Monthly Archives: September 2009

DCF fires veteran spokeswoman in Broward

Miami Herald

The last several months have not been kind to the Department of Children & Families’ Broward County outpost.

In April, a 7-year-old boy, Gabriel Myers, hanged himself in the shower stall of a Margate foster home, causing a firestorm of bad press. This summer, two other Broward children died after calls to the state’s abuse hot line went unheeded.

Then, earlier this month, the agency was blasted when Anthony Caravella, who was freed by a judge after a DNA analysis cleared him of a rape and murder that sent him to prison for 26 years, spent an extra night in jail when DCF failed to evaluate him promptly.

The response from the agency’s new district administrator: Fire the messenger.

On Tuesday afternoon, with no warning, the spokeswoman for DCF in Broward, Leslie Mann, was fired and escorted from the building.

“You could have knocked me over with a feather,” Mann said late Tuesday. “I did not see this coming.”

“I’m someone who loved my job. I loved every minute I worked for the people of this community, serving clients and making Broward a better place. I feel I was lucky to have the opportunity to serve.”

DCF’s top administrator in Palm Beach and Broward counties, Perry Borman, at first declined to specify why Mann was terminated. Later, he said Mann was not fired for cause, but was let go so that both he and Broward’s new district administrator, Nancy L. Merolla, could develop a new leadership team with which they were comfortable.

“We are aligning our regional structure so that it is more like what our counterparts in the rest of the state are doing,” Borman said. “What Nancy was trying to do, with my support, is to get the appropriate leadership team in place for the next chapter of DCF in Broward County.”

“We’re really thankful for the work and experience Leslie Mann provided to DCF in Broward County,” Borman added.

For the last eight years, Mann was DCF’s public face in Broward.

She provided public statements on behalf of DCF during some of the more tumultuous periods in the agency’s history. She was the United Way’s coordinator both for DCF and Broward County as a whole. She served on the Child Abuse Coordinating Committee, the Drowning Prevention Committee and was chairwoman of the Prevent Child Abuse Month Winds of Change Committee.

Jack Moss, who was Mann’s boss her entire tenure and retired last summer, said Mann “cared deeply about the mission of the department and our clients. She had outstanding skills and was relied upon by her counterparts around the state, as well as those at state headquarters.”

“It doesn’t make sense to get rid of people who are well respected in the community,” Moss added. “She gave eight years of very loyal service to the agency. This is not the way to treat people. This is a people organization, and if the administrators acted without a heart in dealing with her, you have to wonder how the clients are going to be treated.”

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DCF Changing Culture

Jacksonville Observer
News Service of Florida

Despite recent critical reports, Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon said this week that he is convinced the beleaguered agency is beginning to change a long-engrained culture.

A recently-completed internal report raises questions as to whether the agency has the right kind of employees who are willing to use common sense to avoid ongoing mistakes, such as one that came to light with the suicide of a 7-year-old child in South Florida. These mistakes wind up costing taxpayers millions of dollars because the state ends up settling lawsuits that accuse the agency of negligence.

A work group set up by Sheldon to study the incident surrounding the death of Gabriel Myers concluded earlier this month that the state failed to follow laws and rules regarding the use of psychotropic drugs and that warning signs were missed that could have prevented his death.

“I think we are making some progress,’’ insisted Sheldon, who has been secretary for the past year after succeeding his boss Bob Butterworth. “I really think that the culture has changed. We are becoming innovative and thinking outside the box.’’

Sheldon said one key change is that he’s been urging employees at the department to focus on what’s best for the child, not whether a rule is being followed.

“Don’t be so driven by rules that you miss the goal,’’ said Sheldon. “Figure out ultimately what is the right thing to do. Then figure out how the rules apply.’’

That was one of the key criticisms found in an internal report written by two attorneys who worked for DCF. The 24-page report, submitted in late May but made public just recently, concluded the department may find itself continually embroiled in litigation over mistakes made by the child welfare agency. It said parts of the agencies were isolated from one another and that employees too often did not question what is going on.

“The department’s operational improvements are frequently a reaction to crisis and headlines rather than a product of a state of continual alert to systemic problems,’’ states the report written by Neil Skene and Florence Synder. Skene, a former reporter, is a consultant with the agency, while Snyder recently left DCF.

The report, which was largely anecdotal, briefly touched on the Myers case but it also highlighted other incidents at DCF including:

-A DCF employee was fired for bringing sweets to her elderly father at a nursing home because it was deemed she was abusing her father. When it got up to the secretary level, a decision was made to settle the case and to offer to rehire the employee.

-DCF sued a caregiver over $1,441 in caregiver funds which accidentally went to the grandmother instead of the uncle of a child who shared responsibility. The grandmother actually reported the mistake and was told by a caseworker to cash the check. The woman wound up hiring a lawyer, Tana Sachs Copple, the daughter of Rep. Maria Sachs, to represent her.

“Many of our adversaries at this point would have called a newspaper or television station in outrage,’’ states the report, which notes that Copple called Snyder. Within hours, the lawsuit had been withdrawn.

-DCF wound up reaching a settlement to keep an employee in the Orlando region after spending a year trying to terminate the person at the urging of top regional officials.

“What made this employee salvageable today when she wasn’t a year ago?” questions the report.

The report concludes that improvements have been made at DCF but that more needs to be done to transform the agency in order to avoid future lawsuits.

The agency has moved aggressively to settle lingering lawsuits – even for large amounts. Earlier this summer it agreed to pay $4 million to settle a lawsuit filed by two children who had been placed in foster care in Hernando County where the parents wound up starving one of the children. Since the case was a federal lawsuit the settlement does not require legislative approval.

The agency set up a “litigation reduction’’ team and in the 2007-08 fiscal year DCF settled a total of 81 cases at an average cost of nearly $125,000, which was actually a drop of more than $112,000 per claim from the previous year. But at the same time state lawmakers have wound up approving millions in claims bills associated with previous DCF cases.

“Gov. Crist made it very clear that if you make a mistake, admit it and try to fix it,’’ said Sheldon.

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