Tuesday, July 29, 2008

For once, a tough act to follow in Florida

For the first time in nearly a decade, a new Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families will have a tough act to follow.

DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth, who resigned today (July 29), demanded common sense and a sense of urgency from everyone at DCF. He led by example. He understood it is only common sense that the more you overload a child welfare system with false reports, trivial cases, and children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love, the less time you have to find children in real danger. He understood it is only common sense to work to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty instead of confusing that poverty with "neglect." He understood it is only common sense that there can be no child protection without family preservation.

Most important, General Butterworth (the title the former state Attorney General prefers) listened. He listened to the current and former foster children who told him how devastating it was to them to lose their families.

Under General Butterworth's leadership, Florida saw its first significant decline in entries into foster care since 1998 – with no compromise of child safety. Indeed, regions that did more to keep families together tended to do better on key child safety outcomes. (For details see NCCPR's Florida Rate-of-Removal Index.)

The new secretary, whoever she or he may be, must do exactly what Bob Butterworth urged in his resignation letter: "Keep it going." That new secretary also will have to focus intense attention on the biggest remaining "problem child" within DCF itself – the Fort Myers region, where an ongoing foster-care panic has torn apart hundreds of families needlessly and dramatically worsened child safety.

In his resignation letter, General Butterworth said that DCF has become "a national leader in protecting children and nurturing families." That's a bit of an exaggeration. Florida is not yet a national leader. But it is no longer a national disgrace. And Bob Butterworth deserves enormous credit for that.