Sunday, December 2, 2007

Worry drives out DCF staffers

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I am appaled when they try to say they need more money and that's why they have such a large turnover.

It IS the money that is causing these people to leave Federal funding translates into "legally kidnap" these kids.

Perhaps some of them have a heart, or maybe they've figured out they are being held accountable for "stealing" our children.

Negative publicity creates high turnover in child welfare agency

By Amy Bennett

Originally posted on December 02, 2007

In the past 21 months, almost 90 percent of Department of Children and Families' child protective investigators in Lee County have left the agency. Eight of the 38 investigator jobs in Lee are vacant. Five more resignations go into effect Dec. 10.

Small wonder DCF called its turnover rate "pervasive" in a management report released in October.

Even though there are five soon-to-be investigators scheduled to graduate from training early this month, they'll be joining ranks of people almost as fresh as they are. Throughout Circuit 20 — Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties — 70 percent of investigators have less than two years' experience; 55 have less than a year.


"Many factors contributed to the turnover, including the inherent difficulties of the job made even more difficult by poor public perception of the Department in the community," the report said.

DCF spokeswoman Kristi Sonntag put it more succinctly: "Every time there's a high-profile case where an investigator is named, we lose people."

The News-Press has been investigating the Florida Department of Children and Families for two years. It has hosted a community roundtable to find ways to help Southwest Florida's most vulnerable children and has created a page on complete with databases, resources and additional coverage on child welfare.

For example, Sonntag said, the year before Michelle Fontanez died in February 2006, allegedly at the hands of her stepfather after telling investigators he'd been abusing her for years, the turnover rate among Lee child protective investigators was 23.6 percent.

It's now 88.3 percent.

Last straw
One of those lost was Sara Phillips, 25, who resigned after a Lehigh Acres toddler burned with a curling iron became headline news last month. After the incident, in which 18-year-old mother Breanna Hall denied to Phillips she burned the child, but later confessed to a deputy, The News-Press columnist Sam Cook wrote: "The names of DCF directors change, but the song sounds the same for their investigators — incompetent."

That was the last straw for Phillips, who said she did everything she was supposed to.

"I dotted all my i's and crossed all my t's," she said.

She was called a "superb" investigator in a March performance evaluation. DCF secretary Bob Butterworth called Phillips' leaving sad. The department asked her to reconsider her resignation, but she remains adamant.

"The things that have been written about me have not only affected me, but have also affected my family, friends, and co-workers," Phillips said. "I love my job, really I do, but the stress of this was just too much."

This echoes the October review: "Public perception of the Department — particularly with respect to child protection — is poor. ... This has adversely impacted the Department's ability to recruit and retain child protective investigators and has seriously eroded staff morale in this area."

As wrenching as it is for workers who leave, children they serve suffer, too, said Harriet "Cookie" Coleman, the new Circuit 20 administrator.

"With such high turnover, you have less-experienced employees," she said, "and that makes the work of keeping kids safe much harder to do — let alone do well."

Desiree Lewis Dahlke would second that. She was in the child welfare system for years before she became too old for foster care at age 18. Now 24, she's a cook at Jayne's Victorian Garden in Fort Myers.

"At first, I was shoved around a lot," she said. "Then I had a really good one (caseworker) and had her for about six months. Then after that, it seemed like I had a new one every month. The last one, I didn't even meet."

Retention issue

DCF itself has historically held some of the blame for turnover, Butterworth said, because of pervasive secrecy and a willingness to scapegoat workers. "If employees think management is going to throw them under the bus, obviously that hurts."

Butterworth said he vows to change that, championing openness and responsiveness, yet he acknowledges finding and keeping frontline workers is a challenge.

"It's a very tough job, we require a college degree, and then we pay a whole $34,000 a year," he said. "If the Legislature would let me pay them more, I absolutely will, but until then ... ," he said, trailing off.

Meanwhile, Butterworth is working to fix DCF's perception from within.

"I'm hoping to change the image of us as 'the beleaguered agency,'" he said. "I want people to say, 'Wait a minute — we do lots of good things.'"

Closer to home, circuit administrator Coleman has ideas of her own, starting with a strong internship program.

"We need to expose people to the rewards and challenges of this work. It is not a thankless job, but it is a difficult job," Coleman said. "You really do make a difference."

Yet, though an internship agreement exists on paper between DCF and Florida Gulf Coast University, no one is enrolled.

Part of the problem, said professor Sakinah Salahu-Din, director of FGCU's division of social work, is the university requires its interns to be supervised by DCF workers with social work degrees, and they are in short supply, she said.

Top ranks leave

At the same time that its front line churns, there's turnover in DCF's top ranks as well. That often happens when there's a new administrator, Sonntag said.

Last month, circuit administrator Robert McHarry was demoted and replaced by Coleman while operations manager Harry Propper resigned, to be replaced by Kimberly Kutch on Dec. 3. And Nov. 21, Coleman dismissed 17-year DCF veteran George Glatt, the program administrator in charge of Collier, Hendry and Glades counties, although his last performance evaluation called him "an excellent leader and manager."

Glatt's firing was a shock to many of his colleagues, including Jackie Stephens, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center of Collier County, which consults with DCF on cases of physical or sexual abuse.

"It was very much a surprise, and we're certainly going to miss him," said Stephens, who worked with him for more than 15 years

.Glatt, 63, who'd been hoping to retire from DCF, said he feels puzzled, betrayed and stunned by the way Coleman handled it. "She terminated me over the phone the night before Thanksgiving while I was on vacation."

Coleman realizes her move might puzzle outsiders. "George has done an excellent job, (but) he just didn't fit into my concept of a team."

Media spotlight

Glatt believes media coverage has a far greater effect on the department than the public realizes.

"When you're reading about your operation in the paper every day and when management fails to deal with it and, in fact, says, 'It's the newspaper's fault,' well, no, it's your fault," Glatt said. "These new managers come in and you hear these great platitudes, but none of these new managers really know the business of our business.

"Saving children's lives. Period. That's what this is all about.

"Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, based in Alexandria, Va., agrees, but points out turnover is symptomatic of deeper ills.

High-profile child death cases create a fear-based backlash he calls a foster care panic, which in turn creates a vicious cycle of stress, burnout and turnover — all of which ultimately endanger vulnerable children, Wexler said.

"If management climbs into a bunker, or worse, hunts for scapegoats, and the media do the same, then every caseworker becomes terrified of having the next such case on her load," he said. "So they rush to tear apart more families. That only further overloads workers."

The 30 remaining child protective investigators in Lee County average 30 cases each, Sonntag said, although each case might have as many as seven children. And when the five new resignations become effective Dec. 10, everyone's caseload will increase again, she said.

That spells more trouble for the children, warned Wexler, because even if replacements are hired quickly, they have to get up to speed on old cases.

"Of course, they're not going to know every case as well as they should. They may only have time to skim a file instead of reading it thoroughly," he said.

Then the cycle repeats itself: The more cases workers have, the less time they can spend on each, "So they make even more mistakes."

What follows, Wexler said, is turnover. "The fear of being crucified creates still another incentive to get out. So that's exactly what workers do."

For their part, Glatt and Phillips say they have no idea what they'll do next.

Yet Phillips remains optimistic there will always be those who want to protect children.

"There are a lot of people who honestly care about kids," she said. "Someone will come along who's a lot like me."

Original atricle= The News-Press,, SS: Children's Resource Center, Worry drives out DCF staffers

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