Sunday, August 5, 2007

Class and courage trump the Red Queen

This is a story about class and courage at a child protective services agency – in Florida, no less.

It doesn’t begin well, of course. It begins the way many stories begin with the death of a child “known to the system” in Palm Beach County, Florida, last year. The case was ambiguous; not one of those where the file had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade. It’s clear the caseworker should have asked more questions. But there is nothing to indicate the worker’s supervisor, Michele Fuhrman, did anything wrong.

And Fuhrman, a 20-year veteran, was not your average supervisor. According to The Palm Beach Post:

DCF bosses regularly judged Fuhrman's work as outstanding. As an investigator, she routinely came to work at 6:30 a.m. to field calls and joined the rapid response team, which meant that she could be called in at any hour to investigate critical incidents of child abuse.
"Michele's honesty, caring attitude and excellent child safety assessment skills stand out the most," a supervisor wrote in 2002.
Over one 17-month period from 1999 to 2000, Fuhrman investigated 336 cases, many of them time-consuming and complex, according to her file. She volunteered to take the most difficult cases and often pitched in to help others with their own cases.

But child welfare agencies are firm believers in the Red Queen School of Management. And the aftermath of the death of a child “known to the system” is never complete without the Ritual Sacrifice of the Caseworker. So the Florida Department of Children and Families first demoted Fuhrman and then forced out of her job.

And there the story would have ended, if not for Alan Abramowitz. Abramowitz has become something of a trouble-shooter for DCF – and that makes him a very busy man in Florida’s now heavily-decentralized, heavily privatized child welfare system. He and the head of the privatized lead agency in Volusia and Flagler Counties, Ron Zychowski, played a key role in turning around that district. Then he led major changes in the Orlando area. About a month ago, he was sent to Palm Beach County as acting District Administrator there.

Some years ago, Abramowitz had been Deputy District Administrator in Palm Beach County. He knew Fuhrman and he knew her good work. So among his first acts as acting District Administrator: Offered Fuhrman her job back.

Fuhrman, in fact, had landed another, very good job. She was doing just fine. But she cared too much about the children to turn the offer down. So I don’t know which is more impressive: Abramowitz making the offer or Fuhrman, who had every reason to tell DCF exactly what it could do with its job, accepting.

Now, an injustice to one individual has been at least partially rectified. The children of Palm Beach County once again will benefit from Fuhrman’s experience, dedication and good judgment. And, for once, a child welfare agency is sending the right message to the frontlines: We’ll hold you accountable when it’s really your fault, but we’re not going to make you scapegoats.

A little class and a little courage can trump the Red Queen.