DCF abuse investigators overloaded, report finds

January 19, 2008

By CAROL MARBIN MILLER  |  Miami Herald  —  

A new report on Miami-Dade's troubled child welfare program finds child abuse investigators are dedicated but overworked and insufficiently trained.

Miami child abuse investigators who juggle as many as 40 new cases a month — more than double the national standard — are poorly trained, don't have enough Spanish and Creole translators and lack the resources and flexibility to help struggling families, a new report concludes.

In a nine-page report written as part of an ongoing reorganization of Miami-Dade's troubled child welfare program, a consultant who formerly ran Los Angeles' child protection system said many abuse investigators open two new cases every day — “far above the workload standard.''

''It is impossible to do the high-quality work that is demanded in this job with this kind of workload,'' wrote Peter Digre, a nationally regarded child welfare expert who once led Miami's Department of Children & Families office. He now works as a consultant for the Youth Law Center, a child advocacy group based in San Francisco.

As part of his research, Digre interviewed investigators, supervisors, administrators and quality-assurance employees. He also reviewed state statutes, agency regulations, training manuals, performance measures, and other records, the report says.

Digre applauded agency staff for being ''straightforward and forthcoming'' during his research, and for being ''obviously committed to the well-being of the children and families they serve.'' He also lauded Miami area judges, members of the taxpayer-funded Children's Trust, and employees of Our Kids, Miami's private foster care agency.

Alan Abramowitz, who was appointed this week to the new post of regional DCF administrator in Miami, said the report presented agency leaders with ''a lot of challenges,'' but that it also was comforting.

''The core of it made me happy, because it recognized that staff are dedicated and are there to protect children,'' he said. “The people who work in investigations clearly are dedicated to the children and families they protect.''

KEY FINDINGS

Among the report's findings:

• Child protection investigators are given ''only the most basic initial training'' before being assigned a caseload. Lacking a deeper understanding of family dynamics, how to evaluate evidence and the state laws that govern child welfare, investigators instead concentrate on complying with performance measures that may not translate into child safety.

• Investigators often lack the tools and resources they need to immediately help families in crisis. If investigators can't offer quick help, children can needlessly end up in foster care, where they are likely to remain for a year or more.

''Protective investigators walk into families at critical points of family crisis, including domestic violence, volatile parent-child conflict, sexual assault, mental breakdown [and the] arrest of parents,'' Digre wrote.

''On-the-spot decisions to get the water or electricity turned on, buy a crib so a baby does not have to sleep between his parents, purchase a fire alarm . . . or buy a bag of groceries while waiting for food stamps to start can be a powerful tool for stabilizing and preserving families,'' he added.

• Glitches in DCF's new child welfare computer system, and a paucity of training in its use, have hampered investigators' ability to resolve cases quickly. Investigators have difficulty finding prior reports of abuse and neglect, learning of new hotline reports and searching for addresses.

• DCF does not have enough Spanish and Creole translators, and often can't send women to interview or transport older girls, a lapse that “creates vulnerability for allegations of [investigator] misconduct.''

Lacking translators, investigators often enlist children. ''Children should never be used as translators for their parents during protective investigations,'' Digre wrote. “This practice should be prohibited.''

• Children awaiting a bed at a foster home typically cool their heels with nothing to do in often dirty state offices. Infants were seen sleeping in car seats next to a receptionist. Older kids looked ''bored'' while they waited with no books, games, toys, play areas — or even a television.

Some of the kids didn't have ''child-appropriate'' food to eat while they waited.

Abramowitz said administrators are working to address some of the report's recommendations.

AIMING TO RECRUIT

He's organizing a town hall meeting, perhaps as early as next week, for example, with members of Miami's Haitian-American community to hear their concerns and to recruit Creole-speaking investigators and translators.

''We have to recruit bilingual staff,'' Abramowitz said. “A child cannot be used as an interpreter for an investigator. That's just something that cannot happen.''

Haitian migrant parents — some of whom mistrust government and are fearful that investigators are there to snatch their children — might feel more comfortable speaking to an investigator who speaks Creole and better understands their culture, Abramowitz said.

He also expects to ease the workload for investigators as 26 newly trained workers are added next month. Training has also been scheduled next month for investigators on how to deal with domestic violence between parents that could threaten the safety of kids.

To conduct the training, administrators have hired Olga Trujillo, a Virginia-based lawyer and consultant who survived severe family violence when she was growing up.