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Going beyond the call of duty to help children

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office has decided to go beyond new state standards when investigating reports of child abuse.

The Kayla McKean Child Protection Act, a sweeping new law aimed at strengthening Florida's safety net for abused kids, went into effect July 1.

Technically.

But in Citrus County, the people who protect children didn't wait for the calendar page to turn. They began following _ even exceeding _ the law's requirements long before the ink from Gov. Jeb Bush's pen dried on the page.

Law enforcement is a good example.

Even before Kayla's tragic death in November, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office had recognized gaps in the protection system. Led by Detective David Wyllie, the agency decided to take a bold step: By mid-April, deputies had started responding to all complaints of child abuse and neglect that the Department of Children and Families received, with sheriff's investigators following up where appropriate.

That's above and beyond what the Sheriff's Office did before. In the past, deputies responded only to some cases. They often were forced to wait for the department, which is the state's primary social service agency, to notify them of possible criminal wrongdoing.

Not anymore. When social workers receive word that someone has registered an abuse or neglect complaint, they contact a deputy and visit the home together. They conduct their own investigations, with their own purposes _ the state investigators checking whether the child should be removed from the home or begin receiving court-monitored services, the law officer determining whether arrest and prosecution seem warranted.

"We're responsible for ours. They're responsible for theirs," Wyllie said.

Not even the Kayla law, which some critics say goes overboard, requires that level of service. The law says only that department investigators notify police, who then make an assessment.

Wyllie doesn't mind going the extra mile. His position: If law enforcement is going to protect children, then it might as well do a complete and thorough job.

That wasn't possible under the old system. Law enforcement often learned about abuse cases late, after witnesses and offenders knew what was happening.

"We were on the tail end of these investigations," Wyllie said.

Now, as Wyllie says, the Department of Children and Families investigator and the law officer are at the proverbial starting line together.

And a law officer, not a state investigator, is determining whether criminal charges might be appropriate.

"You're putting the determination of the criminality of an event into the hands of law enforcement, not a civilian," Inverness police Detective Lee Alexander said.

His agency has adopted the Sheriff's Office plan. Crystal River police reportedly have done the same, but an agency official did not return telephone calls last week to discuss the issue.

The Department of Children and Families fully supports the policy. It recently received some bad publicity when an investigator falsely claimed that she had contacted a law officer about a neglect case. That notification requirement wasn't even in place this time last year.

The department isn't alone in doling out praise.

"I think it's a good administrative policy," said state Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, who authored the Kayla bill.

Cowin's Senate district includes east Citrus. It also includes Lake County, where Kayla, 6, was brutally killed. Authorities have accused her father, who now awaits trial.

Cowin was outraged when, after reviewing Kayla's case, it became clear that the Department of Children and Families had missed obvious signs that the girl was an abuse victim. It also became clear that law enforcement, social workers and medical staff from the local child protection team weren't always in synch.

She drafted a bill that requires the department to record all incoming and outgoing calls to the toll-free abuse hotline. It orders the department to monitor that hotline for efficiency and made it a crime for an adult, in most cases, to fail to report child abuse.

The law also puts more impetus on law enforcement to respond appropriately.

"Now, everybody is accountable for their actions," Cowin said. "For the first time, we have all these agencies talking to one another."

Although she praised Citrus' efforts, Cowin noted that the policy also is a big help to the department investigators, who might feel safer traveling with a deputy. Law officers acknowledge that benefit, but said it's only one reason for the policy.

Of course, to make the policy work, the law enforcement agencies need people. During the first month of following the policy, the Sheriff's Office received 69 incident reports, compared with 14 the previous 30-day period.

Department records show that, in Citrus, the average investigator will handle 20 or so new complaints each month.

Two investigators work full time for the sheriff's Crimes Against Children Unit, as it is known. The agency hopes to add two more.

Deputies, who have received special training for this new assignment, are handling more cases than before. So far, they are managing to handle the workload.

"It's a good impact on them, but it's still within their capability," sheriff's Capt. Jim Cernich said.

Wyllie would like to add another new wrinkle to local policy, if not to the law: a provision that people arrested for child abuse, like those arrested for domestic violence, be forced to stay in jail until a judge reviews the case and sets bail.

As it stands, people arrested for child abuse can post bail, leave the lockup immediately _ and possibly head back home to start more trouble.

New order at DCF

Citrus County is part of the Department of Children and Families' District 13, which also includes Lake County. So the Kayla tragedy _ and the internal fallout _ struck very close to home.

In the weeks after Kayla died, District 13 started making policy changes. As Cowin put together the Kayla legislation, administrators began revamping their system of investigating child abuse and neglect.

"There are a lot of things that weren't in place before," said Janice Johnson, a top District 13 official. "We put some things in place in March and April."

For example, the district now requires its lawyers to give dependency court judges their entire file when asking the judge to remove a child from his or her home. Before, as in Kayla's case, the judge saw only a petition from the lawyer.

The law requires that, unless it is impossible, the same investigator should handle multiple abuse cases involving a child. Also, investigators now must review the past record of all cases involving the child before they can close a current case. "So you can get a full picture," Johnson said.

The level of supervisory review also is increased under the statute. Again, District 13 had been doing that for months before the Kayla bill became law.

One area drawing criticism from some circles involves the new requirement that experts from local child protection teams must examine all children who are suspected abuse victims _ even if the department investigator has found no evidence of physical violence.

Critics have said the provision needlessly traumatizes children and strains the child protection teams.

"They (the teams) are being inundated with a lot of paper now that they didn't have before," Johnson said.

Cowin, mindful that Kayla was lost because law officers, the department and medical workers didn't work well enough together, said she prefers to be safe instead of sorry. She's not inclined yet to propose any legislative adjustments.

"There will be some wrinkles, perhaps," Cowin said.

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