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.