Fla. overhauling abuse hot line after girl's death

AP News
Posted: Mar 14, 2011 7:38 PM
Fla. overhauling abuse hot line after girl's death

The head of Florida's child welfare agency announced major changes Monday to an abuse hot line and other reforms, vowing to help overburdened child protective investigators after the death of a girl whose body was found in her adoptive father's truck.

"This tragedy was more than just mistakes and poor judgment executed by child welfare workers," said Secretary David Wilkins of Florida's Department of Children and Families. "It was a total systematic failure by the entire child welfare system."

On Feb. 14, the body of Nubia Docter was found doused in chemicals in her adoptive father's truck on Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach. Her brother, Victor Docter, also was found in the truck, soaked in a toxic chemical and suffering from serious burns. Their parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, have been charged with murder in the girl's death, authorities said.

The child welfare agency had come under fire for ignoring troubling warning signs.

Days before girl's death, someone called the hot line to report the twins were being bound by their hands and feet and locked in a bathroom, authorities said. The call was flagged to be followed up within 24 hours instead of immediately. Authorities say a child protective investigator who followed up on the call searched futilely for the twins for four days, but never called police. That investigator was fired, Wilkins said.

Effective immediately, Wilkins said, hot line operators will no longer be rewarded by how quickly they handle a call, but by how effectively. He said a supervisor also will monitor calls in real time to ensure a proper emergency response. The most serious abuse calls will immediately be forwarded to police.

The changes come after a hot line supervisor resigned earlier this month. Another employee was fired, another also resigned and two other employees received reprimands, authorities say.

The agency has since added several child investigators and a supervisor to the Miami-Dade Police missing persons and domestic violence unit to allow a quicker joint response to emergency cases. The department is overhauling the role of child protective investigators who are the first to respond to child abuse allegations, and recruiting 80 investigators statewide to reduce caseloads.

In Nubia Docter's case, a teacher reported that girl was afraid of her mother and was stealing food at school. But that information never made it to a psychologist who evaluated the girl and eventually recommended that the Barahonas be allowed to adopt her.

Wilkins recommended a new procedure to ensure hot line calls from school officials are handled immediately.

He also said he wants to implement technology that can automatically flag problems, similar to the way credit card companies are alerted to aberrant billing patterns.

"We should never be able to have this many flags going off and not see it," he said.

The agency watches over more than 18,700 children in foster care and has some 13,000 employees.