Failures persist in child welfare

The system was transformed a decade ago, but not necessarily fixed.

Published June 24, 2007

It was supposed to be a new era.

Florida began handing over its child welfare duties to private agencies a decade ago, vowing children would be safer.

The new system would end child abuse disasters that plagued the government-run system for years, including the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson of Miami and the death of 6-year-old Kayla McKean in Central Florida.

But when a missing 2-year-old Florida foster child was found June 14 at a Wisconsin house of horrors -- where a woman was buried in the back yard and a scalded 11-year-old boy hid in a closet -- glaring fault lines were exposed in the state's privatized child welfare system.

As numerous mistakes are revealed, the case of Courtney Alisa Clark is proving to be yet another systemic failure, a troubling example of the very problem that reform was supposed to fix.

Courtney is safe now. But what about the 585 other children missing from Florida's foster care system, and the 47, 000 under the state's supervision? Probing questions are being raised anew about the state's ability to protect its most vulnerable charges.

"I think there are serious flaws, whether it's public or private," said state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, who chairs the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs. "There is a bias toward reunification of families at all costs... I believe that to be a problem.

"I think this case shows that."

In the complex business of child welfare, mistakes are bound to happen, said Andrea Moore, director of the Coral Springs advocacy group Florida's Children First. But, she said, "our system is so far from perfect that it's embarrassing."

String of missteps

Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth vowed last week to find out what went wrong in the case of Courtney Clark.

Private care still works best, he said, but vital lessons must be learned.

"You can't run this type of agency out of Tallahassee," said Butterworth, a former state attorney general facing his toughest case since his appointment six months ago. "I think it should be at the local level, but the state still has an obligation for oversight."

He called errors in the Courtney Clark case "inexcusable."

Among them:

Asked how many agencies erred in Courtney's case, Storms replied:

"There's so many, let me count the ways. ... There are too many."

'People' failed girl

Last week, Butterworth held a news conference to acknowledge the heroes of the case, two dogged investigators with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Lake County Sheriff's Office who, by locating Courtney, helped uncover the other crimes.

"People failed," Butterworth said, "but the system worked."

Several investigators in Wisconsin and Florida have asked repeatedly what went wrong with the state's child welfare system.

"I don't know what happened down there," said Lt. Mark Hahn of Portage, Wis.

Butterworth said he will release DCF's internal review of the case Monday. A more thorough investigation by the DCF inspector general also has begun.

On Friday, the St. Petersburg Times filed a court petition, joined by DCF, to open all records in the case. The records are sealed by law, but Butterworth said they should be opened so people can understand what went wrong.

Wisconsin authorities have filed murder charges against the girl's 23-year-old mother, Farris, originally of Henderson, Ky., two other adults and the dead woman's 15-year-old daughter. They also were charged with child abuse of the dead woman's scalded 11-year-old boy.

Courtney and her two sisters, also found in the house, are now in the custody of the Wisconsin child welfare system.

Moore, with the advocacy group, said she is tired of agencies in Florida's layered child welfare system pointing the finger at one another.

"They don't need to fight over turf, over whose case it is," she said. "These are children ... and our government needs to treat them with respect and not pass responsibility back and forth."

Matter of coordination

The Legislature mandated the privatization to begin in 1997.

Gov. Jeb Bush took on the effort as a point of personal pride and the statewide transition to private foster care in all 67 counties was completed in 2005.

DCF now acts as a supervisor of child welfare and a pass-through agency for funding to 20 private community agencies overseeing about 500 subcontracts for case management, direct care, foster care placement, mental health and adoption.

A state audit last year showed the cost of the current child welfare system rose 83 percent per child over six years. Statewide annual funding per child grew from $9,800 in 1998 to $18,000 in 2005.

Perhaps more surprising, the audit found that children are suffering abuse at a higher rate -- a problem that can occur when families are reunited too quickly.

In 2005, 11 percent of children experienced a second round of abuse, compared with 8 percent in 1998.

But the state keeps better track of missing foster children now, despite the problems in Courtney's case. On any given day, 1.2 percent of the state's foster kids are missing, with 90 percent of them being runaways. Half are found within three days.

The Web-based tracking system the state created after the case of Rilya Wilson, who was discovered missing in 2002, deserves much of the credit.

Also, the state now offers more foster homes, and the caseloads of workers have been significantly reduced, although communication among the various agencies now involved has been a challenge.

Lee Johnson, a former DCF official who now is executive vice president of the Sarasota Family YMCA, does not see Courtney's case as an indictment against privatized foster care.

Even under the government-only system, he said, coordination was required. Various districts existed and required cross-county teamwork.

"You still had the same issues," he said.

But Directions for Mental Health president Tom Riggs said he believes the numerous jurisdictions involved with Courtney Clark complicated the hunt to find her, as did her mother's criminal activity and her movements from state to state.

"One of the things we're trying to get from this is some strengthened procedures," he said. "I'm just very glad the child turned up alive."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at mave@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8813.