Join the Miami Herald and WLRN-Miami Herald News for a town hall on how to fix the child welfare system at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 17 at the Doral headquarters of the Herald. Learn more at MiamiHerald.com.
Jack Moss is a former Broward county commissioner and administrator for the Department of Children and Families with over 40 years of experience in social services. His first position was County Welfare Director at age 26, and his last one was Regional Director for the Florida Department of Children and Families, which he left in 2009.
Governor Jeb Bush’s leadership in transferring child welfare services from state control to community control was a giant step forward. But real social work suffers from system overload, high turnover, and inadequate training and funding.
State oversight swings from strong central control in Tallahassee to greater responsibility at the county and regional level, depending on the administrative philosophy of the governor’s office. That pendulum is the root cause for many failings in the system, as tenure at senior levels is short-term depending on shifts in functional responsibility.
Moreover, the absence of consistent and adequate funding for services to children and their families is a crumbling base for failure.
Front-line caseworker turnover, often as high as fifty percent, means that inexperienced workers are far too often responsible to repair dysfunctional families. It makes absolutely no sense to place the lives of abused and neglected children in the hands of overworked case workers with inadequate training and higher than safe caseloads.
The system is so pushed that many new workers have little time to do more than check boxes on forms, as opposed to real social work.
While improving services to children and families trapped in the system is one area that is ripe for improvement, other parts of the system cannot be overlooked.
The initial child welfare investigation is the first response to a report of abuse or neglect that originates from a call to the Abuse Hotline (1-800-96-ABUSE). Broward, and a handful of other counties, are fortunate to have the stability of the Sheriffs’ Department conducting the investigations. These departments use sworn police officers trained in proper investigation techniques in supervisory positions, and are more capable to conduct consistent professional initial case reviews.
A good start would be to strengthen the child protective investigations by transferring this first stop along a continuum of services to the sheriff’s office in every county.
Unfortunately, funding for local sheriffs has suffered from the same meager funding restraints from the legislature. But enhanced funding appears to be on the horizon this legislative session, and that will be a good beginning.
The Guardian Ad Litem program, charged with the responsibility of looking after the best interest of the children in the system, is another critical part of the service milieu that is severely underfunded. GALs represent the child in legal proceedings. The primary responsibility of the program is the child: to see that the child is in a safe and caring environment and is receiving the services ordered by the court.
This program, principally aided with volunteers, is woefully short of experienced volunteers and support staff. But guardian review is one of the last stops before cases are closed, and their independent recommendation to the Court bears great weight.
Florida led the nation in rightfully transferring child welfare services to local communities. Now it is our responsibility to see that the measurable outcomes include keeping children safe, educated, healthy and prepared for a productive life.
Editor's Note: This is a community contributor post. The views expressed here are those of the author and not WLRN or WLRN-Miami Herald News.