DCF Prevention Conference — Orlando

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The text of a speech by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, at the DCF Prevention Conference in Orlando on May 14, 2003.

I have semi-tortured myself in trying to figure out what to say this morning.

This place — the Department of Children and Families — has been through so much (as I am reminded by the story across the top of Page 1 in the Orlando Sentinel today). What is there left to say? And how much does talk help anyway? One of the axioms of my childhood, my growing-up years came from my father. “Talk is cheap,” he said so often.

There is no genius appearing before you on the topic this morning. On the other hand, are there really any “geniuses” out there anywhere? No one could run the Department of Children and Families error-free. No one ever has; no one ever will.

You get old enough, you see leaders come and go. You get enough wisdom and just possibly you might come to the sense that none of us is ever as good as his or her press clippings; and probably none of us is ever as bad as his or her press clippings either.

I remind you that before Sept. 11, 2001, Rudy Giuliani was widely thought to be an irascible, insensitive, scandal-prone, stayed-too-long-on-the-job mayor of New York. Today he’s a national hero. Same guy. Different press clippings. Go figure.

History and God will judge us all. Warren Harding, the 29th president of these United States, was widely mourned when he died in office in 1923. A “statesman,” the press said. Harry Truman, the 33rd president, left office in early 1953, tired and tattered. History looks back and says Warren Harding was one of our worst, and Harry Truman one of our best. That’s worth remembering because it is hard to write history as it is being lived. Worth remembering because so many of us are caught up in the sturm-and-drang of daily life, unable to see the bigger picture. Worth remembering because we all are flawed.

I wonder sometimes what it would take to lead and manage the challenges of DCF. Is there a harder job anywhere? Could you do it? Could I?

You surely recall the earliest coverage of Jerry Regier’s tenure. Here’s the lead paragraph of a Florida Times-Union story last August: “Controversy swirled around Gov. Jeb Bush’s pick to head Florida’s beleaguered child welfare agency yesterday, with calls for Bush to withdraw the appointment less than 24 hours after announcing it.” A column in The Tampa Tribune carried this headline: “Jeb’s DCF Choice Seems to Be from Boston, Circa 1620.” Headlined the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale: “Many Wonder: Should He Get DCF Opportunity?” The Tallahassee Democrat used this headline: “Critics Assail Bush for DCF Pick.”

So where are we today in the matter of DCF leadership? The Secretary is still relatively new in his job, but a knowledgeable, fair person would have to say this about Secretary Regier: A person of steadiness and resolve. Experienced in human services. Tough minded. A man of values and inner strength. A good listener; open while not indecisive. A man in a mostly thankless spot who is making the hard decisions about what needs to be done. A man who can withstand criticism. A man whose renewed focus on the basics is leading to diminished staff turnover as well as closing more child-abuse investigations. He’s gone out front to advocate for more family-centered approaches to child abuse; reducing foster care placements, improving in-home services, improving training and education, and elevating the importance of mental health and substance abuse services.

What he has the power to do is diminish the pain of children and families in Florida. What he doesn’t have the power to do is make all the pain go away. No one can. Which is to “excuse” nothing, but explain much.

Here is the reality, ladies and gentlemen, for the work in which you are engaged: The Department of Children and Families is the state’s toughest job. It is significantly underfunded and significantly underappreciated. It has come to be the handiest, most kneejerk scapegoat for all of society’s shortfalls. The “blame game” is the easiest way to strike back at those in power – Democrat, Republican, left or right or middle. The “cottage industry” in criticism grows like a noxious weed.

To be sure, money is crucial, and more of it is needed (most especially if we are to make community-based care the great good it can be, most especially if we are to make a real dent in matters of caseloads and compensation). But DCF’s challenges cannot be met only by spending more dollars. We begin by recognizing this agency is a huge enterprise already; we also realize, of course, that it is very difficult to be nimble when one is more battleship than busy bee. The department now spends something in the territory of $4 billion a year, much of it on the 24,000 employees who are involved in the lives of 48,000 children. While I strongly believe we need to invest more money, I just as strongly believe we need to take a constantly close look at how wisely we spend the dollars we already have.

I yearn, most especially, for the department to have the flexibility to spend its money the way the department thinks wisest. That, in a world of provisos and regulations, is often not the case. But it must be for the department – and you – to be truly effective.

As a matter of fairness, this must be said: The department does far more right than wrong, which is not to excuse the shortcomings.

I saw much that was right as I chaired the Governor’s panel on child protection this past year. Our final report said this: “We come away from the public hearings with the impression of fine people throughout the ranks of the department – from top administrators to people in the field. This is not a department populated by stodgy, uncreative human beings; we heard and saw considerable examples of innovation.”

Chairing the panel was an extraordinary learning experience for me. I’m a person who edited and published newspapers for decades…a person who still reads at least two newspapers closely every single day. I’ve been a part of Florida since the 1950s, a man deeply involved in my community and my state…and you might have thought I wouldn’t have needed to learn so much, that I would have known it before. Truth to tell, in more than 30 hours of listening to public testimony and countless more hours in reading quite literally thousands of pages of documents, I was humbled by what I didn’t know, by what I came to know.

What I came to know, in some detail, is how hard and well most people in DCF work…how underpaid so many are…how caseloads are frequently way too high…how complicated the money flows are…how difficult it is to ensure accountability…how too many communities and too many people think all this is DCF’s job, and not theirs…how what we call a “system” is a long distance away from anything that is a genuine, true system. I came away with a renewed respect for the power and necessity of leadership and vision. I came away with a hope that the people of Florida -– and their elected representatives, the legislators –- would face up to what the real needs are of children and families. That has not happened yet, though I can see progress.

I speak this morning from these vantage points: As someone who cares deeply about his own family and his own community, as chair of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection, as longtime journalist, as early childhood advocate, as a Floridian, as a person old enough, scarred enough, to have accumulated experience and some wisdom…and as a person who works hard to be fair. I’m passionate about my work -– in newspapers, with children, with anything.

My idealism led me to journalism, my first career. I loved journalism, loved it so much that I never missed a day of work in 35 years at seven newspapers. But I also see the shortcomings – the short attention span (worse than ever in this day and age when Fox so-called “news” sets the tone for most in the media)…the inability or unwillingness to do coverage of real context most of the time…the hunger to grab a headline at the expense of genuine public understanding.

This is not about “good” news vs. “bad” news. Fact of the matter is that “good” and “bad” depend on the eye of the beholder. Rather it is about the increasing inability of citizens to get a full portrait of who’s working and what’s working in society. Some (but not all) of the reason for that is that most of the media energies are focused on serving titillating table scraps that fall to the floor of society rather than the meat and potatoes of information that when fully digested help citizens to be informed so they can make the wisest decisions for themselves and their neighbors and, yes, their country. My message on the media this morning does not hearken to the age-old human appetite to “kill the messenger.” Quite to the contrary: I know better than most what great service journalism -– real journalism – provides at its most purposeful, most honest, most helpful. But who can deny that we live in a time of media excesses and media feeding frenzies? The “gotcha” crowd surely sets the pace these days. Shame on us for buying it, reading it, listening to it, watching it, wallowing in it.

Kayla McKean would have us be and do better than that. So would Bradley McGhee. And, yes, of course, Rilya Wilson. And I should mention Zachary Bennett. And Kelton Wright. And Deondre Bonieumatre. Pray for them. Pray for the names of the children whose names we never hear and never see. And know that God would have us do more than pray. He would have us do.

We must do much more.

But not another study. Please. Everybody knows, or surely should, what needs to be done. The latest report, from Maximus and Florida State, underscored what you already know: That is, too frequently “The emphasis is largely on meeting deadlines, responding to inquiries that are currently under scrutiny by advocates, management of the media and responding to immediate crises.” It seems obvious to me that the people of DCF cannot be fully effective when the focus is on the latest emergency and the next emergency and the never-ending emergency. The most important point, in any event, should not be about “process,” which was much of the theme of the Maximus report. More “process improvements” cannot make the eventual, essential difference. Nothing can ever really change enough without professional education and continuing training. That requires real respect for the credentials, real respect for the agency, and real dollars to pay for and keep the most highly qualified people. Furthermore, I say with real respect for the thousands of highly qualified people at DCF that one cannot make up for those who are unqualified by implementing more rules.

The department’s greatest test will be moving away from an emphasis mostly built on compliance issues (children seen, forms completed, and so forth) to an emphasis on actual outcomes. Are, in fact, people getting better? Are families receiving the services they really need to succeed? Are families succeeding because of our efforts? How can we prove that? I am not telling you that any of this is easy, but the future of families and the future of Florida depends on this.

It all begins, of course, with children and families. Families need honest and sensitive assessments of what’s going wrong. Families need services that help them with the everyday life situations that are causing their problems. Families need services that don’t interfere with their lives and create artificial conditions that can’t continue once the service ends. (The negative atmosphere that brings about abuse and neglect doesn’t often get solved overnight or even in the couple of weeks that current programs provide so-called intensive services to families.) Families need trained people – culturally sensitive, respectful people — to sit down with them to offer concrete help and encouragement.

“Process,” again, is not the key word here. But rather “attitude.” Real customer service. Too often, too, families and services are caught up in the turf battles between agencies and institutions. This just shouldn’t happen. We – they – all need to work as a team if we are truly to help families and develop continuity. Community-based care, properly done, would be a great example of that.

And all of this must be outcome-driven. Real results. Measurable results. Get the fundamentals right. Align prevention programs with high-quality child care, the school systems and job programs.

And please do not forget about the community. There are vast resources to be tapped in every Florida community. I think in my own community of the overwhelming passage last fall of The Children’s Trust, which will provide up to $60 million a year focused on early intervention and prevention. How can these dollars be used most wisely, most effectively? How do we build real partnerships? How do we require real outcomes for the programs we fund. Those are the discussions going on right now.

I think of the community-wide early childhood initiative in Miami-Dade. How we focus on all 31,000 children born each year in our community. The partnerships we have built with 13 birthing hospitals, 5 birthing centers, 38 neighborhood clinics, 39 branch libraries. The books – in Spanish, English and Creole – we deliver to every new parent. The website and 24-hour phone lines, in three languages, with basic information to help parents and caregivers.

Let me give you another example:

The 20 Child Advocacy Centers in Florida are committed to reducing trauma to child victims of abuse and neglect and to coordinate various activities involved in the investigation process. These multi-disciplinary teams include representatives from DCF, local law enforcement, state attorneys, child protection teams (from the Department of Health), mental health and victim advocacy providers. These teams make decisions regarding the investigation, treatment services and prosecution of perpetrators. The teams are locally operated and funded. Some centers have received state funds but a variety of other sources have been tapped including local donations, grants from local governments, private foundations. It, in brief, is the sort of teamwork that makes a difference in the lives of many children, many families.

Or how about the Crisis Nursery partnerships with United Way and Children’s Services Councils and the Department of Children and Families in Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties? It’s a first-rate program that makes a great difference in the lives of more than 500 families.

We will never get to a good enough future without genuine partnerships, community by community.

In that spirit of partnership, let me close with a half-dozen things I’d encourage you to focus on…thoughts built from my own experience of working in a community and my belief that things really can get better. And I begin with exactly that one:

Do everything you can to make the community your partner. Do not see your resources simply as those in a line-item budget. Figure out what your clients need; work with the leadership in your own community to figure out where other resources are. Know that there are good, caring people all around us, and enlist their help, too. People love to be asked to help. Truly. Community-based care, for one example, can only work if we involve far more people and money than DCF has.

No. 2: Get the basics right. Child by child. Family by family. People don’t grow in bunches. Invest in the individual. It is an attitude of one-by-one-by-one that will lead us to enduring progress and individual human successes.

No. 3: Do everything you possibly can in the earliest years of children’s lives. The wisest resources we could possibly spend in our state would be time and money –- and love –- in the first few years of life. Do those years right, and we have enormous evidence that children grow up to be contributing, successful adults. Prevention and early intervention are the answers. Think of all children; all children need love and nurturing, all their shots, stimulating child care, a quality pre-K experience, health insurance.

No. 4: Treat every child, every parent as special. Treat every child, every parent as you would want to be treated yourself. Accept differences. Try to avoid falling back on “the rules” as the first answer to most things. Avoid being judgmental. Respect, real respect, goes such a long way. You are not the “parent,” nor should you be. Assume the best in people; they will give you far more that way. It is all right to be skeptical; it is not all right to be cynical. There is a difference. Most parents truly want to do right by their children. Don’t ever forget that. Please.

No. 5: Love your job. Love it despite the problems. Love it despite the pay. (Good people, I remind you, never are compensated well enough. Never.) Love it despite the hours. Love it for the moments of joy created by the difference you make, in small and large ways, in other people’s lives. There is no higher reward on earth. If the day comes when you don’t enjoy going to work in the morning, find something else to do. You will have been there long enough.

No. 6: In the spirit of what the Secretary said this morning, know the power within yourself. Know the power of yourself. The greatest stories in the history of humankind reflected the power of one. You do not need to be governor, you do not need to be secretary of the Department of Children and Families to make a difference in other lives.

Let us not permit ourselves to fail. Should we fail, ladies and gentlemen, I remind you of the words of the great psychiatrist, Karl Menninger: “What we do to children,” said Dr. Menninger, “they will do to society.”

I have great faith in you, great faith in what you already do, how much you care, what difference you make…what difference you will make.

Indeed, I count on you. And I thank you. And God bless you.