TALLAHASSEE — The head of the state's child welfare agency told a House committee Tuesday that the child deaths documented by the Miami Herald exposed a gap in the state's safety net and, for the first time, she acknowledged it will take more services, and money, to fix it.
However, Esther Jacobo, interim secretary of the Department of Children & Families, maintained that the agency does not need to change its policies related to removing high-risk children from unsafe homes in the wake of the Herald's "Innocents Lost" series.
"We need to identify what those additional services are and what additional resources we may need,'' she said, noting that the resource levels may vary from region to region.
The Herald chronicled the deaths of 477 children over six years whose families had a history with DCF. The stories found that the number of children who died of abuse or neglect spiked after child welfare administrators implemented an intensive family-preservation program that reduced the number of children in state care while slashing services and oversight for those who remained with troubled families.
Jacobo held up a copy of the Herald and told the House Healthy Families Subcommittee that she had read the series, noting that it gave a face to child welfare issues that are not unique to Florida.
"I think that the takeaway is that we as Floridians are . . . really working together to find solutions,'' she said after the meeting. "The conversations are all leading in the direction that something absolutely will be done."
Jacobo emphasized, however, that the solution is not to change the family-preservation policy, but to increase the tools the agency has to protect children at high risk of abuse or neglect. She also said the agency may need to present better cases before judges when it seeks to remove children from unsafe homes.
"If it's high risk and we don't have the services, the answer is not to walk away,'' she said. "The answer is to have court action if necessary.''
Jacobo acknowledged that the Herald series highlighted the problem of so-called "safety plans," which extract promises from parents that they will change their behavior, often with little or no follow-up action by caseworkers.
In at least 83 of the child deaths reviewed by the Herald over the six-year period, parents had agreed to one or more safety plans.
"Part of the problem is, safety plans are not verifiable and they are not addressing the safety issues,'' Jacobo said.
She said that if investigators haven't prepared a strong enough case to persuade a judge to remove a child from a home, the agency must rely on the family to accept services voluntarily.
"We need to do a better job of finding the right evidence,'' she said.
Jacobo said DCF is conducting an analysis to determine what gaps there are in the way these cases are treated in various regions across the state, since community-based care providers often have varying degrees of resources and approaches. She said that to provide more resources to fill the gaps will "probably" require more money "but I don't know what that looks like yet."
A Herald review of the Florida budget found that as overall state spending grew by $10 billion between 2005 and 2013, the resources devoted to child welfare dropped by $80 million.
Gov. Rick Scott has recommended spending nearly $40 million in the coming fiscal year to hire 400 new child protective investigators, but his plan does not include additional money to serve children and families once they're in the system.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said revamping the system will take "tens of millions" in new resources, and added he is "committed to doing what we need to do."
"It's been the Senate's intention right along that we will invest more money on a recurring basis in developing a child welfare system that is more professional, that's more effective and less porous — and, hopefully, will be a system we can be proud of instead of one we can be horrified at," he said.
The House and Senate have undertaken a rewrite of the state's child welfare laws since a series of Herald stories last summer highlighted the deaths of children whose families had DCF histories.
The legislative proposals vary, but primarily focus on improving the training and expertise of investigators, creating a new assistant secretary for child welfare, upgrading "safety plans" and reforming the way the state handles medically fragile children.
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said the Herald series underscored the need to shift the state standard of care for vulnerable children from "adequate" to comprehensive.
Rep. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, urged the committee to use the stories chronicled in the series to strengthen the proposed legislation by requiring that appropriate services be provided to at-risk families "so that children can be safe in their home."
"My takeaway from the article is that a lot of the problems were because we weren't getting the appropriate services to the parents,'' she said.
Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, chair of the House Healthy Families Subcommittee, urged the audience to read the series. "We need to know what's happening out there,'' she said. "When you read those cases, you just want to say: 'Why didn't we do something?' ''
She said the increased attention to the plight of vulnerable children "will change the system."
"We are going to do everything in our power to stop children from dying at the hands of an abuser,'' Harrell said.