Judge, Reformer, Bureaucrat

On the couch, Kathleen Kearney talks out of all three sides of her mouth

Seated in a stuffed leather chair in her posh Tallahassee office, Dr. Flo Ridda flips open her notebook. She's filled with a mix of nervousness and excitement. Kathleen Kearney, the patient reclined beside her, presents a once-in-a-career challenge. Rarely does a psychiatrist have the chance to treat multiple personality disorder. A full recovery for the former head of the Department of Children and Families is a matter of great importance to a good many Sunshine Staters, but the doctor's attempts to reunite Kearney's sundry and conflicted personalities -- judge, reformer, bureaucrat -- have, after many months of treatment, been unsuccessful. Today, she thinks, will be different. It's time for a breakthrough.

Dr. Ridda: Good afternoon, Ms. Kearney.

Ms. Kearney: (Strikes a pose as if before a bank of TV cameras.) This particular case, unbelievably tragic, is an isolated event.*

Jay Bevenour

Dr. Ridda: Ahh. (Nods slowly.) How are you today, bureaucrat Kearney?

Bureaucrat Kearney: It is my firm belief that in reviewing our system here in Miami-Dade, they will realize that this particular case, while unbelievably tragic, is an isolated event, and our children are safe.

Dr. Ridda: (Sighs in disappointment.) Last week we made so much progress. Remember? We talked about Rilya Wilson, the 5-year-old foster child under DCF supervision who was discovered this spring to have been missing for 15 months. You claimed the department had moved past the problems that have plagued it for years. But there were two others at our previous sessions -- people very close to you -- who disagreed....

Bureaucrat Kearney: (Interrupts.) We do not believe this is widespread.

Dr. Ridda: (Pages through notes from last session.) Yes, yes, but recall the case of two-year-old Alfredo Montez of Lakeland, who lived a life of squalor with his neglectful mother until he died this summer. The DCF received five calls to its abuse hotline in the 23 months before he was beaten to death by a family friend on July 1. A DCF investigator received an abuse call about Alfredo on the day of his death, then falsified a visitation report, noting the boy had "no marks or bruises" and was "clean and appeared happy."

May I speak with Judge Kearney? Is she with us? She's a juvenile-court judge in Broward County, and it's May 1998, about seven months before the newly elected Gov. Jeb Bush appoints her DCF secretary. She's learned that a father had four times been arrested on drug and assault charges; three times DCF workers had received neglect reports about the mother. The judge has been told nothing until now, and she's steaming.

Judge Kearney: (Eyes flutter momentarily. Jaw juts out. Brow furrows.) What I am concerned about is the lack of candor to the court, the lack of the department doing its job that is putting children at risk. Why do you let three more abuse reports come in without telling me? What are you hiding? Don't you think that armed trafficking in cocaine is a serious risk factor that would have reopened the case... back in 1994, not in 1998? I would immediately have reopened the case, removed custody of the children from the parents, and placed them in a safe environment.

I see this over and over and over again, day in and day out, the same problems. I'm not standing for it a minute longer. I do not want the blood of these children on my hands. Every night before I go to bed, I wonder if children under my jurisdiction will be alive the next morning.

Dr. Ridda: Welcome to the session, judge. Go on. Tell bureaucrat Kearney about the October 1998 case in which you removed a teenage sexual abuser from his family. You stipulated that he not be placed in a foster home with younger children.

Judge Kearney: What do they do? They put him in a home where there are three younger children, one of whom he sexually abuses. The department was fully aware of the risk and made a conscious decision not to share the information with the court. The department specifically lied to the court.

Dr. Ridda: (Again rifles through her notebook.) Is reformer Kearney with us today? You were born in January 1999 when the judge stepped down from the bench and took over DCF. You were hailed as the right person at the right time by newspaper editorial boards and children's advocates across the state. Tell me what you said to the Children and Families Committee of the state senate on the week you took the helm.

Reformer Kearney: (Eyes glaze over. Rises to her feet. Rolls up her sleeves.) I am concerned about the lack of accountability that I see in the system. There are a lot of systemic problems.

Dr. Ridda: Soon after you took over, your department was under fire for its poor oversight of Natalie Gomez Perez, a two-year-old Orlando-area girl who was beaten to death by her mother's boyfriend in May 1999. What did you tell reporters?

Reformer Kearney: Preliminary investigation indicates the child may have been beaten on several occasions but was continually placed in voluntary supervision by the caseworkers. This case warranted foster care, not voluntary supervision in a violent home.

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