Abuse hot line will get a closer DCF review
In reaction to concerns that some reports of abuse go unaddressed, Florida will beef up a program designed to help families who are the subject of abuse allegations.
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
Florida social service administrators will strengthen their response to calls for help to the state’s abuse hot line after The Miami Herald reported that thousands of calls each month are being “screened out” and not forwarded for investigation.
In an e-mail to top administrators at the Department of Children & Families, the agency’s family safety director is ordering hot-line calls not sent over to an investigator to be “triaged” by caseworkers within 48 hours.
Referrals from the hot line to prevention workers will be “reviewed and assessed for action within 24 hours of being accepted by the hot line,” and could result in further investigation, DCF Family Safety Director Alan Abramowitz wrote Tuesday in a memo that spells out a host of new steps to better protect children and vulnerable adults who are the subject of hot-line calls.
In a meeting with The Herald’s Editorial Board on Wednesday, DCF Secretary George Sheldon said his agency will continue to monitor the screening of calls, as well as the prevention program, both internally and by a group of outside task forces he appointed to help improve child safety.
“Clearly, we’ve got to do a better job,” Sheldon told the board by telephone.
On Sunday, The Miami Herald reported that DCF had dramatically stepped up the number of hot-line calls that are “screened out” because they do not warrant a full-scale investigation.
Generally, administrators say, calls are passed over because allegations do not meet the statutory definition of abuse, neglect or abandonment.
Agency records show, however, that DCF is screening out allegations of physical or sexual abuse, medical neglect and inadequate supervision of very young children. Calls from judges, social workers, school counselors and hospital workers are among those that have gone without investigation.
In an e-mail to juvenile court judges, private foster-care and adoption workers throughout the state Tuesday, Sheldon took issue with some of the article’s findings. By dramatically ramping up the prevention effort, he said, child welfareadministrators are protecting more kids than ever.
“The Herald article may have left an impression about the way we operate the hot line,” Sheldon wrote. “None of the calls cited were `turned away’ or `rejected’ or `unheeded.’ ”
“I want to emphasize that the changes in hot-line procedures we made last year, which were the subject of the Herald article, are a step in the right direction but must still be improved,” Sheldon added.
Among the changes to hot-line protocols announced this week:
• Beginning in January, DCF will record all referrals for prevention in the state’s systemwide child welfare database, called Florida Safe Families Network.
In the past, the network did not document such contacts with families, making it difficult for investigators to get a full picture of a family’s history with the state.
Don Winstead, DCF’s deputy secretary, said Wednesday that the agency already is moving on an upgrade that will allow the network database to be compatible with a separate database containing hot-line reports that were rejected. Winstead said the upgrades may be completed by the new year.
• For all prevention cases, DCF caseworkers will either resend the report back to the hot line for a full investigation, call the family at the center of the report to address the family’s needs, or schedule a visit by an investigator to better assess risk.
“An on-site response is required when there is evidence of possible significant risk to the well being of a child or vulnerable adult if such action is not taken and addressed,” Abramowitz wrote.