Monday, December 17, 2007

Senator Ronda Storms on the Vanguard to Close DCF Loopholes

TAMPA , FLORIDA - The Tampa Bay Online - Revised 12-17-07

When two child welfare workers were fired last year for claiming they had visited children, 'they hadn't', co-workers braced for more cases on top of their already heavy workload.

Overburdened workers are a chronic challenge for the Florida Department of Children & Families. And despite efforts in recent years to lessen the workload, more caseworkers are risking their jobs - even prison - by falsifying records.

In a case made public last week, a Miami worker accused of falsifying records, told investigators that with 63 children to visit each month, he had no other choice. Samuel Orejobi said his was an "impossible job", it made him ill, kept him from his children and drove him to fight with his wife.

Last fiscal year, the Inspector General's Office investigated 24 DCF and community-based-care employees suspected of falsifying records. Nine months into fiscal 2007, 32 workers have been investigated. Of those 32, 24 were found to have falsified records. Ten were fired, and 14 resigned.

But, "reorganization won't put an end to false reports", said Jeff Rainey, chief executive officer of private contractor Hillsborough Kids Inc.

"We've got pretty good checks and balances," Rainey said. "But we can't stop it. The system we have in place can only deter it."

A Legal Loophole -
In 2002, the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson in Miami, made national news when law enforcement officials discovered that DCF hadn't checked on the foster girl in 15 months.
Rilya has never been found. Her case led to the resignation of a DCF secretary and yet another overhaul of a system that critics argue continues to fail children.

Since 2002, when state law made falsifying child welfare records a 'third-degree felony', punishable by up to five years in prison, only three child welfare workers have been convicted.
"More cases could result in convictions", Inspector General Sheryl Steckler said, "and if lawmakers plugged a loophole: A worker has to alter, destroy, overwrite or delete a record before it is considered falsified".

"Nowhere does the law mention the word 'create", Steckler said. The result: "Our state attorneys are struggling to file charges."

In the closing days of the 2007 legislative session, state lawmakers are discussing Senate Bill 1394, which calls for 'rewording the law'. "A House bill is being drafted", Steckler said.

It took a year for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to charge Robin Schofield of Tampa with two counts of falsifying records. She was fired March 9, 2006.
Schofield, a former Children's Home caseworker, claimed to have visited a client on a day she didn't work. An internal review found two other cases in which Schofield, with three months on the job, falsified reports.

Schofield did not file mileage forms - "a red flag to managers that someone might be falsifying a report".

Her firing soon was followed by another. On March 29, 2006, Margaret "Peggy" Haq, a one-time supervisor in Tampa who had four years on the job, was let go.
An internal review uncovered 12 false entries by Haq in a computer system designed to monitor children's care. One of the children, who hadn't been seen by a caseworker in three months, landed in juvenile detention for 21 days. A month later, he ran away from his sister's home.

She Tells A Different Story -
FDLE has not filed charges against Haq. In an interview with The Tampa Tribune, she said she was fired for 'speaking out against a supervisor during a court proceeding'. Haq described a system that functioned on falsehoods. As a supervisor, Haq said, she carried 48 cases and, later, as a caseworker, 30. Some workers had as many as 60 cases, she said.

Workers were pressured to see children in the first 20 days, Haq said. She got bogged down in paperwork, she said, and didn't have time to file mileage reports. When she couldn't visit children, her supervisor told her to report she had, Haq said. After Haq was fired, she went to work for a Clearwater Child Welfare Agency, Directions for Mental Health.

Haq was hired there one year ago, on April 21, 2006. Her last day was Jan. 9. Haq said she again was fired for falsifying records. "I was doing what I was told."
Haq told Directions officials the termination from The Children's Home was a "misunderstanding," said Thomas Riggs, president and chief executive officer of the Clearwater agency.

Workers are carefully screened, with references checked, Riggs said. Directions was not aware that Haq's misunderstanding included being fired for making false reports, Rigg said.
"We do not have a record showing either a telephone or written reference request being made regarding Ms. Haq's employment with us," said Lisa Braswell, director of public education and communications at The Children's Home. "If we receive a reference request over the phone, our standard procedure is to simply verify title and the dates of employment."

Parker, a director at The Children's Home in Tampa, doesn't believe a supervisor would tell a worker to lie about seeing a child. And she can't imagine any worker agreeing to do it.

"Most of them would rather say 'I didn't do it' than lie," Parker said. "The consequences are a whole lot less harsh."

A Long List Of Duties -
When a caseworker can't get to a child in a month as mandated by law, The Children's Home will tap another worker to make the visit. The agency has hired more people when caseloads start to creep toward 35, Parker said.

Sometimes workers may fear they'll lose their jobs, but it becomes a disciplinary issue only if they repeatedly can't make their required visits, she said. "It may mean they're overwhelmed."
That easily can happen, given the amount of work each case requires. Only once a child protective investigator determines a child needs outside supervision, caseworkers begin the process of monitoring the child's care.

The to-do list can seem endless - visiting children in their homes each month, keeping chronological notes of court hearings, meeting with parents, transporting children to doctor's appointments, overseeing visits with brothers and sisters, and entering all the information into a computer file.

The list grew when DCF relinquished its child welfare duties to 20 community-based care groups statewide. In the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough Kids and Sarasota Family YMCA employ caseworkers and contract with smaller agencies to provide the services in Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.

That's for the better, said Parker, a former caseworker who recalls having 40 to 60 cases at a time at DCF. The Children's Home, one of those smaller agencies, has a staff of 22 caseworkers that handles 537 cases. Teams are made up of six caseworkers and a supervisor who has access to all cases and conducts monthly reviews. When caseworkers give notice, the agency asks them to stay 30 days or until replacements are hired, Parker said. Turnover is about 3 percent annually.

"There's a lot more cohesiveness," she said. "More of a team approach. It's not just a caseworker by herself anymore."

Steps To Reducing The Load -
Since taking the helm at Hillsborough Kids in 2005, Rainey added the subcontractors to help oversee care for 4,400 children. The move reduced caseloads among all workers and allowed for better supervision, Rainey said.

Workers are closing cases more quickly, within 20 months on average, he said. Federal and state performance measures call for closing cases within a year.
Turnover dropped from 15 percent in recent years to 8 percent this year. Caseloads on average stand at 22.

Since February, supervisors have been calling foster parents to verify a visit by a YMCA worker, said Lee Johnson, the YMCA's executive vice president.
Foster parents also are invited to attend meetings in which caseworkers and others discuss the child's care, Johnson said. That provides another opportunity to double-check on visits.

In addition, the Inspector General's Office will start attending supervisors meetings to provide training on the risks and consequences of falsifying client records, Johnson said.
It's all part of a move to ensure that quality care has been delivered when a box is checked off the to-do list, said Nick Cox, DCF's new Suncoast regional director.

"We need to spend quality time with children," the former state prosecutor said, "not just a drive-by."

Careful Monitoring Is A Must -
As DCF continues to ferret out fraudulent reports, agency Secretary Bob Butterworth said he still wants caseworkers to feel they can work without fear of punishment for failing to meet expectations. That fear, he suspects, leads some to lie.

"We'll never stop it," he said while in Tampa recently. But the former Florida attorney general vowed his agency wouldn't tolerate it, either. The shift to community-based care groups requires monitoring. "I'm concerned about the CBCs," Butterworth said last week. "I've been traveling around the state and hearing their caseloads are too high."

He said caseworkers also inform him they're afraid to tell supervisors they can't do the job because they will be fired. Butterworth can't force the community-based agencies that contract with DCF to change the work environment, at least not yet. But future contracts will include protections for workers who come forward, he said.

"I want them to stand up and tell us when they can't visit a child because they have too many cases," Butterworth said.

"If we can't do the job because we don't have enough people, maybe that will get the Legislature's attention."

Reporter Sherri Ackerman can be reached at (813) 259-7144 or

Senate Bill 1394: Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee bill.
Attached to the reorganization of the Florida Department of Children & Families, a section of the bill calls for changing the wording of Statute 839.13 to include the word "create" as it pertains to falsifying state records. The Senate passed the bill Thursday. It awaits hearings by the Judiciary and Health & Human Services Appropriations committees. Similar bill language is being considered by the House.

Sponsor: Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, chairwoman of the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee;; (850) 487-5072

Track the bills at and

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