Monday, December 7, 2009

Foster care in Florida: Error after error in the story that started hotline hysteria

    Previous posts to this blog discuss an editorial-disguised-as-a-news-story in the Miami Herald on Nov. 29 that essentially crusaded for drastically reducing, if not eliminating, the practice of screening calls to Florida's child abuse hotline. The de facto editorial was a collection of apparent horror stories about cases which the hotline allegedly should have accepted for investigation instead of screening out. In fact, a rebuttal from the Florida Department of Children and Families "raises questions," as newspapers like to put it, about the Herald's account of those cases.

Not just the accounts of these individual cases, but the entire story was devoid of context.

There was only a passing mention, far down in the story, of the fact that Florida screens calls at roughly the national average rate, and no mention at all of the fact that, when screening was nearly eliminated in 2000, the results were disastrous.

The Herald account blamed the alleged horror stories on policy when, in fact, to the extent that there were failures, those failures appear to be errors in implementing policy.

● The story also was a no-dissent zone – anyone who disagreed with the story's thesis was shut out, unless they worked for DCF – which inherently gave them less credibility.

    But we do have detail about one of the horror stories – because it was the subject of an earlier account in the Herald. More important, the Herald posted on its website some of the key documents in that particular case. They're still there. That allows anyone to do what Herald editors should have done – not only a fact check, but a nuance check and an innuendo check as well.

    Below are some excerpts from that story, followed by discussion of what we know from what the documents on which much of the story is based.


    In one sense, in this case the hotline failed by definition – the calls were not accepted, and now the child is dead. But the question is whether the hotline failed without the benefit of hindsight, back when the reports about this case were four of over 200,000 received by the hotline every year.

    By that standard, what the documents reveal is not a failure at the hotline but rather a failure by a judge who apparently believed that, since she's a judge, "because I said so, that's why" is reason enough for the hotline to accept a case. Unfortunately, DCF has given judges reason to believe that. Florida DCF Secretary George Sheldon compounded the problem by doing something one almost never sees among people with his job – being too quick to accept blame for something that was not the agency's fault.

Throughout the story excerpts below, I've bold-faced the loaded language and sneering sarcasm – the parts intended to instruct you as to what to think, instead of giving you the facts to do the thinking for yourself. Here's how the story began:

For six months, Broward Circuit Judge Eileen O'Connor had been struggling to referee Alberto and Jocelyn Barros' nightmare of a marriage.

A former federal prosecutor who presides in the county's specialized Domestic Violence Court, she knew all too well how badly such things can end.

But O'Connor was less worried about the warring adults than their infant son Bryce, whom she feared might well become collateral damage. Three times in February and March, she faxed the state's child-abuse hot line: ``The court is deeply concerned about the welfare of the minor child.''

Child welfare administrators finally accepted the case on July 3. By then, Bryce Barros was dead. He was just shy of 2.

Now, Hallandale Beach police homicide detectives are trying to figure out what child-abuse investigators never tried to, and to determine what, exactly, killed the dark-haired boy.

The Department of Children & Families, too, is looking for answers. Among them: why its hot line counselors repeatedly ignored what amounts to a court order. …

O'Connor first raised a red flag in the form of a handwritten fax to DCF that followed a threat to the warring parents from the bench.

In the case before O'Connor, Jocelyn accused her husband of stalking her, and he had sought a restraining order against her as well. The two were living separately and sharing custody of Bryce.

``Because you two couldn't get along, and are doing ridiculous things with your child, DCF is going to get involved and do an investigation and they are going to figure out whether you're doing an OK job,'' she warned the couple at a Jan. 29 court hearing.

It proved to be an empty threat. DCF investigators rejected the judge's request. ``The fax was screened because there are no allegations of abuse, neglect [or] threatened harm to the child,'' a hot line counselor wrote at the time.

    Now, let's look at what actually happened.

For starters, the story errs in calling Bryce an infant. As this story also says, but the Nov. 29 story does not, he was two-years-old when he died, and that's important in light of some of the allegations in the case. I'll come back to that later. But I'll start with the fax.

    Here is what the fax actually said in its entirety. Under "ordered and adjudged" it says:

    "The clerk of court is directed to refer the above-[word illegible] case to DCF for investigation/home study of both parents. Based on the history between the parties in this case and testimonial evidence presented, the court is deeply concerned about the welfare of the minor child. The court has ordered visitation with both parents in weekly increments and would like a report as to the department's findings."

    What's missing, of course, is any actual accusation of child maltreatment. You don't have to prove abuse to get a call accepted at the hotline. You don't even have to have any evidence. But it's not too much to ask that someone calling the hotline explain what it is they've seen or heard that, if true, would fit a state's definition of abuse and neglect. The judge never does even that much.

    In fact, it does not appear the judge had anything. She just wanted to use DCF to enforce her efforts to get divorcing parents to stop behaving badly. That is not DCF's job.

    And while the story implies that DCF did nothing but throw the judge's fax into a wastebasket, that's not true. When the judge had her "order" faxed the second time, the hotline operator did exactly what common sense says he should do. He got back to the judge's clerk and asked that the judge please send information explaining what she suspected the parents were doing to the child. As the hotline's call center manager explains in an e-mail obtained by the Herald, but not quoted in the story, "Even after calling the reporter back and asking that the allegation be sent, the same fax, without any new details, was re-faxed to us."

But the story never makes that clear. Instead, it says simply:

On March 10, at 11:22 a.m., O'Connor re-faxed the complaint. It was again rejected -- this time because it did not specify where the baby could be found, and because it contained ``no allegations'' of harm to him.

The story never questions why the judge didn't offer any actual reasons for the hotline to investigate. There's no indication that the reporter ever asked. The story continues:
O'Connor sent a third fax 32 minutes later, adding an address. Again, a hot line counselor threw it out on the grounds of ``no allegations,'' and ``insufficient information.''
Were I to write using the same tone as the Herald story I could say that the report was not accepted because O'Connor "couldn't be bothered" or "didn't seem to think the case was important enough" or [insert snide phrase here] to actually offer a reason for suspicion beyond the functional equivalent of: "I'm a judge, that's why!"

One can argue that the hotline operator should have done in response to call #1 what was done with call #2. Other than that, the people at the hotline did exactly what they should have done. They respectfully declined to do the judge's job for her. Without benefit of hindsight, they declined to launch what could have been a traumatic investigation that stole time from some other child in danger based on no allegation of maltreatment whatsoever.


Now we get to where Sheldon was too quick to fall on its sword. At the top of the story, he says:

``The system didn't work in this case,'' DCF Secretary George Sheldon acknowledged. ``There are no excuses for it . . . This is a reminder to everybody that what we do is so critical to the lives of people.''

Later, he gets more specific:

Under DCF policy, O'Connor's third strike should have triggered an automatic review of the case by DCF quality-assurance investigators. The thinking: If anyone is concerned enough to ask three times, maybe it's worth another look.

``Somehow, in this case, that didn't happen,'' Sheldon said. ``There is no question that should have been done.''

If that's really the policy, it shouldn't be. It's like putting up a big sign saying: "Attention: Want to harass an ex-spouse? How about a neighbor against whom you have a grudge? Don't forget our handy 'three strikes' rule!" Cases should be screened based on the merits of the report, not on how often one pushes the 'redial' button on the phone or the 'send' button on the fax machine.

Unfortunately, it also apparently is DCF policy to treat anything from a judge as Holy Writ. Any report from a judge, even it doesn't allege any maltreatment, is supposed to be accepted and sent on to regional offices for investigation. Those offices have the option of going to court to challenge the order – as if that would ever happen. So, to the extent that a hotline operator made a mistake, it was, again to use Herald-speak: treating a complaint from a judge with the same sound response as if it had come from a mere mortal.

Now, back to the story:
On April 21, Jocelyn Barros called the abuse hot line herself. Bryce, she said, ``consistently returns from dad's [visits] with injuries.''
After a recent visit, the infant had a layer of skin peeled from his wrist ``along with deep lacerations,'' she said.

What's more, she said, the boy's father posted a video on YouTube of the baby standing up in a grocery cart, and has posted other videos of him climbing stairs by himself.

Fortunately, the Herald website posted links to the videos. The one involving the grocery cart is available here. I couldn't get back to the other, but I've seen it before, and when Bryce, who was a toddler, not an infant, starts to climb up the stairs by himself, his father goes after him immediately.

There also are links to more than two dozen other videos. I haven't looked at them all; knowing Bryce's fate makes it heartbreaking to view even a few of them. But from what I have seen, if the father ever is charged, were I his defense lawyer, I'd want the jury to see them. I saw nothing suspicious. The Bryce in these videos doesn't match the mother's description, which was another ground for her complaint to DCF: Bryce's eyes, she told the hotline operator, ``don't hold happiness.''

Child maltreatment statutes are very, very broad – but they're not that broad.

As for the injuries, DCF's internal investigation says the report should have been accepted because any time "unexplained" injuries occur more than once to a child under five they should be accepted. In fact, the injury to Bryce's wrist was "larger than a quarter" (not skin peeled from his entire wrist) with "deeper lacerations" that were "scabbed over" within this injury. The previous injuries were scratches. And since we're talking about an active toddler, not an infant, I think it's questionable whether this should be enough for automatic acceptance of a report.

But, as we've seen, DCF actually agrees with the Herald – which certainly belies any claim that screening criteria are too strict. Rather, the hotline operator who took the call did not follow policy.

The story continues:

…the mother's concerns, too, were dismissed -- though, apparently, after some greater consideration.
Laura Johnson, a special projects coordinator, wrote a May 11 e-mail to bosses. Jocelyn Barros had called, discussed her concerns for the baby, and asked why the judge's faxes had all been ignored. ``What is the protocol for this type of [court] order?'' Johnson asked.

``This is a custody issue,'' was one reply.

Actually, the reply said "If this is a custody issue, we would not be doing the home study. There needs to be an open dependency case" [emphasis added].

The story continues:

Caseworkers did not walk away entirely, though. They say they sent Jocelyn Barros a form letter, offering help from food banks, clothing closets, adult day care and Meals on Wheels. And a phone number for a domestic violence shelter. Jocelyn Barros says she never received the letter, and DCF says the agency no longer has a copy of it.

There was no further contact between DCF and the Barroses until July 3. The hot line received one more report: ``When the mom awoke, after putting Bryce to bed, he was not breathing and non-responsive.''


At the time of the original story, the cause of death still was unknown. In the Nov. 29 story, the Herald reports that Bryce was beaten to death. It does not say by whom. The story recaps the case and this time, moves from innuendo to outright factual error:

In July, 1-year-old Bryce Barros was beaten to death after a Broward County domestic violence judge, Eileen O'Connor, sent three faxes to the hot line requesting an investigation into Bryce's safety in the wake of ongoing family violence by his parents.

``The court is deeply concerned about the welfare of the minor child,'' O'Connor wrote in the three faxes she titled ``court orders.'' O'Connor's appeals were ignored.

Error #1: Bryce was two, not one, when he died.

Error #2: As the documents make clear, O'Connor's faxes were not ignored. The hotline tried to get O'Connor to specify what she thought was going on. The judge did not.

The Herald then uses Bryce's story to tee up an irresistible quote which the Herald should have resisted, or at least allowed to be rebutted, since it happens to be inaccurate:

``Hot-line calls are cries for help on behalf of a child,'' said Howard Talenfeld, the Fort Lauderdale-based chairman of Florida's Children First, an advocacy group. ``Any call that is screened out is a cry that falls on deaf ears.''

Any call?
    In fact, as I noted in a previous post: hotline calls can be all sorts of things. Sometimes they are, indeed, cries for help, sometimes they are well-meaning errors, sometimes they are mandated reporters covering their rears, and sometimes they are acts of harassment by vindictive ex-spouses, or neighbors, or anyone else with a grudge. That's why no child welfare system can operate effectively without screening calls to the hotline. Workers would be inundated with false allegations and trivial cases, leaving them no time to find children in real danger. And, of course, huge numbers of additional children would be traumatized by needless investigations and stripsearches.

Try to imagine what would happen to child welfare systems if they accepted every hotline call that alleged absolutely nothing except "I am deeply concerned about the welfare of the child." The systems would collapse. Just as Florida's did when DCF actually tried something similar under disgraced former DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney.

Why would anyone want to do that again?

If anything, the documents posted on the Herald website in connection with the case of Bryce Barros reveal that errors at the hotline are just that – human errors in implementing policy. To the extent that there is a failure of policy, it is that the policies at the hotline – such as anything goes if it comes from a judge – are too broad, and screening needs to be tightened.

How can I say that when, after the hotline refused to accept the calls and faxes in the case of Bryce Barros, he died?

I say it because people who work at child protective hotlines and caseworkers for child welfare agencies don't have the luxury of reporters and advocates – the luxury of hindsight.

Bryce Barros died and part of the reason may be that these calls and faxes were screened out. But how many other children have died because workers lacked the time to investigate their cases properly – because they were too busy chasing down false reports that were wrongly screened in?