Few positions exist in children’s services that offer this scenario: One day you’re comfortably retired after an international stint in the private sector and, the next, you’re headlined in the national press because in your new role as chief administrator of a public agency you must get to the bottom of the horrifying abuse of twins, one of whom died.
This is the unique world which David Wilkins stepped out of, and into, as the new Secretary of the Florida Department of Children & Families.
The agonizing death of frail Nubia Barahona in Miami-Dade and what led up to her demise have blown the lid off the long simmering feud between family preservationists and child protectionists. In child welfare parlance, I’m referring to the nexus between leaving children in a home where abuse has occurred and removing the child for his or her own protection.
Of course, there are cases like little Nubia’s where the gravity and number of mistakes made are maddening. It’s not hindsight being 20-20 vision either. This case was atrocious starting with the decision to allow the adoption to take place in spite of multiple warnings from her Guardian ad Litem who was egregiously ignored.
Most cases are not as volatile. Regardless, no diagnostic or predictive tool exists to fathom with absolute certainty in any one of them whether the suspect family with on-going intervention and monitoring can change its abusive behavior and care properly for the child or if a temporary and sometimes permanent separation is the right way to go.
Striking the right balance between the two is but one of the juggling acts David Wilkins must master.
Other lines of demarcation that exist in the child welfare system include more clearly defining the relationship between DCF and the privatized network of service providers; the manner in which calls to the Child Abuse Hotline are screened, prioritized and referred; invigorating more “community” in community based care management and civic engagement; and holding families accountable and empowering them in the care and well-being of their children.
Recently, representatives of The Children’s Campaign met with Secretary Wilkins and several of his key staff. I was joined by Children’s Campaign Executive Director Linda Alexionok and board member Rev. Brant Copeland. We explored these issues with the Secretary and have set a time for further conversation.
The Children’s Campaign was clear about our role not only as an independent advocacy organization but also as an aggressive watchdog when warranted. We offered our help.
We were pleased with his response. Wilkins did not flinch about our watchdog role. Rather, he sought to engage us. He expressed clarity about the balance to be struck across the many complicated issues and his priorities. He spoke earnestly about his commitment to holding the agency accountable for measuring outcomes linked to the protection and well-being of children.
Action by his office is being taken already. Changes in the management of the Child Abuse Hotline have been announced. This was a good move.
Other staff changes in the Secretary’s inner circle have us watching carefully. Some very good people are leaving and with them tons of institutional memory. Not understanding history can lead to repeating mistakes.
The child abuse system has swung like a pendulum in the wake of past child abuse deaths which became front page news stories. Paranoia can reign. Overreactions are not uncommon.
Keep in mind that the child welfare system while far from corrected has made steady progress towards improvement. Bob Butterworth and George Sheldon are to be commended for their inspired leadership, and especially Sheldon, for his longevity in the position. He left the ship in far better shape than he inherited it.
Still, The Children’s Campaign asked the previous team whether the goal of reducing out of home placements by 50% was a firm target or was it aspirational? On that point we never believed we received a definitive answer that matched policy and practice. All advocacy groups and passionate journalists like Carol Marbin-Miller have heard about cases, horrible cases, where decisions seemed seriously flawed. Dependency judges grumbled about their reduced role and oversight from fewer petitions being presented to the Court. Child protection investigators complained (off the record) about a lack of love at the Department if removing too many children from their homes.
It’s time to bring all of these systemic parts back together. The investigatory panel in the tragic Barahona case must complete its work quickly so that it can be succeeded by forums better designed and more diverse to advise future action.
On-going forums and dialogue may not always reach consensus but conversations do lead to understandings. Wilkins will benefit from hearing the give and take and he needs to hear it, as we all do, over and over again. These forums should become a mainstay and involve diverse stakeholders, families and children served. They need not rise to the level of an official commission or task force. Without forums for continued dialogue of a high minded nature, however, the tendency is for everyone to return to their respective corners and the system suffers because of it.
The Children’s Campaign