Gov. Rick Scott made a good choice Monday in appointing Mike Carroll to take over the state's embattled child welfare agency. An agency veteran and straight shooter, Carroll has the institutional history, contacts and people skills to steer the huge bureaucracy in a better direction. The governor should give him the flexibility he needs to be candid about the challenges and realistic about the reforms that are needed, and state lawmakers need to give the Department of Children and Families the extra resources it needs.
Scott announced Monday in Jacksonville that Carroll would take over from interim secretary Esther Jacobo, who has been in charge since her predecessor, David Wilkins, resigned abruptly in July. That should end the uncertainty that comes from the revolving carousel of top-level leadership, at least until the November election. A 24-year agency veteran, Carroll has deep experience across the vast range of social services that the agency provides. As director of DCF for the Suncoast region, which includes the Tampa Bay area and Southwest Florida, he is widely admired by both public and private providers for his attention to detail, urgency and candor. Those are essential traits to foster in a large operation that is failing too many children.
Carroll will need to work quickly to address the systemic failures involved in the deaths of children who had been known to the department. In a series of recent reports, the Miami Herald has documented the deaths of at least 477 children who died after their families had prior contact with DCF. While Scott called for $40 million more for child welfare investigators, the Herald series revealed that the safety net is undermined by fundamental problems — large and poorly managed case loads, shortfalls in mental health and substance abuse programs, poor coordination between providers and inadequate support services for parents and caregivers.
The governor should follow through this last week of legislative session by supporting a broad reform that includes substantial new money for child safety programs. Carroll can put his managerial skills to work by improving child protection plans to better triage the most at-risk families and to plug the gaps between providers that are exposed in many preventable tragedies. Carroll's experience playing a lead role in the privatization of community-based services can help in two ways. He has the ability to create models for collaborations across the state and the experience to know what works and what doesn't. He also understands that child safety is ultimately a public responsibility, and that the buck stops with the state.
Carroll should maintain the open-door approach that has won him support among child welfare advocates in the Tampa Bay area. Regardless of how much money the Legislature commits to child protection this year, the task of improving the system will be a long-haul effort for multiple agencies, public and private. Carroll's appointment puts a committed and thoughtful leader in charge, and it signals a serious interest in addressing the complexity of the issues facing troubled families.