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.