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Grand jury considers abuse charges against Broward's foster care system
By Sally Kestin
Staff Writer

May 3, 2001

For the second time in three years, a grand jury is considering charges of abuse and neglect in Broward County's foster care system.

A team of lawyers who settled a federal lawsuit against the Department of Children & Families last year say their evidence indicates the system has deteriorated.

"We're extremely concerned that Broward County's foster care system may even be getting worse," said Howard Talenfeld, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and board member of the Youth Law Center, which filed the suit.

The problems persist despite pledges of improvement by the governor and Florida's child-welfare chief.

The county's child-welfare system, designed to provide havens to about 1,500 children who have been abused or neglected by their families, came under grand jury scrutiny three years ago.

In a November 1998 report, the grand jury found Broward's foster children in danger and the problems "so pervasive that they threaten to collapse the entire system."

Children were being sexually assaulted by other children in crowded foster homes. On any given day, as many as 100 foster children had run away and were missing. A critical shortage of foster homes forced some children to sleep on couches or spend the night in a caseworker's office.

A month before the report came out, Talenfeld and the Youth Law Center filed its class-action suit on behalf of all the county's foster children.

In a settlement last May, the lawyers agreed to drop the suit in return for the state adopting a series of reforms. Almost a year later, the attorneys say they see virtually no progress.

"Nothing has changed in any substantial way to make the system better," said Michael Dale, a Nova Southeastern University law professor who is working on the case. "There is an extraordinary lack of capacity in the agency to look after these children."

The lawyers are considering reopening the case and asking a judge to force the state to make improvements, Dale said.

"We really, really hope we don't have to go back to court," said Children & Families spokeswoman LaNedra Carroll. "We really think things are getting better."

Agency Secretary Kathleen Kearney, who as a former Broward juvenile court judge was one of the system's biggest critics, promised to make changes after she was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in December 1998.

Her first month on the job, Kearney announced an emergency plan for Broward that included tracking incidents of abuse and neglect in foster care and creating a system to identify and search for runaways.

Kearney could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"They have plan after plan after plan," Dale said. "They don't act on them, and what they have doesn't always make sense."

Bush, appearing personally at a hearing on the federal lawsuit in 1999, told a judge he was "committed to transforming our child welfare system."

"The governor is still committed to improving the foster care system," said Bush spokeswoman Lisa Gates. "It is our understanding that DCF is continuing to perform under the settlement agreement to improve foster care."

In the past three years, the county has gone through five administrators at DCF.

Carroll could not provide statistics to show improvements in Broward.

Kearney recently brought in a new management team after Phyllis Scott resigned to spend more time with her family. The new team is sifting through records to cull an accurate picture of the state of foster care in the county, Carroll said.

Talenfeld, who has been monitoring the system as part of the settlement, said foster children continue to suffer sexual abuse and physical harm. Almost 100 children have run away and are missing, he said.

"They can't find them," Dale said. "They don't know where they are."

While the state has made strides in reducing crowding in foster homes, some Broward shelters are rundown and over capacity, with children sleeping on couches, Dale said.

A grand jury began meeting last month to examine the system, said prosecutor John Countryman. The 1998 grand jury requested a follow-up to review progress.

But jurors also will hear about continuing problems, such as abuse, Countryman said. Talenfeld already appeared before the grand jury, and Dale is scheduled to testify today.

"One of the allegations is nobody is safe in Broward County [foster care]," Countryman said. "Some of those concerns will be addressed. We're covering a lot of things."

The jury is scheduled to meet through October but could extend the session.

"I think it might take a long time," Countryman said.

Sally Kestin can be reached at or 954-356-4510.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Still More ON DCF shenanigans:


Published Friday, May 11, 2001

Report decried giving drugs to kids
Consultant studied Florida centers for foster care


A consultant hired by the state Department of Children & Families to study residential treatment centers for Florida foster kids reported in February his ``critical'' concern over the ``widespread use'' of psychiatric drugs on children in state care.

The report by child welfare consultant Paul DeMuro was released by the department Thursday only after The Herald had demanded access to the record for two weeks.

Revelations in the report, as well as several others obtained by The Herald on Thursday, shed light on a controversy that has raged for almost a month over allegations by child advocates that children in state care are routinely being given potentially harmful psychiatric drugs in order to control unruly behavior.

The department, which has expressed concern over the allegations, nonetheless insisted Thursday that the use of psychotropic drugs among foster children is neither widespread nor unusual when compared to children who are not in out-of-home care.

A separate internal department investigation into allegations that psychiatric drugs are being used as ``chemical restraints'' on children in state care found that slightly less than 5 percent of the state's foster children are being administered the drug Risperdal, one of several psychotropic medications that have serious side effects.

That investigation reported that 667 children in foster care were taking Risperdal, among 14,649 foster children statewide, said Cecka Green, a spokeswoman for the department in Tallahassee.

About 100 of the children are Miami-Dade foster kids, and another 70 or so live in Broward County, Miami-Dade District Administrator Charles Auslander told The Herald.

Some young children, male and female, have developed enlarged breasts and begun lactating as a result of being administered Risperdal, records and interviews show.

The state has yet to analyze use of several other antipsychotics, which advocates claim also are widely used.

Most of the drugs have been successful in combating fairly common disorders -- such as attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and at least one form of autism, but advocates assert they are widely used as ``chemical restraints'' for difficult-to-manage children.

DeMuro, whose team studied conditions at seven Florida treatment centers, reported Feb. 10 his concerns about the use of drugs on children in residential treatment centers.

``The widespread use of psychotropic medications is a systemwide issue,'' DeMuro stated in the report made public Thursday. ``DCF needs to seek medical consultation and establish guidelines for the use of psychotropics in residential settings. This is a critical issue, particularly in light of the young ages of many of the children'' in treatment centers.

One teenage boy interviewed by DeMuro's team ``had difficulty staying awake,'' the consultant reported. ``He appeared over-medicated.''

The disclosures have fueled concerns by children's advocates.

``Six-hundred and sixty-seven is an awful lot of kids on powerful medication,'' said Pat Wear, deputy director of the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities.

``Hasn't anybody told DCF to just say no to drugs?,'' said Richard Wexler, a persistent critic of the agency who is director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

``Here we are trying to send a message to young people about drug abuse, and it is possible that the biggest pusher in the state is the Department of Children & Families,'' Wexler added. ``It is very hard to believe that one out of 20 Florida foster children really needs to be doped up on Risperdal.''

Children & Families officials have insisted that they will not tolerate the use of drugs to restrain difficult children in their care.

``We do not dispense these drugs; we do not prescribe them,'' said Green, an agency spokeswoman in Tallahassee. ``We do put the psychiatric care of children in the hands of professionals. We can only assume that they are using their medical knowledge when prescribing this drug, or any drug, to kids.''

Earlier this week, Gov. Jeb Bush told The Herald his office was ``looking into'' the use of psychotropic drugs among children in state care.

But the governor's office also insisted officials do not believe the drugs are being misused.

Among the documents reviewed by The Herald:

* A February 2000 report by the University of South Florida's Florida Mental Health Institute, a mental health research arm of the school, on 1,200 Broward foster children shows that 56 percent of the kids, or 675 children, had a mental health diagnosis. Among the adolescents, aged 9-15, 45 to 46 percent of the 675 were on some type of psychotropic medication, including such drugs as Risperdal, Ritalin, lithium and Prozac.

The most common diagnosis among the Broward foster kids was adjustment disorder, a diagnosis applied to 38 percent of the 675 children. The second most common diagnoses, at 19 percent, were attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and/or ``disruptive behavior disorder,'' the report states.

* A consultant who studied a residential treatment program for foster kids at Fort Lauderdale Hospital that was operated until recently by Brown Schools of Florida said that ``all'' the children in the program were being given psychotropic drugs.

``Almost all'' of the children at the Tampa Bay Academy, a Tampa treatment center, were being administered psychotropics, a consultant reported, adding, ``many of [the children are] on multiple psychotropics. The medical director reported that the psychiatrists attempt to use psychotropic medication in as limited fashion as possible.''

At Devereux Florida Treatment Network, another treatment center, the consultant said 80 percent of the residents were being medicated.

And at The Caring Place, a Fort Lauderdale emergency shelter, the consultant said five of 17 teenage boys -- or close to 30 percent -- were on psychotropic medications.

``The use of this medication allows the individual a level of control of their behaviors and assists them in gaining insight to their problems and thus [to] take advantage of the program,'' the consultant quoted a Devereux doctor as saying.

* A review by the Broward Regional Health Planning Council's Behavioral Health Review Team of one residential treatment center, Alternate Family Care, Inc., quoted staff there as saying that a ``barrier'' to the program's success was that ``children [are] being given too many medications.''

Said Howard Talenfeld, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents 1,430 Broward County foster children in a pending 1998 federal class-action lawsuit: ``As a means of behavior control, we are institutionalizing kids and putting them on psychotropic medications.''

More ON DCF shenanigans:


Published April 21, 2001, Broward edition of The Miami Herald.

Pappas lost his job heading Broward DCF immediately after a July 1999 phone argument with Kearney in which he insisted that Ashleigh should be returned home to her dad and Kearney informed him that the Bushes did not want that to happen. Next day, he was history.

Ex-aide blasts welfare director
Letters to Bush denounce Kearney


Nearly two years after leaving his job as chief of the Department of Children and Families' Broward outpost, Robert Pappas is blasting his former boss, calling Kathleen Kearney's administration ``destructive and potentially a political time bomb.''

Pappas, 62, wrote in a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush that he was "compelled to express concern for the state of child welfare'' efforts in Florida.

"The hysterical atmosphere in DCF, though not created, has been fostered and nourished by Secretary Kearney,'' Pappas wrote in one of two letters.

Pappas retired from the U.S. Marine Corps as a colonel and worked as an administrator with the state Comptroller's Office before joining Children and Families.

``In more than 40 years of public service, I have never served in a more dysfunctional organization, in particular in an atmosphere that employs Nazi methods, with informers, back-door processes, and exclusionary tactics,'' he wrote. ``I would have hoped that Secretary Kearney would clean up that situation; unfortunately, it appears to be her chosen mode of doing business.''

The governor's office, which did not reply to either of the letters, did not return a call from The Herald for comment.

Children and Families administrators say they remain committed to their mission, ``to ensure the safety and well-being of our state's most vulnerable.''

``Mr. Robert Pappas is a former acting administrator who is entitled to his opinion,'' Deputy Secretary Bob Cohen wrote in a prepared statement. ``The reality is the district is improving in spite of the challenges we face daily in child welfare.

``Rest assured, the strong leadership selected to go into District 10 has the ability provide the guidance and accountability needed to continue the momentum in the district,'' Cohen said.

Pappas said Friday that he joined the department in Broward as a favor to Cohen, who also is a retired Marine. The two had worked together in the office of Comptroller Bob Milligan. Pappas bristles at the suggestion he wrote the letters because Kearney declined to name him permanent Broward administrator.

``I really didn't want the job to begin with,'' Pappas said. ``I went down there to help a brother Marine.''

In his letters, the second of which was dated Thursday, Pappas focused his sights on Kearney's administration -- but he also took aim at the department's policy toward abused and neglected children, arguing that the department is too quick to remove such children from their homes.

The question of whether some foster children could be better served by remaining with their parents -- with some services, such as parenting classes, anger management training or even financial support -- has plagued the agency in recent years.

Richard Wexler, who heads the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, has released two scathing reports on the state's child protection efforts in which he argues that a ``panic'' has gripped the state, leading to thousands of unwarranted removals of children.

In his letter, Pappas endorsed many of Wexler's claims -- a situation department officials, who scorned Wexler's reports, undoubtedly found galling.

``Since the beginning of Secretary Kearney's tenure, the status of child welfare has not improved, and, is regressing,'' Pappas wrote.

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