.jpg photo of Child Abuse Furun
The Pensacola News Journal hosted a child abuse forum with the Gulf Coast Kid’s House and Department of Children and Families to offer information on recognizing and reporting abuse

Behind the lines of a war on children

About this series

Today’s stories are the final entries in a four-part, week-long series focusing on child abuse in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Our goal is simple: to increase awareness of the need to report suspected abuse, in the hopes of saving children and families in our community.

Misconceptions about child advocacy have led to the belief by many that child professionals want to rip children from the home, but local providers say their mission is about protecting and building up families, not destroying them.

Protecting kids by protecting families
By Kevin Robinson

“I signed up for school,” Krista Bill announced, and a round of cheers erupted around her.

It was the topper on a string of good news. Bill had bought a car and was close to landing a job. The only potential stumbling block was that Bill would need someone to care for her infant son once school started in the fall.

The dozen or so social workers surrounding Bill at a conference table knew the last thing the 22-year-old mother needed was another stumble. Bill already had a daughter placed into permanent foster care and had just recently regained custody of her 10-month-old son. The team was determined to do whatever it took to ensure the pair wasn’t separated again.

Bill and her son are one of the thousands of Florida families receiving counseling and services because of choices that led to adverse encounters with the Department of Children and Families (DCF) or the criminal justice system. In the past three years, the Department of Children and Families has begun altering its practices to place more emphasis on getting these families the service and counseling they need to get back on track and stay there.

“We do find that parents want to be good parents,” said Kellie Sweat Darnell, DCF northwest regional director. “They don’t wake up in the morning and choose to hurt their children…It’s not that someone is a bad parent (if they come into contact with DCF), there’s something that’s keeping them from being the parent that they want to be.”

Asking the right questions

The DCF fell under intense outward and inward scrutiny after the 2011 death of Nubia Barahona, a 10-year-old Miami girl who was routinely tortured by her foster parents and eventually found dead and doused in chemicals inside a trash bag. For years, various extended family members and neighbors had expressed concerns about Nubia and her twin brother’s well-being, but the DCF never found significant cause to intervene.

When the worst-case scenario came to pass, Nubia’s death was held up as the greatest failing of a broken system.

Since then, DCF officials have sought ways to be more proactive in stemming cases of abuse and neglect. Sweat Darnell said the problem ultimately came down to having a system that was designed to investigating individual allegations of abuse, but not the ancillary circumstances that led to them.

“What we realized after a long history of this practice, is we were missing a lot of factors and dynamics within a family that really help us predict if that child is in a state of danger,” Sweat Darnell said.
The question became not just ‘Is this child safe right now?’ but also, ‘Is this parent going to be able keep this child safe throughout the duration of their young life?’

“There’s no one cause, there’s no one factor that makes a parent abuse their child,” said DaMonica Rivas, DCF Northwest Region Communications Director. “There’s often several underlying factors. There’s the cycle of abuse, there’s poverty, there’s mental health issues, there’s substance abuse issues. So trying to get to the root cause of the parent’s issues – get the services in place to help the parent and get the services in place to help the children deal with the trauma they’ve suffered – can eventually help put an end to the cycle of abuse.”

Treating the root

The Families First Network (FFN) is the local service arm of the DCF.

“We go in, and we make sure there is a service delivery system for families that come to DCF’s attention,” said Shawn Salamida, director of the FFN.

The organization – a program of the Lakeview Center – manages foster placements and helps coordinate services for troubled families through a host of partner agencies such as Guardian Ad Litem, the Early Learning Coalition, the Community Drug and Alcohol Council and many more.

“We want to see kids be able to stay with their families whenever it’s safely possible for them to do so, so we provide a lot of service to those families where the child may be removed for their own safety.”

So why are children removed from their homes? It’s rarely the shocking, sensational violence we see in headlines or nightly news.

“Substance abuse is the most common thing we see,” Salamida said. “Domestic violence. Inadequate supervision. (Parent’s) inability to pay for their (child’s) basic needs…75-80 percent of the time it’s neglect. Folks have to work and leave their kids at home. Get evicted and have no place to stay. Lose their job and can’t afford to feed their kids. If a family is homeless for whatever reason, we don’t want a child coming into foster care because their family is homeless. We want to see if we can find that family someplace to live, help them get some support in finding income and getting jobs. We would rather do that than have a child go into foster care.”

Sweat Darnell said even in severe cases, the best way to stop abuse and neglect is to cure the reasons why people abuse.

“Our current practices allow us to be much more specific in the types of intervention and support that families need,” Sweat Darnell said. “Before when we looked at an incident, let’s use physical abuse as an example, a common approach to respond to that was that parent had to take parenting classes, they probably needed an anger management class, and we weren’t really getting down to what was driving this behavior.”

Changing trajectories

In the case of Krista Bill, her impending childcare dilemma could have put her out of compliance with court orders or forced her to forego her continued education. Together, Bill’s team was able to pool their available programs, resources and contacts and help Bill find a suitable daycare.

Margot Doelker, early childhood court specialist for FFN, said removing obstacles gives families the tools they need to build success.

“We try to get in early and change the trajectory of the family,” Doelker said. “Truthfully, we can divert a family from coming deeper into the services.”

Bill had issues with substance abuse, and when she was 18 her daughter was placed into the care of another family member. She temporarily lost custody of her son last year, but regained custody in November after committing herself to turning her life around.

“Now it’s a little different because I know how it feels to lose a child…I’ve been working hard. I still go to RISE (Resiliency Increasing Skills and Education program) and talk about the problems I’m having. Sometimes you just need someone to talk to…They made me quit blaming everybody and look at myself and fix myself.”

The team helping Bill work through her issues is composed of members of Guardian Ad Litem, the Early Learning Coalition, Lakeview Center, DCF, the Community Drug and Alcohol Council (CDAC) RISE program and several other organizations.

Children removed from home
Number of child removed to out-of-home care.

Escambia County

  • 2010 total: 405
  • 2014 total: 449

Santa Rosa County

  • 2010 total: 127
  • 2014 total: 165

The group was organized through the Early Childhood Court, a fast-track judicial program designed for parents who have had children under the age of 5 enter foster care. The court’s goal is to reunite parents and children as quickly as possible (provided it’s safe to do so) or expedite the process of finding a child a permanent foster home if their parent continues to exhibit unsafe behaviors.

In weekly meetings called staffings, the team assigned to a family’s case reviews what services could be beneficial to the individual members of the household, as well as attempt to head off developing problems before they become roadblocks.

Bill said she had a strong network of supporting family, friends and professionals to help her, and Sweat Darnell said that ultimately it takes everyone pitching in to keep families safe.

“A lot of parents are really struggling. A lot feel isolated and they don’t have anyone to talk to. That can really build up the stress they are already experiencing and they don’t know how to cope, so it gets too big for them to handle. I think everyone in the community can reach out to someone else in the community, be an ear for them to listen to, be a support if they feel they’re getting stressed and something is about to happen. Having those natural supports – people in the community that they can call on – is an indicator of a family that is going to be able to turn the ship around.”

PENSACOLA News Journal