Editorial Submission from Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins

The heartbreaking death of 4-year-old Rilya Wilson in 2001 affected not just the community in Miami, but every Floridian and every employee with the Department of Children and Families. It was the driving force for sweeping changes including the nation’s first statewide private/public partnership in child welfare with Community Based Agencies providing localized direct care and supervision.

As the current murder trial proceeds, it is important that Floridians know that Rilya’s tragic death was more than one awful incident. It spurred decisions that have made children safer today. The trial in Miami is about whether someone committed the heinous crime of killing a young child in 2002. In 2012, children are safer and children in foster care have a much better opportunity to grow up and have successful lives.

While there were many lessons learned, one of the most important is that we need the community’s help to keep children safe. The more involved the child is in the community, the more eyes are on the child and as a result they are safer.

As a result of Rilya’s death, Florida law now requires that children in foster care be enrolled in either day care or school. This ensures that teachers, counselors, school staff and classmates who have regular contact with the child can report signs of possible abuse, abandonment or neglect.

The courts are much more involved with the daily safety of children in foster care. Today judges require that children be seen by the court regularly. This enables the court to evaluate information given to them by the case managers and other professionals in light of their observations of the child. Case managers who visit the children each month and evaluate their safety and well-being now work for local, private agencies in each community through a privatization effort that contracts out prevention, intervention, foster care and adoption to nonprofit organizations.

A new computer system was created to better track the children in foster care and the actions taken by case workers on any child’s case. Case workers from our privatized case management programs ensure that children are seen every 30 days as mandated by state law. If the 30-day deadline passes, a supervisor and others are immediately notified. In October, 99 percent of children in both in-home and out-of-home care were seen within 30 days.

When case managers in private agencies make their monthly visits, they take a picture of the child with their mobile device which has a GPS time, date and location stamp. This information is then uploaded to the system where the photos are stored. Access to this system is shared by staff, supervisors, judiciary and law enforcement. Again, many eyes on the child make the child safer.

This system also allows for the electronic transfer of missing children cases to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Mission and Endangered Person Information Clearinghouse and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Each of our regions and our community-based care providers now have employees whose role is to track missing children and work collaboratively within the social service system and with law enforcement partners to find our children and return them to safety.

In addition, our children should be able to safely experience what every other child experiences. We are doing a disservice to them if we don't find a way for each child in this state to have the same chance to dream and aspire to a brighter future. All children in foster care should have the same expectations at educational success as other children.

When the safety and well-being of a child is the goal, we know that success is never final and we must always seek ways to provide the most help possible. We are currently redesigning our abuse reporting, investigation and case management processes to better assess risk to children and determine how best to ensure their safety and meet the child’s and family’s needs.

The best efforts of our Department and our many partners in communities and in law enforcement are only part of the solution. I know that Floridians share our concern about working together to protect every child. Please, if you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-962-2873.