Progress in child abuse prevention requires full participation of all partners
We all know it. Leading the Florida Department of Children and Families is a difficult and thankless job. The front-line jobs in the state's child welfare system are even tougher. The learning curve is steep, every lesson is hard, and failure, as we are tragically reminded, is far too painful and costly. In the wake of recent tragedies, everyone is searching for answers, trying to figure out what went wrong. From county sheriffs and local and community-based care providers to religious and community leaders, everyone wants to, and should, do whatever is necessary to prevent the loss of another vulnerable child. Getting all of these partners to work together toward this worthy goal isn't easy, but it is essential. Time and again we see that protecting vulnerable children is too big of a job for one person, or even one agency. We all have a part to play in solving this problem that is impacting our state - a philosophy that DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo has already embraced.Complex social problems such as child abuse involve multiple interrelated risk factors that sometimes develop over generations of family dysfunction, generally rooted in poverty and lack of education. There is no simple, quick-fix solution to these issues, and drastic over corrections in our policies and practices following tragedies have historically made matters even worse. Although it is true that more must be done to recruit, train, supervise and retain qualified front-line staff responsible for responding to allegations of abuse, we will never achieve sustainable change in child protection services without a significant increase in prevention efforts that strengthen vulnerable families before abuse ever begins. Strengthening parenting skills and improving family stability, sometimes even before the baby arrives, is paramount to eliminating many of the situations we have read so glaringly about over the past few months. Most at-risk expectant and new parents realize they need help, but help isn't always available before tragedy strikes. Ensuring children are safe and nurtured at home, while stemming the tide of kids coming into state care, has been the work of Healthy Families Florida since its legislative inception in 1998. Administered by the private, nonprofit Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida through a network of local providers, Healthy Families is the state's preeminent child abuse prevention program. A rigorous independent evaluation revealed that Healthy Families is an effective prevention measure. Healthy Families is proven to prevent abuse and neglect in 98 percent of the children in high-risk families served. Recent analysis shows that 95 percent of children served also remained free from abuse and neglect three years following program services. For the past 15 years, the Department of Children and Families has been an able and supportive partner. Thanks to an additional $3 million legislative allocation this year, the blessing of Gov. Rick Scott and the support of local partners, Healthy Families' reach has been extended to serve additional families in parts or all of 58 of Florida's 67 counties, which is a big step in the right direction. Bringing these proven prevention services to scale, so every at-risk family has access to the help it needs, will require additional investment; but it is still far less costly than failure. Healthy Families saves taxpayers millions of dollars in child welfare and other services needed to deal with the consequences of abuse, and even more importantly, it saves lives. Other changes to the child welfare system may certainly help to prevent more tragic deaths, but we know Healthy Families is a proven and effective up-front prevention program that helps lead us toward that important goal. T. Wayne Davis is the board chairman of the Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida.