Sunday, May 27, 2018
Opinion

Column: Use sheriff's departments to investigate child abuse

During my four decades as an advocate and watchdog for children, I have seen the Legislature address problems facing the state's child welfare system time and again. And yet children continue to die under the watch of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Child protection investigators, or CPIs, are the heart of the current problem in child welfare. In Florida, CPIs are for the most part well-meaning, but they face an extremely difficult job. Unfortunately for the well-trained CPIs who are really good at what they do, there are high turnover rates because few incentives exist for them to continue in their job. In fact, at best CPIs have to view their job as a career path to a better position where they will not be underpaid and overworked with impossible case loads.

A new model is desperately needed. It needs to be based on what works — not mired in how things have always been done. Fortunately, there is such a model: Ask sheriff's departments to investigate reports of child abuse.

Child abuse investigations are conducted by sheriff's departments in six Florida counties: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee, Seminole and Broward.

Recently, former Pinellas County Commissioner Sally Parks and I met with Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to discuss what can be done to make the case for more sheriff's departments to assume child abuse investigations. We discussed the need for the governor, Legislature and Department of Children and Families to make the funding streams more realistic in amount and more predictable in annual distribution. I'm following up on his recommendation to reach out to other leaders in the Florida Sheriff's Association and have met with many of its representatives.

Sheriffs would provide more overall stability, and the quality and depth of investigations would improve because of the vast expertise in investigatory functions handled by sheriffs across the areas of their responsibility for ensuring public safety. The expansion of sheriffs' willing to take on child protective investigations is not the cure-all for child welfare, but it would address one of the main issues driving the system toward a breaking point.

To successfully transform the damaged system, other equally insistent needs must be addressed, including: access to mental health and substance abuse treatment for families involved with DCF, and services for children with disabilities.

Again, it is a problem of resources. Failure to provide services that can help families cope with mental health, substance abuse and disability issues will only perpetuate the cycle that leads to DCF intervention in the first place. If the state does not devote the resources and funding to protect children while they are at their most vulnerable, tragedies will continue to rock the state's child welfare system and more young lives will be devastated or lost.

Roy Miller, who lives in Seminole, is president and founder of The Children's Campaign, an advocacy and watchdog group in Tallahassee, now celebrating 20 years of service to children. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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