Class of 1980
Florida's child-welfare agency tapped a new leader to run the Miami district's operations.
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
State child-welfare chief Bob Butterworth, long hailed as ''Mr. Fixit'' after several stints cleaning up troubled local and state agencies, has appointed his own troubleshooter to help reorganize social services in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
The new chief of the Department of Children & Families in Miami, Alan Abramowitz, will oversee a program with a higher profile than before: Abramowitz will preside over DCF's newest regional office. Until now, the Miami circuit was administered out of a large South Florida region based in Fort Lauderdale.
The Miami posting will be the fourth time a DCF secretary has tapped Abramowitz to return a local district to an even keel following some meltdown. He served in West Palm Beach when the private foster care agency, Child & Family Connections, had more new foster children than it could handle, and had racked up a $3.7 million deficit.
He was then sent to Pinellas County when the private foster care agency in St. Petersburg, the Sarasota YMCA, lost its contract with the state following a report that was critical of the group's performance. Most recently, Abramowitz was dispatched to head DCF operations in Seminole and Brevard counties.
''He's our firefighter,'' DCF Deputy Secretary George Sheldon said of Abramowitz. ``We're excited about this. We think he's the right person at the right time.''
Abramowitz, 46, has had an eclectic career since lettering in football at Kansas State University: He served in the Judge Advocate General Corps, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand from 1990-92 and has been both a prosecutor and an assistant public defender.
Abramowitz said he's not sure the ''firefighter'' label fits exactly, but he's looking forward to helping reorganize DCF operations in a region that long has been beset by intractable problems such as poverty, a reluctance of some families to reach out for help, and internal strife between the state and contracted foster-care providers.
''By the time I get involved in anything, the horrible thing has already happened,'' Abramowitz said.
The Miami district has been led on an interim basis for about two years by Gilda Ferradaz, a longtime food-stamp and public-assistance administrator who had said early on that she had no ambition to lead Miami in the long term. Before that, the district chief was businessman and early-learning administrator Chuck Hood.
Sheldon said Abramowitz is expected to begin work in Miami on Monday.
Abramowitz's first priority after setting up shop in Miami will be to restore confidence among employees who sometimes feel as if they're navigating from one crisis to another. Especially in child protection, where a mistake can lead to the injury or death of a child, stakes are high, he said.
''You start losing confidence in yourself when leadership loses confidence in you,'' Abramowitz said. ``We can't make mistakes. We've got to get it right. We're not allowed bad days.''
In the longer term, Abramowitz said he wants to take advantage of a new state policy that, for the first time, allows Florida to spend federal child-welfare dollars to help preserve struggling families, rather than placing children in foster care when their parents hit a rough patch.
Foster care, Abramowitz said, should only be a last resort for children who cannot be safe living with their birth families. Being separated from their parents, and sometimes their siblings, can be extremely traumatic for children, he said, and investigators need to be as sensitive as possible.
''When you remove a child, you must understand that is the most important day in the child's life,'' Abramowitz said. ``You have to treat it as such. You cannot be cavalier.''
In Palm Beach County, after Abramowitz took over the reins, the number of children entering foster care dropped by 25 percent, with 500 fewer children entering state care, said Al Zimmerman, DCF's spokesman in Tallahassee. The safety of children in the area was never compromised, Zimmerman added.
''Alan really spent a lot time improving services to homes so children did not have to be removed,'' Zimmerman said. ``He said it was all about doing what it takes so that children are safe in their own homes.''
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen, who also heads Miami's Community-Based Care Alliance, which oversees Miami's private foster care program, said children's advocates are not only pleased with Abramowitz's appointment but with the way Butterworth handled it.
Butterworth dispatched his top deputy, Sheldon, to meet with Cohen, Miami's top juvenile court judge, Cindy Lederman, and other advocates before the appointment and to seek their input and advice, Cohen said.
''He came down. He spoke to us. He asked our opinion on several things,'' Cohen said of the deputy secretary. ``He is working very well with us.''
As for Abramowitz, Cohen added: ``He really will be able to shake the place up. That's what we need.''
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