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Dead foster children are a preventable tragedy

Rick Scott

When talk turned to protecting children last week in Tallahassee, there was a lot of righteous indignation.

Tiny corpses tend to bring that out in politicians.

Legislators were furious that another child was murdered while in state custody. So, with cameras rolling and reporters scribbling, they demanded accountability.

Good for them. Let's just hope they don't stop there.

Because grandstanding won't pay the bills.

The real problem with Florida's Department of Children and Families now is what it has long been — that the state tries to care for neglected children on the cheap.

There aren't enough caseworkers. They're poorly paid. And they're so overworked, some juggle caseloads three times larger than they should.

The result? A growing body count.

And before anyone starts the auto-pilot griping about how everyone should just take care of themselves, remember that the only people we're talking about here are children — specifically those who have already been abandoned or neglected.

The case that most recently shocked and outraged Floridians involved 10-year-old Nubia Barahona.

Nubia was found dead in the back of her adoptive father's pickup truck early this year — even though callers had warned state workers days earlier that she and her twin brother were being abused.

Nubia's acid-covered body was so desecrated, it was hard to identify. Her twin brother, Victor, was found convulsing.

A state investigation would later call the case "a model of fatal ineptitude."

Yet it wasn't the first such example.

Just two years ago, an Orlando Sentinel investigation revealed more than 70 child-welfare workers had falsified records — reporting that they had visited homes and seen children when they had not. The nightmarish results included one child living with an uncle awaiting rape charges and four foster kids living in a home without running water.

Before that was the disappearance of Rilya Wilson, born to a drug-addicted mother and then believed to have been placed in the "care" of someone who tied her to a bed and locked her in a cage.

After every tragedy, the politicians pound their fists and vow reform.

Yet, they never tackle the fundamental problem of hoping for impressive results with substandard resources.

Most CEOs know it doesn't work that way. Florida's new CEO of kids says just that. His name is David Wilkins. He's the guy Gov. Rick Scott brought in to bring a private-sector-style scrubbing to DCF.

Well, Wilkins has scrubbed. And cut. And axed. He has found tens of millions of dollars of savings in duplicative costs and bureaucratic waste.

Yet Wilkins' clear conclusion is that Florida must spend more to properly care for its children. Not that much more. And not by raising taxes. (The $35 million he requested is a fraction of the department's $3 billion budget — and could be found by simply enforcing existing tax laws.)

He wants to start paying them more like professionals and give them the tools and resources they need to properly do their jobs. Right now, college-educated caseworkers making life-or-death decisions make around $33,000.

For that money, you get two kinds of applicants: 1) Those who view this profession as a true calling; and 2) Those who couldn't get jobs anywhere else.

I truly believe there are more of the former. But Wilkins says the current system treats caseworkers more like fast-food workers than professionals — and children pay the price.

"We don't have control over how many people beat their kids," Wilkins said. "But for the kids who come into our care, we can control that."

God forgive us if we don't.

smaxwell@tribune.com or 407-420-6141

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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