Neil Skene got the call out of the blue.
It was early February, and Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth needed help.
The department was in peril after the arrest of its press secretary, Al Zimmerman, on child pornography charges. And that was on the heels of a scathing report on the department's foster care system.
Butterworth wanted to reform the department and institute a new way of thinking — something he called "the two senses: a sense of urgency and sense of common sense."
He needed outside help.
"I needed people on the outside to look into the agency with an outside perspective," Butterworth said. "The agency itself was beaten up."
Skene, a journalist-turned-media consultant, was hired as a temporary employee at $43 an hour. He began writing speeches, handling special projects and creating a more "open" department overall.
"They've been trained for years to keep their mouths shut, but there are things they can say," Skene, a columnist for Florida Trend, said of the changes he's trying to make. "They can help people find the information to the extent we can release it. Training is a lot of that."
Skene, who previously worked for the St. Petersburg Times, is one of four outside "special counsel" people Butterworth has tapped since 2007 to serve in managerial roles.
He hired Jim Sewell, a former assistant commissioner for the Florida Department Law Enforcement; Florence Snyder Rivas, a well-known First Amendment lawyer; and Nancy Barshter, a former lawyer for the Attorney General's Office.
The "fab four," as Butterworth calls them, have been paid a total of $201,046.42 as of May 15, according to the department. All are temporary employees and paid hourly.
Butterworth took over in 2007 at the request of Gov. Charlie Crist. It was a low period for the department that oversees a wide range of services for the state, including foster care, help for the mentally ill and child abuse prevention.
Previous DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi had been charged in late 2006 with contempt of court and fined $80,000 for letting mentally ill people linger in the prison system. Months after Butterworth's placement, a state review revealed major flaws in the Sarasota YMCA, the agency hired to manage more than 3,000 foster children in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Inside the department, morale and professionalism were low, Butterworth said. Child welfare lawyers, for example, had gained a reputation for showing up to court unprepared.
The DCF was considered the most ineffective agency in the state, Butterworth said. Shortly after he took over, the Legislature gave him approval to reorganize.
Butterworth said he sought people with experience in areas that needed the most improvement, including organization, legal matters and communication.
He called on Sewell, a longtime acquaintance. The two first worked together in the 1980s, when Butterworth oversaw the state's highway safety department and Sewell chaired a committee that looked at the department's management.
Sewell has helped reorganize the DCF. He moved to align its circuit offices with judicial circuits. Previously, a local DCF office could have court cases in three different court jurisdictions.
Butterworth also drew on his past when he enlisted Barshter, a former assistant attorney general who once sat on the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee. The pair worked together when Butterworth was attorney general.
Barshter and Sewell have worked to revamp the DCF's legal system. Previously, its lawyers were not properly versed on the background of the children they were representing.
The legal department is now separated into two parts: one focuses on child welfare, the other deals with general counsel issues regarding the department. Recruitment efforts have been beefed up, as well.
Rivas, who primarily represented media companies for 25 years, has been training DCF employees to be more open with the media — a challenge considering the department legally can't provide many details about cases involving minors.
"Kid cases and lawyer cases sort of have their own set of rules; people have this knee-jerk reaction that if it's a kid case, you can't talk about it," Rivas said. "But that's not true. There's all kinds of things you can talk about without running afoul of the law."
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at email@example.com or