TALLAHASSEE — The question before the Senate committee was simple: Why did Florida's child welfare system fail to protect the more than 40 children who are known to have died under its care between January and July?
Six experts, including the secretary of the Department of Children and Families, had theories, but no answers, at Tuesday's three-hour hearing of the Senate Children and Families Committee.
Child protective investigators and caseworkers are ill-equipped and over-worked, was a common conclusion. The family safety plans — programs designed by the department to keep children safe — are inadequate, ineffective or unused, others said. And all concluded that Florida does little to break the recurring cycle of abused kids becoming abusive parents.
The committee's goal is to convert those theories into legislation "to create a culture of safety for our most vulnerable children," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, the committee chair.
The experts made recommendations: from hiring skilled social workers, curbing turnover, drastically reducing worker caseloads, restoring budget cuts to providing more resources for mental health and substance abuse programs.
"There are no silver bullets,'' Sobel concluded. "But I really believe there might be a silver lining if we all work together."
Christina Spudeas, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Florida Children's First, chastised the DCF for reducing its quality assurance staff by 72 percent and allowing agencies to contract with each other to provide the required third-party review.
"In order for us as a community to put in place the proper system is to No. 1, have an awareness that these things are happening," Spudeas said. "This recent rash of child deaths is alarming but how do we know this is unusual. If it weren't for the Miami Herald and that series of reports, I don't know that we would be here today."
Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, 365 children have died because of reported abuse in Florida, said DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo, as horrendous as this sounds, she said, it's lower than in recent years.
DCF asked the Casey Family Programs to study 40 of those deaths in which families had interactions with the child welfare system.
The scathing report, delivered Monday, found that when the agency was warned that children in high-risk situations were vulnerable to abuse, it rarely intervened in a meaningful way, botched its investigations and left children in troubled homes without a plan to protect them.
Jacobo summarize the findings of the Casey Report to the Senate committee and, at a hearing before the House Healthy Families Subcommittee, she outlined her agency's response. Neither committee had seen the report and did not discuss it.
"We've seen these for many years,'' Jacobo told the Senate committee. "These are not something new."
Jacobo said a principal focus of her agency will be on training child protection investigators in new safety plans that, she said, will be a "national model." While there is no additional money set aside for the program, she was confident there would be more resources in the future.
"We're already in discussions with the governor's office about additional resources in child welfare,'' she said. "So yes, we are going to be talking about more resources."
John Tupps, spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, said that the budget cuts are because the governor is "prioritizing spending on critical services" as he crafts the budget and emphasized that "vital child protective services will not be reduced."
Jacobo acknowledged that Scott has asked her agency to cut its budget next year despite these needs and has acknowledged that if hundreds of positions are not restored, the ability of the agency to protect children will be hurt. But, she said, she is confident the cuts won't come from child welfare programs and is hopeful that previous budget cuts will be restored.
"Less positions in the field or less positions in quality assurance are big issues for us and we are definitely talking about how to restore those things,'' she said.
She said that protecting children is "a top priority for the governor."
"We're going to ask for what we need,'' she said. "I'm very confident that with the kind of information that we now have, and the kind of analysis, we will get what we need and the governor will be happy to champion that for us."
She added, however, that she cannot predict there will not be another child death.
"What I can assure everyone is we are working towards making the system better. We are putting in safeguards,'' she said. "... but can I guarantee it to you and the public? I can't guarantee what people are going to do to children but we will do our best to keep them safe."