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Worst job in Florida loses the best man

Bob Butterworth was a mayor, a judge, a sheriff and a four-term attorney general before he took on possibly the worst public job on the planet. Or in Florida, anyway.

Early on, the man charged with turning things around made a little joke about the name of the place, DCF, for Department of Children and Families. (DCF is at least better than the previous HRS, which still conjures up images of an agency slogged in bureaucracy and headlines about children abused and worse.)

Butterworth was thinking of a new name to signal a new attitude: Human Services, maybe. DCF? "Those were the grades I received in middle school," he said.

They never did get around to the name change. But there was still plenty to do.

His most public success came out of the ugly, simmering crisis awaiting him when he took the job. Inmates who had been found mentally incompetent were left languishing in jail anyway. The previous DCF secretary was fined and threatened with jail for not finding them hospital beds.

A court hearing loomed. (Butterworth says a sheriff joked about finding him a nice window cell.)

The solution began with a chance meeting with the public defender at the center of the battle. It ended in cooperation and creative fixes, like getting inmates treatment while they were still in jail and finding money and facilities. In the end, the number of inmates went from 300 to none.

Butterworth likens the attitude of the old agency to whack-a-mole: dare stick your head up, get whacked for your trouble. "It was a mess," he says. "Everyone was mad at us."

Then came that new day.

He talks about the 15-year-old foster child taken off a list for a liver transplant because the state couldn't guarantee a permanent home for his recovery. Clearly, Butterworth does not like the idea of foster kids as second-class citizens.

Everyone worked to make it work. The boy got on the list at another hospital, got his transplant and is recovering at a permanent home.

Butterworth pushed to open records to the press. His agency tackled the frustrating, longtime problem of foster kids with relatives ready, willing and able to take them in, only to get bogged down in red tape.

These days, the process "is very often months instead of years," says Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan.

Butterworth "is just a get-real, do-the-right-thing guy. Not: We have to perpetuate old mistakes," she says.

There were the terrible moments, too, children who were not protected by the system. One of his worst came when a spokesman for his own agency was arrested on child porn charges. One of the victims was in state care.

After 19 1/2 months — 1 1/2 more than Democrat Butterworth had promised Republican Gov. Charlie Crist — Butterworth is leaving for private practice. But he insists this new day will stick around.

"The culture of this agency has changed, and it won't go back," he says, sounding like he means it.

In the news this week, he said of his pending exit from public service, "This is it. It's curtains."

You hope he leaves enough of a legacy of openness and finding fixes that his words are not prophetic, just something a fine public servant quipped as he bowed out one last time.

Worst job in Florida loses the best man 07/31/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 7:59am]
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