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FIRST-PERSON: Government no substitute for good and competent parents

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–The Florida Department of Children and Families is just one of many such agencies nationally that exist as oversight entities, ostensibly, to provide protective services for society’s most vulnerable members: at risk children and families that are at or are near insolvency.

The disappearance of little Rilya Wilson has placed this Florida agency under intense public scrutiny. A woman posing as a social worker for the Department of Children and Families came to the home of Rilya, where she lived with her grandmother, to claim custody of her. Sadly, it appears that Rilya was abducted under that ruse. No one in the family and no agent of the Department of Children and Families even realized that a person unknown to her family or to them had taken Rilya — for over a year! Florida’s citizens and the rest of the nation have been aghast at the discovery.

Everyone involved — the child’s parents, her grandmother, the welfare agency and its workers — now point the finger of blame at everyone else. But, indisputably, little Rilya is still missing.

On May 14, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill into law that makes it a crime to falsify documents concerning the disposition of a case of a child under the state’s caretaking.

Bush also has proposed improving the salaries of its caseworkers and stands, undaunted, in support of Kathleen Kearney, the official who heads the troubled agency.

Despite all the political and legal activities that have ensued since Rilya’s disappearance, the question remains an extremely disturbing one: How does a 5-year-old girl go missing for more than 15 months before anyone notices she is gone and raises alarm?

All of the aforementioned parties share some responsibility for the care and safety of Rilya and share also in some blame for her disappearance. A lion’s share belongs to the Department of Children and Families.

Importantly, this tragedy reveals just how seriously flawed is the assumption in Florida that its Department of Children and Families can serve as a viable substitute for good and competent parents. This is not possible.

This government agency, like all others, lacks the most important trait of loving parents — the parents’ heart. It does not feel and it does not have eyes that can see and respond to compelling human needs with the immediacy, the compassion and the protectiveness of loving parents.

While the Department does what it does, the only hearts, eyes and hands that connect with the lives and needs of its constituency of children and families, are its caseworkers.

If humanity is to ever become a visible aspect of the Florida Department of Children and Families — its character and culture, the way it does business — its leaders must make this a core value that its caseworkers can embrace and implement in practical ways.

What Rilya really needed before her disappearance was the unconditional advocacy of loving, caring, protective parents, or a loving protective community support system, or both. Unfortunately, instead, she was inflicted with a remote, overwhelmed government bureaucracy,.

44,600 other children are in the custody Florida Department of Children and Families. In May alone, according to the Miami Herald, 1,232 of these children are missing; they have not received the state-mandated visits they were to have by caseworkers assigned to look after their care.

So many failures should be a catalyzing force to prompt discussion and effective action that leads to answers about how to encourage and support stable and grounded families, where the needs and concerns of children are placed first.
Terriel R. Byrd, Ph.D., is assistant professor of religion and director of ethnic church ministries at Palm Beach Atlantic College, West Palm Beach, Fla.

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  • Terriel Byrd