Thursday, September 3, 2009

UPDATED, 5:45 PM: Just when I thought it was safe to say nice things about Florida…


…the Florida Department of Children and Families caves in to another governor and politicizes another human services case.

This is something of a habit in Florida. Every few years a case comes along which gives a conservative governor a chance to shore up his political base – and the Department of Children and Families promptly caves.

DCF isn't only responsible for children – so it was involved in then Gov. Jeb Bush's astonishingly cruel attempt to politicize the case of Terri Schiavo. But one would hope that even a governor of Florida would understand that children should be off limits. The record shows they don't. The last two governors have felt free to order the child welfare agency to play politics with children's lives.

A few years ago, it was a 13-year-old foster child who wanted an abortion. Somehow Bush got wind of it and demanded that DCF try to stop it. Then there was the Cuban child who wound up in the hands of wealthy, powerful Cuban-American foster parents – through no fault of his Cuban father. DCF tried to deny the child the right to live with his own, loving father, and, in fact, managed to force a compromise at the child's expense. (This is not the notorious Elian Gonzalez case, in which DCF had little involvement, but it was similar enough to be branded Elian II in many quarters.) This case lasted long enough for both Bush and his successor, Charlie Crist to order DCF to put its huge thumb on the scales of justice against the father – which both hurt the child and cost taxpayers $250,000.

Right now, DCF is in court mounting a half-hearted defense of the state's law banning gay people from adopting, even though it's obvious the agency knows the law hurts children.

But all that at least began when DCF had so many other failings that politicization was the least of it. DCF really has improved a lot in the last couple of years – but not when it comes to halting the practice of putting politics ahead of children.

Which brings us to the case of 17-year-old Fathima Rifqa Bary, which is scheduled to be the subject of another court hearing today.

The case, and DCF's inexcusable behavior, were so perfectly summed up by Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas that I don't need to summarize here. The Sentinel even sent a reporter to Bary's home – her real home - in Ohio, no small feat in these days of newspaper budget cuts. That story makes even clearer the harm being done to this entire family because Gov. Crist is running for the Senate, faces a primary challenge and needs to pander to his base.

While one might expect as much from a politician, especially in Florida, it would have been nice if, once, just once, a DCF leader stood up to it. But no. DCF argued to keep Rifqa in Florida, which only will prolong everyone's ordeal. One need only watch the widely-circulated video of Rifqa on Youtube to see that every extra minute this case drags on makes everything more difficult for the family and, especially Rifqa.

Not only did DCF take the wrong stand, DCF Secretary George Sheldon personally came to court for the case (something, you may be sure, he does not do every day). Indeed, if he's got that much time on his hands, he could put it to far better use, by say, addressing Florida's ongoing problems of misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on foster children. (Florida's problems in this regard are no worse than any other state's but, DCF has been astonishingly candid about them - and for that, Sheldon deserves credit.)

Sheldon also met personally with Rifqa and her lawyer. He apparently felt no need to meet with her distraught parents and their lawyer.

The very fact that Rifqa has a lawyer is highly unusual. In Florida, children in such cases are not entitled to them. Rather, they are assigned Guardians ad litem (usually not lawyers at all, but essentially CASA volunteers) who advocate not for what the child wants, but for whatever the guardian happens to think is best.

As readers of this Blog probably know, I believe children should have lawyers and their mandate should be to advocate for what any child old enough to express a rational preference wants. So I believe Rifqa should have a lawyer arguing for her position, even though her position is tragically wrong. But how is it that DCF and the Florida courts managed to make an exception and allow a lawyer to represent this one child in a child welfare proceeding?

Most shameful of all is Sheldon's disingenuous claim that all they're doing is watching out for Rifqa's safety. Thomas' column makes clear the absurdity of the claim. But also, that was, of course, the excuse for all the horrible things Florida did to children before recent reforms. In fact, it's the excuse for terrible things done to children all over the country by child welfare agencies – think of the FLDS raid, for example, or every time a child's poverty is confused with neglect in the name of "erring on the side of the child." Or, better yet, just think of it as the Dick Cheney defense. After all, all that torture during the (George W.) Bush Administration was in the name of "safety," too.

It sends a terrible message to frontline workers to say, in effect, "we now realize how harmful foster care is to most children most of the time, so we will no longer hide behind safety to justify needless foster care – except in the politically-charged cases."

I'm not really sorry that I've been saying nice things about Florida. It is, in fact, a much improved child welfare system over the one that existed just a few years ago. Although the agency still has a long way to go, DCF has been doing an admirable job of wringing the wrongful removal out of the system.

Now, if it could just do the same with the politics. Today's court hearing would be a great place to start.


But no, it was another victory for politics - Rifqa stays in Florida. And to top it off, the judge has imposed a gag order. DCF's signature reform over the past couple of years has been openness; if the agency can appeal the gag order and does not do so, then its signature will be hypocrisy.

At one point in today's hearing, the lawyer for Rifqa's father urged the judge to "let common sense prevail.

Clearly, he forgot he's in Florida.

UPDATE, SEPT 3, 3:05 p.m.:

The Columbus Dispatch reports that Franklin County Children’s Services, the county-run child welfare agency in Columbus, is convinced Rifqa will be perfectly safe in her own home. That’s particularly significant because, as it happens, few agencies in the entire country normally are more fanatical about taking away children than Franklin County Children’s Services. For details, see NCCPR’s report on Ohio child welfare.

● The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did its own investigation and filed a report with the court in Florida. But when the Orlando Sentinel asked for a copy, it was denied because the judge sealed it. The request to seal the report, and prevent the public from knowing what’s in it, at least for now, was filed by Rifqa’s lawyer, who, of course, is trying to keep Rifqa away from her parents. I wonder what he doesn't want us to see?