By Dara Kam Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 10:02 a.m. Thursday, March 24, 2011
Posted: 7:40 p.m. Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Post a Comment E-mail Print ShareLarger Type Small Type
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Department of Children and Families operates its abuse hot line like a “low-cost call center,” which contributed to the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona, the agency’s new secretary said Wednesday.
Speaking to a House Committee, David Wilkins, on the job for less than a month, blamed the hot line in part for a breakdown in communication within an “entire system (that) failed in the situation with the Barahonas.”
Wilkins, who has previously testified before lawmakers about his experience with “world class call centers” in his former job, told the House Health and Human Services Access Committee Wednesday that the Department of Children and Family’s call center needs an overhaul.
Wilkins recently retired after nearly three decades as an executive at Accenture, where he most recently oversaw the company’s global sales organization, which operates in more than 25 countries.
Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, asked Wilkins what he’s doing to fix the abuse hot line after workers apparently failed to connect four separate telephone calls about the Barahonas.
The problems came to light after Nubia’s body was found in a plastic bag in the back of Jorge Barahona’s pick-up along Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach last month. Her twin brother, Victor, covered in unknown toxic chemicals, was having seizures on the front seat, and Jorge, their adoptive father, was on the ground outside.
Jorge Barahona was moved Wednesday from the Palm Beach County Jail to the Miami-Dade County Jail to face murder charges in the death of Nubia, jail records indicate. Barahona and his wife, Carmen, are scheduled to appear before a circuit judge Thursday in Miami.
“When you get that many hot line abuse calls coming… that seem to be discounted … What are you putting in place to ensure those things aren’t happening?” Harrell asked.
Wilkins said part of the problem was that each operator received part of abuse complaints and the software did not allow workers to piece the story together.
“They have a very dated, antiquated technology at the call center,” Wilkins said, adding that he also wanted to “change the culture and intent of the hot line.”
Wilkins said operators are rated on how quickly they handle calls, something he intends to change.
“They have a low-cost call center mentality … You don’t want to get off the phone in this situation,” he said.
In one of the calls to the hot line about the Barahonas, he said, “you could tell the operator wanted to get off the phone because he’s measured by how long his call is.”
In the past, hot line workers were criticized for taking too long to answer calls, which caused callers to hang up before they could report potential abuse.
The system also is too process-oriented and operators are instructed to “just follow these orders,” Wilkins said. Hot line operators have to fill out forms on paper, then enter them into a computer system. A separate group of workers handles reports that have been entered incorrectly.
“The job’s got to be a little more investigative and counselor-type of mentality to ask probing questions,” Wilkins said.
A separate House committee approved a measure on Wednesday that would cap legal damages for private non-profit agencies providing foster care services for children like Nubia and Victor before they were adopted.
The bill (HB 1019) would cap financial awards for pain and suffering at between $200,000 and $1 million, and would limit economic damages at $2 million. It would also limit the amount of liability insurance the private agencies must carry from $1 million to $500,000.
A similar bill in the Senate has been held up by Sen. Rhonda Storms, R-Valrico, in her Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, but the concept may get help from Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
Chairman of the Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee, he said he will include the cap in his Medicaid overhaul.
He said the private agencies are unable to get insurance or having to face annual premium increases. He cited the Children’s Home Society of Florida in Winter Park, which he said informed him its policy would not be renewed “due to poor loss ratio.”
“We need to make sure these facilities are able to remain open to provide care,” Negron said. “My goal is make sure we have insurance available for these catastrophic cases.”
Staff writer Julius Whigham II contributed to this story