April 24, 2014

Department of Children and Families

A Steely Resolve

Finally, a leader who can steer DCF onto the right path.

Neil Skene | 11/1/2005
LEADING ROLE: Lucy Hadi -- once chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings (left) -- has good political relationships and management skills.
Lucy Hadi has a job that has chewed up almost everybody who has held it, in one administration after another. She's the head of Florida's sprawling Department of Children and Families, once known in an even more sprawling form as Health and Rehabilitative Services. She is the third person to hold the job under Gov. Jeb Bush, and it looks like this time he got it right.

At 59 and a year into the job, Hadi is a flurry of activity. She has a warm heart and a steely resolve. She is a social worker with good political relationships and management skills. She wants to make decisions based on data, not opinions. "What you measure is what you treasure," she tells her staff.

Hadi isn't the cocky out-of-stater who packed a conservative ideology, didn't get along with legislators and tolerated loose ethics, as her predecessor, Jerry Regier, was. Hadi also isn't the well-regarded juvenile judge and DCF critic with little experience running a large bureaucracy or managing political crises, as was Regier's predecessor, Kathleen Kearney. Hadi has been close to the agency's own front lines as a DCF district administrator. She spent five years on the Florida Senate staff. And she has a long relationship with Bush as the deputy administrator of the Agency on Workforce Innovation and as a top aide in his office, including chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings.

Even Democrats seem to be pulling for Hadi. "The fact that we have a trusted professional at the top allows us to move ahead," says Democratic state Sen. Nan Rich of Broward County, who follows DCF issues closely and has known Hadi a long time.

Maybe, then, Hadi is the person who can manage and invigorate the department while putting the political debates where they really belong -- on the policies of the governor and the Legislature.

Which is what Karen Gievers would like to talk about. Gievers, a Tallahassee lawyer, filed a class-action lawsuit against the agency in 2000 in an effort to improve inadequate supervision of foster care. "The care of children is not improving," she says. "The splintering of the department and multilayering of contracts removes accountability. Basically there's less money for front-line people. More and more things are shoved onto the community-based care providers."

Rich disagrees. "I'm not saying it's all it should be, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel." But DCF "is certainly under the constraint of not being one of the better-funded child-welfare agencies in the nation."

Hadi says client care really is improving. For example, there were more adoptions in the past two years than in the previous five. "If you look at the actual increase in investment, from the governor's first budget forward, his investment in things that matter to human beings has been nothing short of incredible," she says. Bush's last budget boasted of a 135% increase in "programs" at DCF during his tenure.

DCF also launched a program called "Access Florida," which puts computers in all sorts of places, from libraries to local "action agencies," so that DCF's "customers" can apply online for benefits instead of going to a DCF office. Hadi impressed her staff by persuading Bush to let the agency develop the program internally rather than contracting it out.

Bush's due
So why doesn't Bush get more credit from critics? Partly because scandals have overshadowed progress, which actually was considerable under Regier in several areas, including staff turnover and a huge backlog in protective services. And partly because it took Gievers' class-action lawsuit and dramatic headlines about the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson from foster care in 2002 to dramatize the inadequacy of operations and spending at the department.

Privatization contracts with "community-based care" agencies are still a problem. A lot of those agencies weren't prepared when DCF dumped new responsibilities on them. Some are struggling financially. Technology to connect them to DCF
databases is behind schedule.

A big forehead-slapper was a memo from the supervisor of the Family Safety Program on Sept. 8, after a weekend of gas lines and spiraling gas prices. The memo suspended, except in high-risk cases, DCF's requirement that caseworkers personally visit every child under state supervision every month. Caseworkers could rely on contacts by other professionals. But DCF is still living down the fact that Rilya Wilson's caseworker hadn't seen her for a year before the disappearance. After the Miami Herald started asking questions on Sept. 15, Bush overruled the decision. A new memo said the need for the suspension "has abated."

The incident demonstrates the tightrope the agency walks. It has to serve more people with some of society's most intractable problems, do it better, cut administrative expenses, farm out its work to private agencies, oversee their operations and spending, retain good people, keep pay low and avoid bad headlines.

At a brownbag lunch with Hadi in August, protective-services caseworkers in Tallahassee -- who have to respond within 24 hours to reported threats to a child in a 14-county area -- told Hadi they love their jobs but are hampered by a lack of voicemail, by cell phones that don't work in many areas and by the need to return to the office to get new reports because they cannot download them to their old laptops.

Hadi said DCF's next budget request will include a "pilot program" of better cell phones. But the DCF phone system is so old that voicemail can't be added without replacing the whole system. Better laptops? Not next year.

Hadi knows there are doubters. "I think the picture most people have is of the 'F Troop,' or 'The Gang That Can't Shoot Straight,' " she says. "The failures are so stupendously important, because they involve human lives, that they can't see anything else. We understand that. But the staff of this agency and of our partner agencies are some of the most talented, most dedicated people that they will ever meet in their lives. It is an honor and a privilege to work among them. I'd also like to think that the staff is beginning to get the quality of management and leadership that they deserve, not necessarily from me, but from the cadre of middle managers and at our partner agencies."

She adds, "People come to us in desperation. If every day if we can become a little bit better, we reduce that desperation; we help people get on with their lives, so they can become productive citizens of the state."

Tags: Politics & Law, Around Florida, Government/Politics & Law

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