days incarcerated at the W.T. Edwards Juvenile Facility. He had run away from a home at one point, too.

In the third case, a mother said she had never met with Haq or seen anyone from Children's Home since December 2005. Haq wrote a false report anyway. When the mother was asked about it, she told caseworkers that she never worked at Burger King and her child doesn't like school physical education.

In the fourth case, Haq persuaded two colleagues to check up on a child, saying her case-load was too heavy. She failed to file required reports about the cases.

Employee time sheets and travel vouchers show that Haq was off on two dates she listed on child welfare reports. She didn't claim mileage reimbursement for Feb. 19, 2006, despite saying she had visited someone then.

She was fired March 29, 2006.

Like Haq, Schofield was a care team coordinator hired Jan. 9, 2006. Pinellas County sheriff's authorities arrested her a month before on suspicion of check fraud, a third-degree felony.

She entered pretrial diversion. Children's Home officials learned of the arrest after she was on the job but didn't think she should be fired for it.

State law lists 12 crimes that preclude people from working with children. Check fraud isn't one.

On Friday, Veneman said he will review hiring practices to see if it should be included.

Investigators looked into three of Schofield's child welfare cases.

In one, a caregiver said Schofield couldn't have visited him because he was working at the time she reported she did. He said he didn't even know Schofield.

When Schofield's supervisor was alerted to the possibility that the caseworker hadn't seen some children, Schofield said she had. The supervisor eventually asked Schofield for proof: "face-to-face" reports that require a guardian's signature.

Schofield supplied some that lacked signatures, prompting the supervisor to call the foster parent.

The parent said she had never seen Schofield.

Schofield's time sheets show that she was off on two dates she listed on child welfare reports.

She was fired March 9, 2006.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.