THE DCF CASE
Once a call goes into the hotline, DCF has 60 days to investigate the report. Jones, already a mom of four, spent those days trying to convince the agency of the teen’s medical neglect inflicted on her by her own mother.
Jones met Shamika in October after she had a sleepover with her step-daughter. When Jones went to drop Shamika off at her mom's house, that's when she started to see signs of mistreatment, eventually leading her to call DCF and ask for consent to get the teen treatment.
Her fight to help the 16-year-old didn't come without obstacles, Jones says.
“[Shamika’s mother] told her that if DCF gets involved she will come after her and she will kill her,” said Jones. “I think [DCF is] trying to buy the sixty days to let it close again and then it gets pushed under the rug.”
Once the 60 days passed, DCF chose to close the case, claiming no evidence of medical neglect by the biological mother. However, two days after closing the investigation Shamika ended up in the Emergency Room due to the infections in her mouth.
“FROM JUST THE TEETH, I THINK THAT THERE'S A HUGE POSSIBILITY THAT IT COULD BECOME FATAL TO HER." - Kaycee Jones, Caretaker
The hospital visit eventually led to Jones gaining power of attorney and becoming Shamika’s full-time caregiver.
Experts in the field including, former DCF investigators, say the agency has always had issues.
HISTORY OF ISSUES
Former DCF Investigators, that wanted to remain anonymous, tell Fox 4 the agency is often described as “overworked, undertrained, and understaffed.”
“YOU CANNOT PREDICT HUMAN BEHAVIOR. YOU CAN GO OUT THERE AND THE NEXT DAY THE KID IS DEAD.” - Former DCF Investigator
One former DCF investigator says caseloads were often an obstacle.
“Sometimes it would spike to 75 cases,” she explained. “I don’t think I ever had any less than 25 cases.”
In an email obtained by Fox 4, the investigator on Shamika’s case claimed to have “30..”, a number DCF later disputed. The agency explained the investigator never had any more than 12, with a manageable load being 17.
The former investigator says while issues begin with the overburdened caseloads, it is the lack of training she cites as a major contributor to children not getting the proper help they need. She compared the work to practicing medicine without hands-on training.
“When you’re in medical school you have to cut open a dead body, when you’re an investigator you don’t have to go to an autopsy of a six month old baby, before you have to go to the autopsy of a 6 month old baby.”
The Department says a typical training period last about six weeks before an investigator moves on to a reduced caseload for their first three months on the job.
Nonetheless, another former DCF investigator explains the job is difficult for anyone no matter the type of training they have due to the severe amount of consequences that come with every decision made.
“You cannot predict human behavior. You can go out there and the next day the kid is dead.”
ADDRESSING THE ISSUE
The Department of Children and Families cited “confidentiality” as a “way not to go into detail” for Shamika’s case.
Former court advocate for children now private attorney, Scot Goldberg, is convinced the issues Shamika faced in her case is a result of a low budget in the system.
"DCF are understaffed, underpaid and undertrained," he said. "And it's not their fault, it's a budgetary thing."
The agency pointed to a proposal for more funding as a solution to ease the daily work of their investigators. They provided this statement to Fox 4:
Nevertheless, Goldberg believes cases like Shamika’s, need to go beyond the investigation process and be settled in front of a judge.
But her case never saw that next step: the inside of a courtroom.
“POWER OF ATTORNEY MAY WORK WHEN SHE HAS TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL BUT WHAT ABOUT SCHOOL? WHAT ABOUT IF SHE WANTS TO GO OUT OF TOWN?” - Scot Goldberg, Former Guardian ad Litem
With every child that enters into the court system, comes a group of people all needing to be at the table, says Goldberg.
One group is the Guardian ad Litem, a voluntary person who serves as the voice of the child in court, solely focused on the child’s best interests.
“If it wasn’t for the Guardian ad Litem’s office, I would be afraid that more kids would be left behind,” said Goldberg.
Child advocates says in an ideal world each child would have a GAL in court, but realistically that’s not the case.
"When children are coming into care in such a great rate, we cannot keep up,” explained Guardian ad Litem Director, Holly Rodriguez.
According to GAL, the number of Florida children entering out-of-home care rose 13.7 percent in the last two-and-a-half years. The volunteer program is only able to represent 55 percent of those kids.
Rodriguez explains that a judge is required to hear the assessment of GAL, which can include services for the child or family such as counseling. She also says they can give recommendations of house placement, but was clear GAL’s first goal is always family reunification to avoid sending children into out-of-home care.
“FAMILY REUNIFICATION IS ALWAYS THE GOAL” - Holly Rodriguez, Guardian ad Litem Director of Lee County
Marian Scirrotto , who has watched children dependency courts for over 30 years, says that she too-often sees the latter happening in Southwest Florida.
“It’s always supposed to be the goal, family reunification. I don’t see that here,” said Scirrotto.
Rodriguez says they were involved with 235 reunifications last year.
And when a child is unable to be reunified with their family, live with another relative, or a caregiver, they head into the last step of the system -- foster care.
There are currently 718 children in foster care, as of February 19, and only 495 foster homes, according to data from the Children’s Network . One foster parent says the system needs more to help out.
“There’s not enough of anything. There’s just an overabundance of kids coming in,” said Kelley Ladd, a foster mom.
Ladd tells Fox 4 she’s been a licensed foster parent for the past five years, fostering over 22 children in her time along with raising her own biological children. She says she always has a full house. “Everything is about babies and baby dolls,” said Ladd.
“Even though we have children of our own, we just always said we’ll always have room for one more child.”
But she says the past couple of years she has seen an increase of children coming into to the foster care system. Lee County leads the way in Circuit 20, with 456 kids in care, according to the Children’s Network.
A spokesperson tells Fox 4:
“Top reasons for removal are: Drug abuse by parents and inadequate supervision by parents. These removal reasons typically go hand in hand. In January 2018, there were 87 removals as a result of these two maltreatments.”
For Ladd, she says it takes a special person to become a foster parent, but being one isn’t the only way someone can help.
“I don’t think people realize there are more ways to get involved than just being a foster parent.”
YOUR HELP IS NEEDED
Advocates say children of Southwest Florida need your help and the system cannot do it alone. After hearing the voices of this story from the Department of Children and Families, to the Guardian ad Litem, to the Foster Care system, here are ways they say you can get involved.
Be a Guardian ad Litem
Guardian ad Litem’s are purely volunteers looking to serve as the voice of the child in a court setting. If interested, fill out a volunteer application on their website.
Be a Foster
Parent If you are interested in finding more information about becoming a foster parent, the Children’s Network encourages you to call 1-855-933-KIDS or visit the website at www.childnetswfl.org
Be a Mentor
Children’s Network has opportunity for mentoring where adults can help mentor young parents through their Family Mentoring Program. If interested, call Pam Malik at 239-218-7557 or reach her by email at PMalik@cnswfl.org.
Be a Donor
Kelley Ladd is a board member of Donate4Kidz, a non-profit that focuses on children entering into foster care. They say, “In addition to basic necessities children also receive toys, books, school supplies, a blanket and other items to help them feel comfortable. These packages are for the children to keep and carry with them on their journey.”