TALLAHASSEE — In an effort to repair his child welfare track record, Gov. Rick Scott will announce Tuesday in Miami that he is steering $31 million in additional money to child protection efforts, a move aimed at reducing caseloads and increasing oversight of vulnerable children in Florida.
The announcement comes in the wake of dozens of child deaths from abuse and neglect in the past year, and amid calls for reform of the Department of Children & Families from the nonprofit Casey Family Foundation and Democrats in the Legislature.
"While DCF has made significant changes to protect children, we still have much to do to protect the most vulnerable among us,'' the governor said in a statement Monday. "Even one child death is a death too many."
The governor will also announce that he will steer an additional $8 million to sheriff's offices to investigate child abuse complaints, a turnabout for the governor who recommended a $17 million reduction in the grants to sheriffs for child protective efforts in his 2013-14 budget proposal.
The governor's proposal, which is only a recommendation to the Legislature, includes restoring money for Substance Abuse and Mental Health programs, services that play a vital role in reducing child abuse, the agency said in a statement released to the Times/Herald on Monday.
The governor said his "historic increase to DCF funding" will pay for the hiring of 400 additional child protective investigators. The proposal also aims to reduce caseloads for child protective investigators from the current 13.3 cases per investigator to 10, and institute two-person teams in cases involving children under age 4 when the family has a history of domestic violence, substance abuse or mental illness, the statement said.
The program would be modeled after a pilot program DCF is currently running using paired investigators for high-risk cases in Miami-Dade and Polk counties.
DCF interim Secretary Esther Jacobo said she is confident the proposals "will keep Florida children safe."
"Armed with input from national experts and data to back up our proposals, we are prepared to ensure that these funds will be laser focused on protecting children who are most at-risk," Jacobo said in the statement.
The governor's recommendation also includes restoring 26 of the 72 quality assurance positions that were cut under former DCF Secretary David Wilkins. Child advocates blame those cuts for contributing to some of the child deaths.
Another 50 current investigator positions would be eligible for career advancement under a new "Child Protective Master Practitioner" plan that would reward case workers with the most knowledge and experience.
The Casey Family Programs reviewed 40 child deaths last year and concluded that both DCF and community-based care organizations should focus more resources on providing services aimed at stabilizing families to prevent abuse.
The governor's track record in his previous budget requests to the Legislature has been to reduce funding to the child welfare agency. In his first budget proposal in the 2011-12 budget year, for example, the governor recommended reducing funding for DCF by $238 million below its current levels at the time.
In 2011-12, Scott recommended increasing the agency budget by $1.7 million over the level approved by lawmakers a year before but, in 2013-14, he recommended reducing the budget again — by $75.7 million — below what lawmakers had approved the year before.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas