Judge, Reformer, Bureaucrat

Jay Bevenour

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.*

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.

Dr. Ridda: I'll bet bureaucrat Kearney was an inch from your face, screaming "Isolated incident! Isolated incident!" How did you answer her?

Reformer Kearney: We are doing a full systematic review of all backlogged and existing abuse cases.

Dr. Ridda: Ah-ha. Think about it: You took charge. Good. You were particularly agitated by DCF's actions in one of the cases uncovered in that review, right?

Reformer Kearney: The department went into court and recommended [the] children stay in an environment where the stepfather took them into a garage, cranked up the car, had left a suicide note saying he was going to kill himself and these children. Luckily, a neighbor stopped him. These children had been under the eye of the court and supposedly the eye of the department. They had gone into court two days later and never told the judge that. They recommended [the children] continue to stay in that environment.

Dr. Ridda: Tell it to the bureaucrat!

Reformer Kearney: We've not done a good job of monitoring children in residential treatment centers.

Dr. Ridda: Back then you told everyone there was no quick fix for the department, that... how did you put it?

Reformer Kearney: I've indicated it took decades for it to get this way; it's going to take years for it to mend."

Dr. Ridda: Bureaucrat Kearney disagreed with you though, didn't she? That became clear when an independent auditor concluded in early 2001 that the child protection service had gotten worse in the two years you were in charge.

Bureaucrat Kearney: (Eyes glaze over. Rolls down her sleeves.) The report said we are declining in [almost] all areas of child protection. That is not the case. There has been significant improvement in measures that are directly correlated to resources hitting the streets and [becoming] operational.

Dr. Ridda: So when the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform issued a report around the same time that noted "there is probably no place worse in America to be a foster child than the state of Florida," I suppose...

Bureaucrat Kearney: (Interrupts.) While [the] report claims that Florida is in a foster-care crisis, this is simply not true. We are under significant reform, and our system is improving on a daily basis. Children are much safer now.

Dr. Ridda: Then news earlier this year that Rilya was misplaced somehow. A lot of inquiries from the media and children's advocates, questions about the system again.

Bureaucrat Kearney: I would like nothing better than to have the records open to the media, but I am also incredibly mindful of the confidentiality, and that we have a missing child.

Dr. Ridda: Yes, but you do understand why the judge, the reformer, and the public are all asking what's behind the DCF veil?

Bureaucrat Kearney: This particular case, unbelievably tragic, is an isolated event.

Dr. Ridda: (Sighs deeply) That's all the time we have this week.

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