DCF head outlines changes to safeguard children
By ANDREW ABRAMSON
Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins visited Palm Beach County on Tuesday, meeting with DCF employees, community providers and The Palm Beach Post editorial board to lay out his vision of revamping the organization.
In April, Wilkins announced plan to create a database where child welfare workers could share vital information about foster children. On Tuesday, Wilkins laid out more specifics about the new database, which will be implemented in 12 to 18 months.
Currently, when potential abuse is reported to the state's hotline in Tallahassee, a call-taker records information and then provides it to local case workers and investigators.
Now, Wilkins said call-takers will be retrained as investigators, having access to a child's history with DCF. Wilkins said this system could have saved the life of Nubia Barahona, a 10-year-old Miami-Dade girl who was allegedly killed by her adopted father in Palm Beach County in February.
DCF received three calls in two days regarding abuse of Barahona, but because the system was not streamlined, the three investigators called to the scene were not aware of the other calls.
Wilkins said the state will also add an Internet component so complaints can be sent to the state online.
"I spent a month in Miami learning what it's like to be in the frying pan, answering questions of what we did or didn't do," said Wilkins to community providers on Tuesday.
Wilkins had to attend to the Barahona case just a month after taking over the DCF. "It was horrible time for me personally and it really created a lot of groundwork for the things you see here and the significant changes we need to make at DCF."
Wilkins also revealed plans to give DCF workers computer access to foster student's school and health care records.
He acknowledged there are privacy issues, but said the state already has a right to access school records of foster children. He said it would be more difficult to obtain records for adopted children, like Barahona.
With access to school and health records, investigators will learn if a child's grades have been dropping or if a child hasn't been receiving proper medical visits, which could prompt a further DCF investigation.
While DCF recently laid off more than 500 employees, Wilkins said none of the laid off employees were case workers. After the Barahona case, DCF actually hired 100 additional case workers.
Wilkins said the goal is to have each case worker responsible for 15 children. Currently, he said, the number is anywhere from 25 to 40.
Wilkins said the agency also plans to address graduation rates. Only 45 percent of foster children graduate high school on time, compared to 85 percent of the general population, he said.
"There's just no excuse for that," he said. "Our kids get lost in foster care."
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