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    DCF secretary rebuts critical report

    The draft report, compiled by an arm of the Legislature, identifies areas in which the Department of Children and Families needs work.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


    Fighting to avoid a public relations disaster, Department of Children and Families Secretary Kathleen Kearney went on the offensive to shoot down a legislative report that sharply questions the state's social services agency.

    Kearney spent an hour on a conference call with reporters Thursday saying her department is doing a better job of protecting abused children, in spite of the recent critical report.

    "Kids are safer," Kearney said.

    The report, which is still in draft form awaiting the department's formal response, said the agency has failed to respond quickly enough to calls phoned in to the state's abuse hot line and "has generally not achieved its goal to ensure that abused and neglected children are provided safe, permanent and stable living arrangements in a timely manner."

    Kearney stopped short of criticizing the researchers, but said the data have improved since June 30, 2000, when the study period ended. She said the 1999 Legislature poured millions of dollars more into the state's child welfare system, which allowed the state to add staff who have been hired and fully trained only recently.

    "I don't want . . . the public to think that the Legislature has given us all this money and nothing has happened," Kearney said.

    Kearney is hardly the first secretary of the department, which formerly was called Health and Rehabilitative Services, to feel the heat of outside scrutiny. The department often has had a tumultuous relationship with the Florida Legislature, especially whenrocked by controversies such as the death of a child under the department's care.

    State Rep. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, a member of the House Child and Family Security Committee, said legislators would take the report seriously and carefully listen to Kearney's response. "Right now it certainly doesn't paint a very pretty picture," he said.

    Kearney, a circuit judge who went from department critic to department director, has presided over the biggest budget increases in memory to child welfare programs designed to protect abused and neglected children. Her response to the report this week seemed designed to prevent a loss of legislator confidence like those that have dogged her predecessors.

    When a draft of the report was cited in a Wednesday story in the Tallahassee Democrat, Kearney took the unusual step of faxing a response to media around Florida, saying, "It is rare that I find it necessary to respond to an important work before it is in its final form."

    She followed with the hourlong conference call Thursday. Gov. Jeb Bush got into the act, too, telling reporters it was premature to publicize details of a report not yet in final form.

    Kearney's staff on Thursday helped prepare point-by-point rebuttals to the draft audit. For example, they focused on the figure for how many children are abused a second time after they come under the department's care -- a key statistic because the department has been criticized when children it was overseeing were killed by abusers.

    The Legislature wants the department to be able to show that at least 97 percent of the children it deals with do not suffer abuse again. DCF fell short, the report says, with 96 percent and 93.5 percent of the children staying free of abuse in 1998-99 and 1999-2000, respectively.

    But the number exceeded 98 percent in the three-month period starting July 1, 2000, a period not covered in the report. "We are exceeding the statewide standards," Kearney said.

    Among other points in the report:

    11 percent of calls to the state's abuse hot line were abandoned in the 1998-99 fiscal year, and that number swelled to 23.4 percent in 1999-2000. But by last month, the number had dropped to 3 percent, thanks to increases in staff and other efficiencies, Kearney said.

    Although the law requires investigators to meet face to face with alleged victims of abuse or neglect within 24 hours, they did so in just 54.9 percent of cases in the first year and 53.6 percent in the second year, the report said. Kearney said the rate will never be 100 percent because children cannot always be located quickly. The department did say that investigations had begun within 24 hours in 91 percent or more of the cases during the 18 months starting July 1, 1999.

    The report said the backlog of child abuse cases remaining to be closed had reached 48,529 by November 2000. Department officials said it had actually increased to more than 51,000 since then, and it now stands at 49,303. But Kearney said that because of an increase in staff, "we are now for the first time ever able to keep up with the incoming cases."

    Kearney also said some of the data analyzed in the report, which was mandated by the Legislature, were misleading. For example, she said one of the measures of how long children stay in foster care is skewed.

    The report was compiled by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, an arm of the Legislature.

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