DCF chief had big influence on role of investigative panel
By Mark Hollis
May 18, 2002
Tallahassee · In what may raise doubts about the task force examining problems at the Department of Children & Families, records show that its top administrator had a big influence on who would be appointed to the panel and what questions they should ask.
On the evening before Gov. Jeb Bush announced the formation of the panel, DCF chief Kathleen Kearney wrote Bush's chief of staff with a recommendation that was closely followed as to who should be named to the group and what they should do.
When he launched the panel, Bush said it would "specifically focus on the adequacy of oversight and accountability within the Department of Children & Families."
According to electronic mail of the governor's office obtained by the Sun-Sentinel, Kearney gave the names of three of the four panelists that Bush would appoint on May 6. She also told Bush's chief of staff, Kathleen Shanahan, that Dave Lawrence, president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation and chairman of Bush's school readiness coalition, should be named to head the committee. She did not mention Sara Herald, the fourth panel member.
Kearney laid out specific questions that the panel should focus upon. Among them: "Are the children entrusted to the care of the Department of Children & Families and their community-based partners in Miami safe? What is the present status of the child welfare system in the district? Can the citizens of Miami have confidence children ... are properly supervised, their well-being ensured; and that they are placed in permanent, loving homes as quickly as possible?"
The group, which is set to present a final report by the end of the month, was created after it was revealed the department had lost 5-year-old Rilya Wilson. The Miami child's disappearance from state custody for more than 15 months, while her caseworker failed to visit her, has generated a firestorm of interest, media scrutiny and political criticism of Kearney's department and Bush's administration.
Kearney's apparent influence on the creation of the panel is among a handful of new disclosures about how Bush's office has responded to the widespread interest in Florida's child welfare system.
Also in a 101-page packet of e-mails provided late Friday by the governor's office is a personal note of sympathy from Bush to Kearney.
"Kate, stay compassionate and strong. Don't be embattled. It becomes self-fulfilling. Get some rest," Bush wrote on May 3 to the department secretary, a former Broward juvenile judge.
Among other findings from the documents: Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Tim Moore, in responding to a governor's office inquiry, told Bush's aides he thinks it may be time to re-fingerprint all of Florida's child-protection and foster care workers. But when asked about whether criminal background checks have been completed on the employees, Moore warned of the potential costs of doing so, roughly $24 an employee.
After providing the e-mails, the governor's communications office did not return phone calls to the Sun-Sentinel about the contents of the documents.
Mark Hollis can be reached at email@example.com or 850-224-6214.
Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted on Wed, May. 08, 2002
DCF, oversight groups at odds
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
Judges, lawmakers and oversight panels say the state's chronically troubled child welfare agency consistently stonewalls efforts by outsiders to oversee its considerable authority.
On Friday, clearly frustrated at the Department of Children & Families' lack of cooperation, members of the Statewide Death Review Team agreed to subpoena the records of children who have died of abuse or neglect -- to which they are entitled by Florida law.
''This is no way to run an airline,'' Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent Terry Thomas said of the DCF during a telephone meeting. Thomas is a team member.
A department spokeswoman did not respond to efforts over several days to discuss the agency's record of cooperating with oversight authorities.
In the past, agency officials have insisted that they are doing the best they can to protect children entrusted to their care. Officials say they are best equipped to make sensitive decisions.
Some critics say the department's resistence to oversight and accountability extends directly to the governor's office, where, on Monday, Jeb Bush formed a blue-ribbon task force to investigate the DCF's Miami district in response to the case of Rilya Wilson, a 5-year-old girl who disappeared from the state's care.
One lawyer he appointed to serve on the panel, Carol Licko, was his former general counsel, who in her private practice represented the governor or DCF as recently as last year. Another panel member, Sara Herald, was on Bush's transition team before he took office and briefly served as a district administrator for the DCF.
''If there is one thing I've learned in 23 years, it is that Ronald Reagan was right: trust, but verify,'' said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children.
``What I mean by that, is without checks and balances -- without a system of oversight and involvement by individuals and agencies whom you don't control and manage, children will suffer.''
In recent weeks:
In a court confrontation Monday, DCF's most senior lawyer in Miami told Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman she had no authority to scrutinize the department's decision over where the younger sister of Rilya Wilson lives. Lawyer Linda Wells even refused to tell the judge where Rodericka Wilson now lives.
''Why, after everything that has happened in this case, after I have been kept in the dark about the status and well-being and placement of this child for one year, why would you think I would allow the department to remove this child's sibling without my consent?'' Lederman demanded. ``What is the department hiding?''
Later that day, DCF chief Kathleen Kearney insisted administrators had been entirely forthcoming. ''I can assure you the department is not trying to hide anything,'' she told reporters, ``We are fully cooperating with the Miami-Dade Police Department. There is an ongoing criminal investigation. I will do nothing to impede that investigation.''
Also on Monday, supporters of a program that enables independent volunteers to oversee the department's foster care efforts learned that citizen review panels will lose state funding in six judicial circuits. Only Miami-Dade's citizen review board is expected to receive money next fiscal year.
In Miami-Dade the review panels, which review the foster care records of most children in state care, received $375,000 in state money last year.
Critics say the agency has opposed citizens' review of foster care records.
''DCF does not want any kind of independent, competent, meaningful oversight,'' said Miami lawyer Douglas Halsey, a longtime child welfare volunteer, who is chairman of the board of the Children's Home Society of Florida. A yearly award for outstanding child welfare volunteer work bears Halsey's name.
The agency, Halsey says, ``is on a mission. Things they don't like they have gotten rid of, whether it be citizen review of foster care, or funding for lawyers for children.''
The DCF insisted in March it be given a chance to review the reports of the death review team -- and suggest revisions -- before the reports are made public. Members of the team, which includes law enforcement officers, public health experts, medical examiners, social service workers and prosecutors, refused to allow the DCF to delete material from the unpublished reports.
At the March meeting in Tampa, DCF's director of Family Safety, Mike Watkins, reminded the team that several members' terms were about to expire -- and they could be replaced.
Then, last week, members of the team complained bitterly that they would be unable to properly review the scores of records on the deaths of children already known to the DCF in time to meet their deadlines. Earlier this winter, the team was criticized by DCF for failing to say enough about how child deaths can be prevented.
''The DCF staff, the agency, and the secretary need to understand that we cannot do our job'' without the records, said Mary Jo Butler, a director of Intervention and Prevention Services with the Florida Department of Education. Butler is a team member.
According to lawmakers, the department fought efforts by the Legislature to set aside an additional $12 million to pay for guardians ad litem and lawyers for children, though state law requires that children in state care be appointed independent lay guardians to protect their interests.
Though a Kearney spokeswoman denies the allegation, lawmakers and agency critics -- including state Sen. Walter G. ''Skip'' Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale -- say Kearney asked Bush to have the bill killed. The legislation was not passed out of the House.
''Kathleen Kearney does not want to have kids represented in dependency proceedings,'' Campbell said. ``The governor's staff, through the lieutenant governor, went to the House, and told them not to pass this bill.''
© 2001 miami and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.