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Head of Florida child welfare agency criticized over two cases
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Kathleen Kearney brought a lot of hope to the Florida Department of Children & Families when she was appointed secretary in 1999.
The department had been troubled for as long as anyone could remember, and Kearney -- a former prosecutor and judge and a "walking encyclopedia of child protection law" -- was one of the state's strongest child welfare advocates and a vocal critic of the department.
But now she is the one under fire.
The department has come under attack over two recent cases in which department workers allegedly lied about making visits to check up on children. In one case, the department learned 5-year-old Rilya Wilson was missing for more than a year; she still has not been found. In the other, a caseworker filed a report saying 2-year-old Alfredo Montez was fine, but police say he was beaten to death before the worker's reported visit.
The two cases have led to demands for Kearney's resignation from lawmakers and some child advocates.
So far, Kearney, 47, is standing firm. Department spokeswoman LaNedra Carroll said earlier this month that Kearney has no plans to resign and is making progress against problems that have been around for decades.
Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who is in the middle of a re-election campaign in which the Democrats have tried to turn the department's troubles against him, has been unwavering in his support of Kearney.
Support of governor
"The governor continues to have faith and confidence in Secretary Kearney's ability to protect the safety of Florida's children," Katie Muniz, Bush's spokeswoman, said earlier this month.
Bush and Kearney refused to be interviewed about Kearney's performance.
The governor has repeatedly boasted of improvements at the department, saying its child welfare budget has doubled over the last four years, adoptions have increased and caseloads have decreased.
But the department still has the same problems that plagued it before Kearney took over: a high turnover rate and overloaded caseworkers who struggle to keep track of the children assigned to them.
Some Democrats have been reminding voters that Bush promised to fix the agency when he ran for office for years ago.
No one who knows Kearney doubts her compassion for children. Her appointment was not considered a reward for loyalty to Bush.
She was a prosecutor and later a juvenile court judge in Fort Lauderdale, presiding over child abuse and neglect cases.
Bush's predecessor, Democrat Lawton Chiles, also recognized Kearney's expertise, tapping her for a child abuse task force.
"I don't think at the time of her appointment back in early '99 that there was a person in the state of Florida who knew more about the legal framework and the overall mission of the child protection system than Kathleen Kearney," said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children. "She basically was the walking encyclopedia of child protection law in Florida."
But her critics question her ability to handle a department with 27,000 employees and a $4 billion budget.
"Secretary Kearney came to the job as a child advocate, a judge who was compassionate as it relates to children, but I don't think she possesses the administrative or managerial skills that it would take to run an agency with so many problems," said Democratic state Rep. Frederica Wilson. She called on the governor to conduct a nationwide search for a replacement.
Karen Gievers, a Tallahassee lawyer and president of the Children's Advocacy Foundation, said she was among those who were hopeful when Kearney was appointed. She has since lost that hope.
"What we've seen in the 3 1/2 years that she's been here is someone who still wants to come across as being well-intentioned but who still doesn't have the job mastered," she said. "And quite frankly, 3 1/2 years of on-the-job training is too long."
But Linda Spears of the Child Welfare League of America said that the department has made some gains under Kearney, and that demanding immediate change from child welfare agencies instead of patiently trying to work through problems often means improvements are not given time to take hold.
"They can choose to blame a commissioner," Spears said. "In my view, that rarely helps."