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Welfare drug tests proved problematic, court documents show

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012 by Dara Kam

New court filings in a lawsuit over Gov. Rick Scott’s mandatory drug testing of applicants for welfare assistance reveal a hastily patched-together system marked by a lack of protocol and uniformity and concerns by state workers that the process was overreaching.

Documents filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida on Monday revealed that one applicant with kidney failure and on dialysis was forced to submit urine via a catheter. Another had to leave her young children alone with a drug test company employee while going to the bathroom to provide a urine sample. And one batch of drug tests from an unapproved lab in West Palm Beach was found in a box in a Department of Children and Families office.

Dozens of applicants who tested positive for drugs were then referred to the state abuse hotline and investigated, the records showed, although testing positive for drugs alone is not a reason for an investigation under other circumstances.

The documents, uncovered by the ACLU as part of the discovery in the lawsuit against Scott’s administration, also reveal that some counties did not have approved testing labs and the department would not provide funds for transportation.

Read the ACLU’sACLU’s and DCF’s motions, and the rest of the story.

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.

‘Nubia’s Law’ ready for House vote

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A year after the death of 11-year-old Nubia Barahona, lawmakers are poised to approve changes regarding child abuse investigations state officials hope will make children safer.

Nubia Barahona’s decomposing body was found inside her father’s pickup in West Palm Beach a year ago Tuesday. Inside the truck, her twin brother Victor was found drenched in chemicals. The childrens’ adoptive parents Jorge and Carmen are now behind bars facing murder and neglect charges.

On Wednesday, the House gave a preliminary nod to a bill proposed by the Department of Children and Families prompted by shortcomings in the child welfare system exposed by the Barahona case.

In his introduction to the agency’s bill on the House floor Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz said that “Nubia’s tragic death” caused introspection by DCF officials who “saw what failed these kids and what failed in the system.”

Diaz’s bill (HB 803) includes new training programs for abuse hotline workers, establishes a unified database for abuse reports and increases salaries for child investigators.

The changes “will ensure that the lessons we learned because of the Nubia Barahona case are addressed,” Diaz, R-Miami, promised, “and will assure that our children are a little bit safer tomorrow than they are today.”

Proclamation signed by Gov. Scott gives inaccurate number of family reunifications

Friday, July 8th, 2011 by Ana Valdes

For weeks, child welfare officials statewide have been celebrating the news that more than 9,000 children under the state’s care were reunited with their families in 2010. Noting that 9,134 children were reunited with their families from Jan. through Dec. 2010, Gov. Rick Scott signed a proclamation declaring the period between May 8-June 19 as Florida’s Family Reunification Celebration.

It turns out that only 5,877 children were reunited with their families in 2010 – 3,257 less than originally reported by the state Department of Children and Families, a DCF official said after The Palm Beach Post inquired about irregularities in state numbers.

Apparently the person in charge of crunching the numbers at DCF chose an incorrect data category to calculate the amount of child reunifications, the official said.

Scott finds a bill he doesn’t like; vetoes background screening exemption

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott cleared another milestone as chief executive Thursday – vetoing his first bill passed by the Legislature since whacking a record $615 million from the state budget last month.

Scott has been remarkably supportive of the Legislature’s actions, signing about 150 bills without a single veto. But Thursday he rejected a measure (SB 1992) that would have eased criminal background-screening requirements for volunteers working with seniors.

Scott said eliminating such oversight posed a threat to vulnerable older Floridians.

“That is a risk not worth taking,” Scott said in his veto letter.

The legislation had been pushed by Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, and a pair of Senate committees as a cost-saving move. Supporters said a 2010 law revamping background checks requires even volunteers to undergo screening and fingerprinting – which can cost close to $45 per-person.

DCF to axe 500 jobs, with three mental hospitals likely to absorb bulk of cuts

Monday, May 23rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott unsuccessfully tried to privatize Florida’s three remaining state mental hospitals.

But Monday, those same facilities in Gainesville, Chattahoochee and Macclenny look like they’re going to absorb the brunt of some 500 layoffs planned by the Department of Children and Families to cover a $48 million agency reduction, included in the $69.7 billion budget now before Scott.

DCF Secretary David Wilkins sent a memo to the agency’s 13,000 employees Monday outlining the effort to spare “front-line” employees “who are acting as first responders for children, adults and families in need.”

“However, we have many opportunities to improve our administrative operations. By consolidating many back office services, improving automation and simplifying many of our processes,” he added.

The layoffs are expected to take place by June 30, Wilkins pointed out. That’s the end of the state budget year. (more…)

Senator evokes Barahona case in appreciation for kids’ guardian ad litem

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011 by Dara Kam

State Sen. Ronda Storms paid homage on the Senate floor to a guardian ad litem whose advice was ignored in the adoption of two children, one now dead and the other facing years of rehab.

orge and Carmen Barahona have been charged with the murder of 10-year-old Nubia, found dead in a plastic bag in the bag of her father’s truck in West Palm Beach. Her twin brother Victor is recovering from chemical burns.

The children’s court-appointed lawyer Paul Neumann expressed reservations when the Barahona’s adopted the twins, Storms said without naming the attorney as she introduced a resolution honoring the state’s guardians ad litem, lawyers who work for free to represent abused and neglected children.

Storms began by recalling reports of the grim discovery of Nubia Barahona’s body.

“Maybe you looked away. Maybe you said, ‘Oh no don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear it. I can’t hear it.’ Maybe you can’t hear it and it hurts your heart more than we can stand,” said Storms, R-Valrico, chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

“The guardian ad litem in that case, that stood for those little children, and although the guardian ad litem was not heard in that case, although the recommendations were not followed, that guardian ad litem was a watchman on the wall,” she said.

“All of these volunteers, these watch people on the wall, to say for these little people, these little bruised and broken and hurt people, they stand there. And they do what you and I can’t do. Because when we see it on the news, we can’t finish our supper. We can’t listen to it. We can’t read about it. But they do,” Storms said.

The resolution (SB 1134) was approved unanimously.

Top Fla Health Dept. staffer gets promotion – in Kansas

Friday, January 14th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Florida Department of Health chief of staff Rob Siedlecki, Jr., is headed to Kansas to head that state’s Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican elected as governor in November, appointed Siedlecki to head the agency, the Kansas equivalent of Florida’s Department of Children and Families, subject to the state Senate’s confirmation.

“As SRS Secretary, Rob Siedlecki brings a unique combination of working with the same federal programs that SRS implements in our state and supervising a large staff and budget,” Brownback said in a press release. “He understands the severe budget challenges Kansas faces. He will work to improve the delivery of our health services programs to our state’s most vulnerable in a cost effective way.”

Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has yet to name his chiefs of either the Department of Health or DCF. Surgeon General Ana Viamonte Ros, head of the state Department of Health, quit last month – two weeks before Scott was sworn in – after a scathing attack on her department by Scott’s transition team.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon, appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist, remains on the job as one of dozens of Crist holdovers Scott asked to remain in place until as late as March while he gets his administration together.

Gay adoption ban unconstitutional, appeals court rules

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 by Dara Kam

An appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that the state’s ban on gay adoption is unconstitutional.

The Florida Supreme Court will ultimately rule on the adoption ban making Florida the only state that bans gays from adopting children. The state does allow gay couples and individuals to foster children but does not allow them to adopt them. That’s at odds with Florida’s policy on “permanence” in which children are supposed to be moved as little as possible from one household to another.

A Miami-Dade County judge ruled the gay adoption ban unconstitutional in 2008 in the case of Martin Gill and his male partner, who adopted two foster children they have cared for since 2004.

Gov. Charlie Crist, whose Department of Children and Families appealed the adoption and the ruling, said recently he was considering dropping the appeal. But gay rights activists and the ACLU, which represents Gill, as well as DCF Secretary George Sheldon want the Supreme Court to make a final decision on the law to settle uncertainty for future adoptions.

DCF workers helping Haiti refugees getting sick, CDC called in

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010 by Dara Kam

So many state workers helping Haitian earthquake survivors that the Department of Children and Families asked for help from federal health authorities.

DCF has asked staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to screen Haitians at the Sanford and Orlando airports to try to keep flu-like infections from spreading, DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner said today.

Up to 80 DCF employees, who have volunteered to help the agency handle the influx of refugees from earthquake-shattered Haiti, are working around the clock in the Orlando area, Hoeppner said.

Agency officials sent out an e-mail instructing workers to use universal health precautions, such as gloves and masks, to keep from getting sick.

“We don’t know where this is coming from but want to make sure that everybody’s health is being taken care of,” said Hoeppner, who said she had stomach-flu symptoms throughout the weekend.

“You’re comforting people. You’re wiping running noses. And you’re changing diapers. Those are all things that workers are doing every day. There’s a lot of close contact with our own staff and with the passengers coming off of these planes,” she said, adding that there is “hand sanitizer everywhere you look.”

About 25 workers in the Orlando and Sanford area, where Florida’s Haitian aid is centered, have come down with flu-like symptoms.

Hoeppner said that although the situation is stressful for the refugees and the workers, the job is also rewarding.

“Everybody has probably had an emotional moment being here. If you haven’t cried, you don’t care. And if you don’t care you don’t need to be here,” she said.

DCF, lawyers at odds over fate of gay man’s adopted kids

Monday, November 23rd, 2009 by Dara Kam

Department of Children and Families officials insist that the foster kids living with Martin Gill for nearly five years aren’t going anywhere.

But the agency’s own lawyers told a judge that the two boys adopted by Gill should be “made available for adoption” elsewhere, something Gill can’t legally do because he’s gay.

Despite DCF’s insistence that the Gill family won’t be affected by its appeal of the adoption, the agency has made a test case out of the gay man’s adoption and intends to take the case to the Florida Supreme Court to decide once and for all if Florida’s ban on gay adoption is unconstitutional.

DCF has paid Attorney General Bill McCollum’s office nearly $400,000 so far on the case, and it has yet to make its way to the high court.

Read more about the disconnect between DCF and its own high-paid lawyers here.

Cause of death of 7-year-old in foster care who hanged himself: “undetermined”

Friday, October 30th, 2009 by Dara Kam

A medical examiner found that that the cause of death of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers‘, the Broward County foster child in state custody who hanged himself, was “undetermined” and that he did not commit suicide.

Broward County Deputy Medical Examiner Stephen Cina’s report also said that the child had no history of suicidal thoughts.

That’s contradicted by the Department of Children and Families’ own investigation that found that “he was out of control and destroying school property and stating that he wanted to kill himself” shortly before his death.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon created a workgroup to look into the boy’s death after it was learned that he hanged himself and was on numerous psychotropic drugs that his guardians had not signed off on.

DCF doesn’t get autopsy report of 7-year-old who died in state custody

Thursday, October 29th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon made the apparent suicide of a 7-year-old Broward County boy in foster care one of his top priorities in April.

Sheldon created a working group to get to the bottom of Gabriel Myers’ death and examine why the child was on a psychotropic drug cocktail without the consent of his guardians.

Despite Sheldon’s attention to the boy’s case, his office was unable to get its hands on a copy of the autopsy released to the public by the Broward County Medical Examiner early Thursday afternoon.

About an hour after the autopsy was made public around 11 a.m., Sheldon’s press secretary Joe Follick said he did not have a copy of it. He suggested getting a copy from the medical examiner.

Broward County Medical Examiner Joshua Perper quickly replied to a public records request and e-mailed a copy of the 28-page report.

Hours later, Follick still did not have a copy of it.

“By reviewing the facts of this case carefully, we can work to continue to improve the child welfare system in Florida. While much progress has been made, Gabriel’s death starkly reminds us that when it comes to a child’s life, we cannot relax. Every decision we make profoundly affects the life of that child,” Sheldon said in a press release when the Myers work group was created in April.

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