Saturday, December 16, 2017
Opinion

Hoping the Florida Legislature tackles children's issues (w/video)

One shocking headline after another about dead children who at some point were under the Department of Children and Families' supervision has jolted Tallahassee and ushered in what could be the year of the child.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature appear poised to spend more money on children. And a Senate bill makes a sweeping proposal to overhaul the child protection workforce, though there is debate among professionals in that workforce about whether the changes would be effective. From the field, there is a growing sense that the best way to save children is to use the tools caseworkers have at their fingertips — such as an innovative computer program — and interest in addressing specific issues such as dealing with paramours in troubled homes.

Something is horribly wrong in a state where more than 430 children died following allegations of maltreatment each year from 2007 to 2012. As many as 45 percent had prior contact with DCF, according to the Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. That means children are slipping through the state's fingers. It doesn't help that there's a leadership vacuum at the top. Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo is set to leave at the end of the legislative session, and there likely will be a fill-in for the months before Scott seeks re-election in November.

In his budget proposal, the governor recommends spending $31.7 million for new child protection positions and another $8 million for child protective investigators in sheriff's offices in six counties around the state, including Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough. The money would allow DCF to hire 447 new investigators. Scott also proposes promoting 50 of the best investigators and restoring 26 of the 72 quality assurance positions that fell victim to budget cuts. It's a sea change from previous years where the governor has looked to the agency for spending cuts during a period of declining state revenue.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, the chair of the Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, has a grand plan to require child protection investigators and their supervisors to hold degrees in social work by 2018. But it is not yet clear what that would cost, and the proposal's prospects are uncertain. DCF and child protection agencies already struggle to retain workers, suggesting that requiring an additional degree on an already overburdened workforce could create more problems than it solves.

"I wouldn't want to send the message that folks who are passionate and committed and skilled at this work would be excluded from consideration because of their degree," Jacobo said to Sobel's committee last month. "Let's think about how we're going to structure this to encourage more social workers to come; to have a goal but not a mandate that every single degree has to be as social work degree."

Sobel was unfazed. "We're looking for a solution," she said. "Together, this committee is willing to take the big dive, and we're going to make sure that there's a lot of water in the pool."

In the House, Healthy Families Subcommittee Chair Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said legislators plan to introduce a large DCF bill in the second or third week of the session that will address everything from child protective investigators to services for at-risk kids who remain in their homes.

And there are some promising innovations in the field. Eckerd Community Alternatives, DCF's lead agency in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, is providing its workers with a screening tool that allows cases involving the most vulnerable children in its care to receive more scrutiny. The agency developed a computer software program to screen cases for such factors as the presence of children under age 3, paramours in the home, young parents and homes where drug abuse or domestic violence took place. The program has been so successful for Eckerd in the bay area that DCF began rolling it out statewide in January. All of DCF's lead agencies have agreed to use it.

Solutions to ending child deaths remain elusive. And Florida has never been particularly successful at combatting the cycle of poverty and abuse that puts children at risk. But more financial resources and better diagnostic tools should help. This legislative session should launch a renewed commitment from Tallahassee to protect Florida's youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Sherri Day is a member of the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. She can be reached at [email protected] Times researcher John Martin contributed research.

Comments

Editorial: Warren’s smart approach on guns, domestic violence

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren would make it safer for victims and police alike with his plan to remove firearms from defendants charged with domestic violence. These cases are toxic enough, and having guns at the ready only adds to a dang...
Published: 12/15/17
Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

The St. Petersburg City Council made the difficult but correct decision this week to reject the proposed sale of a local nonprofit’s minority stake in Bayfront hospital. Despite months of negotiations, there were too many questions, a few suspicions ...
Published: 12/15/17
Editorial: Congress should fix flood insurance, children’s health insurance before Christmas

Editorial: Congress should fix flood insurance, children’s health insurance before Christmas

Here’s a snapshot of misplaced priorities in Washington. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission foolishly rushed to scrap net neutrality rules and allow internet service providers to treat different content differently despite overwhelming ...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: Scott’s smart changes to sexual harassment policy

Editorial: Scott’s smart changes to sexual harassment policy

With misconduct allegations rippling through all levels of government, Gov. Rick Scott has taken the prudent step of ordering uniform sexual harassment policies throughout state agencies. The executive order strengthens protections for victims, which...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: MOSI faces a clean slate and should give everyone a piece of chalk

Editorial: MOSI faces a clean slate and should give everyone a piece of chalk

For three years, the only news about finances at Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry was bad news: "Struggling MOSI asks Hillsborough County for $400,000 loan," one headline read, "Audit sees MOSI finances slipping," read another, and "MOSI donor ...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: Rubio should make good his threat to oppose tax cuts without changes

Editorial: Rubio should make good his threat to oppose tax cuts without changes

For once, it would be nice to see Sen. Marco Rubio stand up as the independent leader he aspires to become. For once, the Florida Republican should hold his position rather than bow to pragmatic politics. Rubio can stick with his threat Thursday to v...
Published: 12/14/17

Another voice: A shameful anniversary

Josephine "Joey" Gay should have celebrated her 12th birthday this week. She should have been surrounded by friends and family in a place festooned with purple, her favorite color.Chase Kowalski should have been working toward a Boy Scout merit badge...
Published: 12/13/17
Updated: 12/14/17
Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Timing is everything, and Sen. Bill Nelson seized the right moment this week to call on his colleagues to pass legislation he filed earlier this year that would block the Trump administration from opening additional areas to offshore drilling. With t...
Published: 12/13/17

Another voice: Alabama picks an honorable man

THANK YOU, Alabama.In Tuesday’s special election, the state by a narrow margin chose to spare the nation the indignity of seating an accused child molester in the U.S. Senate. Though the stain of electing Republican Roy Moore would have sullied Alaba...
Published: 12/12/17
Updated: 12/13/17
Editorial: Tax cuts aren’t worth harm to Tampa Bay

Editorial: Tax cuts aren’t worth harm to Tampa Bay

As congressional negotiators hammer out the details on an enormous, unnecessary tax cut, the potential negative impact on Tampa Bay and Florida is becoming clearer. The harmful consequences stretch far beyond adding more than $1.4 trillion to the fed...
Published: 12/12/17