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David Wilkins’

Wilkins out at DCF, ending tenure which began and ended in storm

Thursday, July 18th, 2013 by John Kennedy

David Wilkins, who drew praise for guiding Florida’s Department of Children & Families through an investigation into the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona in West Palm Beach and lately has been fending off criticism following a wave of child deaths, resigned Thursday.

Gov. Rick Scott appointed Esther Jacobo, a managing director in DCF’s South Florida region, as interim chief.

“David did a great job in leading the state’s top child protection agency and his service is deeply appreciated,” Scott said. “I have no doubt that Esther will increase accountability in the department and enhance child protective services in order to protect the most vulnerable among us.”

Scott said Wilkins planned to focus on private sector opportunities and a foundation that he leads. Wilkins was an executive with Accenture, Inc., a worldwide technology vendor that contracts heavily with the state before becoming finance director of Florida Baptist Children’s Home.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, criticized the agency for its actions in four children’s deaths since mid-May and scheduled a September hearing into the matter in Tallahassee.

“No child should die because of abuse and neglect,” Sobel said earlier this month.”Especially if the state goes in and investigates. That’s unacceptable.”

Wilkins, however, was credited with steadying the agency in the months after his 2011 appointment when he organized a task force to probe DCF’s role in the Barahona case. The girl’s body had been found in February on Interstate-95 in West Palm Beach, wrapped in plastic and in the bed of her adopted father’s pickup truck.

An investigation revealed she had suffered a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, who were were indicted on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and neglect.

The panel probing the case labeled DCF’s performance as “inept.” Wilkins defended overworked and underpaid staffers at the agency, but also vowed to change its culture. He said too many child-care workers were ill-trained and that the agency suffered from high-turnover, a decades-long problem at DCF.

Wilkins’ latest initiative called for new training of 5,000 staffers and a push to put more technology in their hands to monitor cases.

Earlier this month, Wilkins wrote a piece for the Tallahassee Democrat saying his new program was aimed at creating a holistic, multi-discipline approach to preventing child abuse.

“Our focus will shift to assessing the full family functioning to understand the dynamics and set the stage for identifying needs that will keep the children safe,” he wrote.

“Our investigators and case managers are being trained to engage the whole family in the process to teach them to make better decisions and, when necessary to keep the child safe, remove hildren from dangerous situations.”

DCF looks to limit fraud by asking a few questions

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Losing millions of dollars in benefits to fraud, the Florida Department of Children & Families said Tuesday it is installing a new system requiring those getting services to answer a series of questions to verify their identity.

DCF Secretary David Wilkins said the $5 million program could save as much as $90 million a year in lost benefits.

“This is how big corporations manage their data,” Wilkins said.

DCF has been using an electonic benefits transfer (EBT) debit cards for about a decade. About 90 percent of applicants for food stamps, medicine- and cash-assistance programs apply online, a percentage that has steadily increased over the years.

But so, too, has fraud, Wilkins said.

“Florida has the highest per capita rate of identify theft in the country,” he said, with DCF benefits a top item in the target-rich environment.

Florida has been slow to enact verification efforts commonly used by banks, online retailers and other providers because federal officials have been reluctant to green-light anything that could interfere with a client receiving benefits, officials said. But the new system, whose vendors are LexisNexis Group and Acuity, has proved successful in a pilot test conducted by DCF the past few months in the Orlando area.

But the pilot also resulted in some shocking revelations, officials acknowledged.

“We found three times more fraud than we anticipated in our business plan,” Wilkens said.

The Legislature last month approved a measure also aimed at cracking down on electronic benefits, imposing new restrictions on where those receiving temporary assistance to needy families (TANF) can use their cards.

The measure prohibits EBT cards from being used at liquor stores, gambling locales or places that specialize in adult entertainment, including porn shops.

Florida officials earlier confirmed a 2011 TV news investigation that found that of 1.3 million EBT transactions totaling nearly $202 million over a two-year period in Florida, about $93,000 was drawn at places with liquor licenses, strip clubs or gambling sites.

Strippers, booze and slots soon to be off-limits for welfare recipients

Friday, April 26th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida welfare recipients won’t be allowed to use state-issued debit cards at strip joints, liquor stores or casinos under a bill on its way to Gov. Rick Scott, who is certain to approve the measure.

The Florida Senate unanimously approved the measure with no debate this morning.

House sponsor Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, says the bill (HB 701) is needed to comply with a federal law banning the use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or “TANF,” at liquor stores, gambling locales or places that specialize in adult entertainment, including porn shops. Smith said needs to act before Feb. 14 or risk losing out on 5 percent of the funds for the program.

The bill (HB 701) which bans the state’s poorest-of-the-poor from using the debit cards at liquor stores, adult entertainment establishments – including porn shops – and other gaming establishments.

“This is a victory for Florida taxpayers who can now know that their hard-earned tax dollars are truly being used to help needy families get back on their feet so they can become independent and self-sufficient,” Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins said in a statement.

The federal “Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012” requires states to maintain policies to prevent cash assistance “from being used in any electronic benefit transfer transaction in any liquor store; any casino, gambling casino, or gaming establishment; or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment.”

TANF recipients receive debit cards, or “EBTs,” which they can use to get cash from ATMs or to make purchases. Unlike food stamps, there are no restrictions on what items can be bought with the cards.

A year before the federal law was passed, a Florida representative proposed similar restrictions in response to a television expose, later substantiated by state officials, that found that of 1.3 million transactions totaling nearly $202 million over a two-year period in Florida, about $93,000 was drawn at places with liquor licenses, strip clubs or gambling sites.

Scott’s chief operating officer finds areas to squeeze in state government

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012 by John Kennedy

A Florida panel reviewing how state government spends taxpayer money heard Wednesday a list of cost-saving recommendations from David Wilkins, who Gov. Rick Scott has named his chief operating officer.

Wilkins, himself, may be an example of the kind of efficiency Scott is seeking to squeeze out of government.

Wilkins doubles as the state’s secretary of the Department of Children & Families. But Wednesday he was focused on urging the state’s 15-member Government Efficiency Task Force to include a number of his ideas in its final package of penny-pinching.

“Any task force that devotes so much time to analyzing problems, you don’t want them to study them and put them on the shelf,” Wilkins said. “That’s certainly not our intent…There’s not a project that we laid out that hasn’t already been done by numerous other organizations and other states.”

 The Government Efficiency Task Force is required by the Florida Constitution, which calls for a combination of state elected officials and private-sector experts to examine state government in the opening year of a new or re-elected governor’s term. Work began last summer and the panel is expected to make its recommendations by fall.

Wilkins said the state could save hundreds of millions of dollars in coming years by taking steps similar to those enacted by many businesses.

Human resource offices could be centralized, employee evaluation systems standardized, technology services brought under one agency or possibly outsourced, while state contracting and vehicle-use more closely scrutinized to find savings, he said.

But Wilkins acknowledged that with millions of dollars at stake in state government, there are plenty of lobbyists, vendors, and other special interests that can stand in the way of change. But with Florida weathering its fourth straight year of state budget shortfalls, any spare cash is welcome.

“The simple math is, the more savings we can generate, there’s more money available for education and other priorities of the governor,” Wilkins said.


Atheists blast DCF chief for ‘proselytizing’ to agency workers

Friday, May 4th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Atheists are accusing Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins of breaking the law with a prayer he sent to the agency’s workers yesterday asking God to help his workers “find their identity in You.”

Wilkins, a Baptist who is also the Florida’s chief operating officer, sent the missive to DCF workers yesterday after offering the prayer at a National Day of Prayer event – also attended by his boss, Gov. Rick Scott – in the Capitol.

“This message from a Department head to all subordinates is shocking and unconstitutional,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote in a letter to Scott and Wilkins’ general counsel yesterday. “The message gives the appearance of government endorsement of Christianity. Civil servants should not be subject to such ridiculous calls to religion in the workplace.”

Wilkins’ prayer refers to the Old Testament without mentioning Jesus Christ and basically asks God to protect the state’s children and families and help them to be better people.

“Help them to grow into a complete understanding of their authority in You, Lord, while retaining a submissive and humble spirit. We pray that the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control grow in them daily. We pray that they find their identity in You and view themselves as Your instrument, and that they will know that they are fully complete in You, and You alone,” part of his prayer reads.

The memo is part of an “ongoing dialogue the Secretary has with employees” to share information about his public appearances and agency activities, Wilkins’ spokesman Joe Follick said.

“Neither this message or any of the Secretary’s daily actions on behalf of the agency’s 13,000 employees and providers ever carry any attempt to impact every American’s right to believe and follow their faith of choice.
We are proud to have the nation’s best social services team working to improve this state and are proud that among our employees are men and women of all faiths,” Follick said.

But sending the prayer to employees is unconstitutional because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibiting government sponsorship of religious messages, Gaylor argued.

“Government officials may of course attend private functions on their own time as private citizens. It is a misuse of office, however, for government actors to use their position to disseminate their religious messages spawned by the National Day of Prayer. A state department head may not use state resources to promote such a sectarian message,” Gaylor wrote. “Governor, you have taken the oath of office to uphold the secular U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Florida, and you must ensure that your office and public officials under your oversight do not abuse their position to further their personal religious beliefs.”
Read Wilkins’ entire prayer after the jump.

Scott signs Penn State scandal-inspired bill into law

Friday, April 27th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law four measures – including a proposal inspired by the Penn State child molestation scandal – today after being blasted by victim advocates for vetoing $1.5 million for rape crisis centers around the state earlier this month.

At the top of the list of the bills Scott signed today is the “Protection of Vulnerable Persons” measure (HB 1355) making Florida the first state in the nation to impose the hefty fine for each incident of child abuse higher education institutions – both public and private – fail to report.

Child advocates said the hefty fines and new mandatory reporting requirements make Florida’s law the strongest in the country.

“Florida is the leader in protecting children and families from sexual violence. It’s a truly wonderful day,” said Lauren Book, a child sexual abuse survivor and the founder of “Lauren’s Kids” advocacy group. Lauren Book and her father Ron Book, a prominent Capitol lobbyist, pushed for the bill.

The new law, which goes into effect on Oct. 1, imposes a $1 million-per-incident fine on college and university administrators who knowingly withhold information about child sex abuse on campus or at institution-sponsored events.

The new Florida law is one of dozens considered or passed in other states in the wake of child molestation scandals at Penn State University, Syracuse University and The Citadel. The Penn State scandal came to light in November and resulted in the ouster of the football team’s beloved, veteran coach Joe Paterno, who died earlier this year.

Last year, former Penn State defensive coordinator Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky was arrested last year on charges that he sexually abused at least eight boys over a 15-year period. After Sandusky’s arrest, the university fired long-time coach Joe Paterno, who died last month, and president Graham Spanier. Athletic director Tim Curley and a vice president stepped down from their positions and are accused of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse.

Like Florida’s, proposals in other states add coaches, athletic directors or university officials to the list of “mandated reporters” of suspected child abuse or neglect. In the past month, such bills have been signed in Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, with several other states expected to follow suit.

The Florida law also puts college and university law enforcement agencies on the hook if they fail to turn over suspected abuse reports to prosecutors.

Scott angered advocates earlier this month when he red-lined $1.5 million for rape crisis centers from the state’s $70 billion budget. Critics called the veto especially egregious because it happened in April, Sexual Violence Awareness Month.

But Scott defended the veto, saying money elsewhere in the budget covered rape crisis centers and domestic abuse victims, and reiterated his support for those programs on Friday in a press release announcing the bill signings. The release noted that the state $70 billion budget includes $6.5 million for rape prevention and sexual assault services and $29 million for domestic violence programs.

“This critical legislation I have signed into law shows the valuable steps Florida has made in protecting the rights of victims,” Scott said in a statement. “April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and this week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and it is an important time to raise attention to promoting victims’ rights and remember those lives affected by violence.”

The child molestation scandal-inspired measure also includes what child sex abuse victim advocates say is a critical change in who must report child sex abuse and why.


Bans on food stamps for convicted drug users and using welfare debit cards at strip clubs moving in the House

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012 by Dara Kam

Felons convicted of drug possession won’t be able to get food stamps or emergency cash for poor families unless they successfully complete state-approved substance abuse treatment programs and recipients of the cash aid won’t be able to use debit cards at strip joints or gambling locales under two bills approved by a Florida House committee Tuesday morning.

Barring drug abusing convicted felons is already part of federal law restricting who can get food stamps. But the federal government allows states to opt out of the prohibition, which Florida did more than two decades ago.

Both measures are aimed at ensuring that the money going to needy families benefits children, proponents say.

But Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, objected that the bill was “mean-spirited.”

“This bill presumes all poor people have a problem and use dollars in an inappropriate ways, especially those who have been convicted of a drug crime,” said Pafford.

Making sure felons who were convicted of drug possession complete treatment is a good thing, argued Rep. Dennis Baxley, a former state director of the Christian Coalition said at the House Human Services Committee today before the 12-6 vote along party lines in favor of the measure (HB 813). A Senate committee is expected to vote on the measure tomorrow.

“It’s about government not being a codependent,” Baxley, R-Ocala, said, adding that 80 percent of crimes are related to drug abuse. “Anything we can do to help people identify and move away from that is a benefit.”

Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins said the changes would bring Florida into line with federal law and mirror what many other states are now doing.

“I’m not sure why the state of Florida passed that law that allowed those individuals to receive food stamps. I guess that was just a different time,” Wilkins said. “I didn’t see any logical reason myself for why Florida has carved that out in today’s time.”

Those who are ineligible for the benefits because of their felony convictions could name someone else to receive the aid on behalf of the children in the family who would otherwise lose out on the food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But some critics say the requirement that felons complete state-approved drug treatment could be problematic because many of the approved facilities have wait lists and they cost money. Popular recovery programs Alocholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which are free, would not fulfill the requirements.

A separate, more controversial measure would restrict where those who receive TANF can use state-issued EBT cards. The move was prompted by a television report that found that some recipients of the cash aid – the poorest of the poor, as some Department of Children and Families officials call them – have used the cards at liquor stores, strip clubs and gambling joints. The measure (HB 1401) would prohibit their use at those locations and also stop poor families from using the cards out-of-state.

“Sometimes to do the right thing all people need is a little bit of encouragement,” Baxley said before the 13-4 vote. Rep. Mack Bernard of West Palm Beach split with fellow Democrats on the bill, saying he was troubled to learn the cards had been used at Internet cafés.

That provision could hurt abused women fleeing the state for their safety, objected Pafford, who failed to get the committee to strip the out-of-state provision.

Critics of the proposed policy say limiting where the cards can be used will not have much impact, in part because the cards can be used at ATMs where cash can be spent anywhere.

“It won’t have that big of an impact in terms of restricting individual usage,” Wilkins said. “I think we’ve got to deal with the fraud issue more and more. It’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of more and more fraud policies coming down the pike.”

Wilkins said his agency is trying to combat fraud in other ways, including taking steps to verify the identity of people applying for the benefits. Those applications are now done on-line, but Wilkins said he wants to add questions that would screen out imposters. If the questions aren’t answered correctly, applicants would then have to apply in person, Wilkins said.

Scott taps former Accenture exec to head DCF

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott appointed retired Accenture executive David Wilkins as secretary of the Department of Children and Families.

Wilkins, who also served on Scott’s transition team, recently retired as Accenture’s Health and Public Service’s global managing director of sales according to a press release issued by Scott’s office announcing Wilkins’ appointment.

Wilkins is currently finance chairman of the Florida Baptist Children’s Home. The agency provides a variety of services, including adoption assistance and foster care, to families throughout the state.

“David’s passion for child care issues and the human services business, along with his decades of management experience in business and charities, will serve this agency well as it protects Florida’s families,” Scott said in a press release announcing the appointment.

Wilkins replaces George Sheldon, a former lawmaker and a Democrat who also served under the previous secretary, Bob Butterworth.

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