Report calls for checks, balances
DCF officials have implemented more than half of a task force's 29 recommendations following a case in which two children were allegedly abused by their foster parents.
By DUANE BOURNE
BROOKSVILLE - Faced with finding a permanent home for two troubled children in February 2002, the Department of Children and Families saw two strikingly different views of the northwest Hernando County home where the children were staying.
One person saw a nurturing environment; the other saw filth.
Despite that discrepancy, DCF and a juvenile court judge approved the children's long-term placement with Lori and Arthur Allain.
That's not supposed to happen again.
District officials now require two supervisors to sign off on the home study and its corresponding photographs before a placement is approved. Judges will also be able to review the photographs before they make their decision, district operations manager Mary Ann Rosenbauer said Wednesday.
"For us, it was like: Why didn't we do this before?" said Rosenbauer, who explained that the policy change would create a form of checks and balances between DCF employees and even a juvenile court judge who must approve the placement.
"There is an old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words," she said.
The change was one of 29 recommendations made by an independent panel convened to review the agency's handling of the Allains' case in which a 10-year-old-girl and her 14-year-old brother were allegedly abused.
The four-member task force found that DCF ignored numerous "red flags" in leaving the children in an environment where they were subjected to unkempt living conditions and abuse.
The report was released Tuesday, along with 300 pages pertaining to the agency's supervision of the children. The study points to systematic failures within the agency that left the girl emaciated. The Allains were arrested and charged with child abuse and neglect on June 18.
Among its recommendations, the panel wants to see all children in foster care get annual physical exams and regular dental checkups. According to documents, the girl had not seen a physician in years, although she was underweight and Lori Allain claimed the 10-year-old had an eating disorder.
The regular dental visits could be difficult, Rosenbauer said, because there are fewer than a dozen providers in the 13th district who accept Medicaid.
While the independent study calls for additional training for caseworkers, it falls short of requesting disciplinary action for any one of the 20 DCF employees that handled the case at one point or another. Of that number, only one caseworker - Hannah Hessler, who investigated the most recent abuse allegations - remains with the agency.
Rosenbauer said that Hessler was prohibited from getting any new cases until officials reviewed the Allain case. She returned to her full case load earlier this month after officials review several of her "high risk" cases, but found nothing that would lead to her firing or suspension.
The state will take another look at the findings to determine what, if any, disciplinary action could be taken, DCF spokesman Bill Spann said Wednesday.
"We are not up to that point in the process," he said.
Meanwhile, district 13 officials have implemented more than half of the task force's recommendations and are coordinating their actions with their private contractors before Sept. 30.
Officials are awaiting word from the state on the fate of the other recommendations, some of which call for significant changes to the minimum housing standards for nonrelative caregivers and revisions to the current home study format.
A home study, for example, is designed to ask probing questions to guide the juvenile court in placing children. That will replace a six-page check list on which caseworkers answered basic questions.
A change, according to Rosenbauer, would force caseworkers to ask more probing questions, such as if there is sufficient space for the child, particularly in cases of multiple household members.
In the Allains' case, there were six children and three adults living in a five-bedroom mobile home that was described as roach-infested and filthy.
Duane Bourne can be reached at 352 754-6114 or firstname.lastname@example.org