Regier Called to Rescue Child Protection in Fla.

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Jerry Regier, former head of the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and a leader in government programs to encourage marriage, has moved to Florida to help fix the state’s child protection mess – which is an issue in Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) re-election bid.

Child advocates hope last month’s resignation of Kathleen Kearney as director of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) will bring changes to the embattled agency and the youth it serves.

As Oklahoma’s secretary of Health and Human Services, Regier recently implemented a $10 million marriage initiative to reduce the state’s divorce rate and the number of single mothers on welfare. A former Republican candidate for governor of Oklahoma, Regier headed OJDDP under President George H.W. Bush, served as director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and in 1981 founded the Family Research Council, a conservative policy institute in Washington.

He takes over an agency wracked with low morale and plagued by scandal.

Kearney, a former juvenile court judge, was picked by Jeb Bush in 1999. But high-profile agency foul-ups brought national media attention, beginning with the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson (See “A Child Welfare System Resists Treatment,” June 2002).

Although Wilson vanished from her Miami foster home in January 2001, DCF officials were unaware of her disappearance until April 2002. Social workers had falsified reports stating they had visited the girl several times in the 15-month period. She has not been found.

Kearney’s troubles were compounded in July by several incidents, including charges that a DCF caseworker fabricated an abuse investigation of a boy who later turned up dead. The caseworker said she visited the home of 2-year-old Alfredo Montes on July 1 and found him in good health. Police believe Montes was miles away that day with a babysitter who was later accused of beating him to death for soiling his pants.

Also in July, reporters from the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale found nine children who were listed as missing by the child-welfare agency. Several children were found within hours; some of the children had been listed as missing for years.

And a DCF counselor was fired in July after she was found in a drunken stupor in her car with a 7-month-old foster child in the back seat.

State legislators, including several Republicans, have publicly complained in recent months about Bush’s progress on improving the agency. That public scrutiny is going to become more intense with the appointment of Regier.

“The governor is going to be tested, not only for his compassion but his concentrated actions on this critical foster-care agenda,” said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida’s Children. “He is being revisited under his watch by some of the very same problems and conditions that he criticized during his election campaign.”

When running four years ago, Bush pledged to fix the DCF, an agency that has been criticized, dissected, renamed and reorganized a half-dozen times in the past two decades.

“That agency is going to take a super-management team,” said Frank Orlando, director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at NOVA Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. “That agency does nothing but put out fires daily.”

Given the state of the agency she inherited, Orlando said, Kearney should not be judged too harshly.

“I don’t know if anybody under the circumstances could have done a better job,” said Orlando, a former juvenile court judge. “I got the feeling she actually knew what the problems really are and how to solve them. … I just don’t think she got the support she needed.”

The governor issued a statement thanking Kearney for her service and saying, “The recent tragedies have underscored the need for a community-based care model and for the expansion of efforts such as the Guardian Ad Litem program.”

Of Regier, Bush’s statement said, “Jerry’s professional experience has been dedicated to improving the quality of life for children and families.”

Contact: Department of Children and Families, (850) 487-1111.