Sunday, March 9, 2008

Florida: The fever breaks

For most of this decade no problem in child welfare seemed more intractable than Florida. In 1999, then-Gov. Jeb Bush named Kathleen Kearney to run the state Department of Children and Families. Kearney is a profoundly tragic figure in American child welfare. A former Broward County judge she really cared about the children and really wanted to do the right thing. But to her, the right thing was pretty much always to tear apart the family. Indeed, Kearney was so fanatical about tearing apart families that one of her first acts was to change the name of DCF’s Division of Family Safety and Preservation. She erased the last two words. “I don’t dare say ‘reunification’ in her presence,” one DCF official said.

At the same time, Gov. Bush embarked on a massive privatization scheme that seemed to have one primary purpose: to decentralize blame. Apparently, the idea was to create so many different players in so many regions that blame for the next tragedy would be unlikely to make it all the way to Tallahassee.

In 1999, the number of children torn from their homes soared by 50 percent over the previous year – from about 14,000 to more than 21,000. It was the worst statewide foster care panic I’ve ever seen. NCCPR warned that if Kearney did not change course and abandon her take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, the entire system would collapse. Three years later it did, the collapse symbolized by the fact that a young foster child, Rilya Wilson had disappeared for 15 months before anyone in the agency even noticed. Some reporters and, privately, even some within the system began to wonder if that small group from Alexandria Va. that predicted all that had happened might be on to something.

But though the Rilya Wilson case forced Kearney out, Kearneyism had taken root. Year after year, statewide, the number of children torn from their parents would stay at the same high level, somewhere between about 19,000 and 22,000.

The panic had all the usual dreadful effects. Not only were the lives of thousands of children destroyed by needless foster care, workers were so inundated with false reports, trivial cases, and needless removals that child safety also deteriorated. Deaths of children “known to the system” shot up, and more reliable indicators of child safety, notably reabuse of children left in their own homes, soared. It’s all documented in a series of NCCPR reports on Florida child welfare, available on our State Reports page.

Then a regional director in a relatively small DCF district got fed up. Alan Abramowitz had been sent to Volusia and Flagler Counties to fix a major mess. Privatization had gone particularly badly there, and there was a huge spike in removals. Abramowitz soon saw how much harm the misuse and overuse of foster care was doing to children. So did the new head of the privatized “lead agency” in the district, Ron Zychowski. They worked together to turn things around, reducing removals with no compromise of child safety.

They were so successful that Abramowitz was transferred to the Orlando district, where he began a similar transformation.

Meanwhile, another gutsy leader, Jeff Rainey, took over the privatized “lead agency” in Hillsborough County ( metropolitan Tampa). He, too, saw the enormous harm of needles foster care. He partnered with the Hillsborough County Sheriff, David Gee, whose office handles child abuse investigations in the county, to dramatically reduce entries into care. The Tampa area has some of the best safety outcomes in its region.

Then, in 2007, a new Republican Governor, Charlie Crist, named one of the state’s most respected former public officials, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth to run DCF. Butterworth is a Democrat and the joke at the time was that Crist wanted to be sure that when the state’s most hopeless agency failed, the other party was blamed.

Butterworth’s first move was to end the obsessive secrecy at the agency. No more stonewalling. When the agency made mistakes they’d own up - fast. When reporters went to court to get records about botched cases, Butterworth didn’t fight them – he joined them. And then there was the matter of lawsuits filed on behalf of children the agency had harmed horribly and who would need a lifetime of care. Previous policy was to fight them for years and try to outlast the plaintiffs. Butterworth said the state did, indeed, owe these children care, and he moved to settle – sometimes for millions of dollars.

Now, I was a reporter for 19 years. The really smart government officials know that when they actually play straight with reporters, it throws us off our game; we don’t know how to cope. Butterworth’s candor bought him time – time to learn child welfare without being blamed for every new crisis. And he learned well.

He didn’t do everything right. In a Miami case much like the case of Elian Gonzalez, he pandered to the Cuban exile community, needlessly prolonging the case. And in a tragic case involving Florida and Wisconsin, he washed his hands of the case when the child was found in Wisconsin, even though she’d probably be best off placed with a grandmother in Florida.

But mostly, Butterworth has gotten it right. The more time he spent listening – especially to current and former foster children – the more he realized what a terrible mistake the Kearney take-the-child-and-run approach had been. So he began turning more and more to Abramowitz, dubbing him the agency’s “firefighter.” Over the past year, he’s run the DCF district in Palm Beach County, effectively been in charge in Pinellas County for a short time, and now he’s taken on what is always the toughest challenge in the state, Miami.

Even as leadership was changing direction, districts were gaining a new tool to allow the change to work: Money. Not more money, not in a state as stingy with basic human needs as Florida, but more flexibility with the federal money they’ve got.

In all his years as Governor, Jeb Bush did exactly one thing right in child welfare. He probably only did it as a favor to his brother, but nevertheless he did it: He made Florida the only state in the nation to accept a “waiver” from restrictions on federal funding for child welfare.

In exchange for accepting a fixed amount of money, instead of an amount that escalates when more children are taken away, more than $100 million per year that used to be limited to funding foster care also can be used for safe, proven programs to keep families together. In one move, the waiver both took away a perverse incentive to tear apart families and provided new resources to keep those families together. (Michigan almost took advantage of a similar waiver, but that state chickened out at the last minute.)

The results of all this can be seen in NCCPR’s latest Florida Rate-of-Removal Index, released last week.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the state saw a significant reduction in the number of children torn from their families. Removals were down 19 percent, to under 17,500.

In every district where it is possible to compare (in some districts the boundary lines have changed) fewer children were taken in 2007 than in 2006. Even in the district with the worst record this year, the Jacksonville area, the new administrator in charge of DCF in the area, Nancy Dreicer, is making moves to reverse course and embrace safe, proven programs to keep families together.

The fever of family destruction that has gripped Florida child welfare since 1999, and done so much harm to the state’s vulnerable children, finally may have broken.

The main reason is that the state now has some leaders so committed to children that they are willing to paint targets on their own backs in order to do the right thing. And that’s what Butterworth, Abramowitz, Zychowski, Rainey, Gee and Dreicer have done.

That’s because there are plenty of people in Florida, in government, media and the advocacy community, still wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach – a kind of Kearney Government in Exile. They’ll try to smear the reformers by scapegoating them for the next high-profile tragedy. In effect, they’ll be making a cynical bet – wagering that Floridians will forget all the horror stories, the surge in deaths of children ‘known to the system,’ and the general decline in child safety that occurred during Florida’s Years of Panic, from 1999 through 2006.

And even now, things are not going well everywhere. Jeb Bush’s strategy of decentralizing blame has paid off. The panics that follow high-profile tragedies now tend to be confined to one region.

So what would happen if, in one region such a tragedy caught the eye of the local newspaper? And what if, in that region, the leadership at DCF and the privatized lead agency was particularly weak? And what if, in that very same region, you had a newspaper columnist who publicly declared that the role model for his approach to covering child welfare is a demagogue, and a fictional one at that?

That story in a future post.