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Deputies may review child abuse complaints

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office has cleared the first hurdle in a renewed attempt to take over child abuse investigations from the Department of Children and Families.

Last week, Gov. Jeb Bush's budget proposal included $6-million for contracts with law enforcement agencies interested in gaining full control over protective investigations.

Armed with that show of support and a verbal commitment from DCF Secretary Jerry Regier, sheriff's officials cautiously are moving forward with plans for the transition.

"There's a couple hurdles we have to go through, and we've just gotten over the first one," said Sgt. David Wyllie, lead officer for the project's transition team.

They have good reason to tread carefully: Last year, the governor supported expanding the efforts of sheriff's offices assuming the lead role in protective investigations for children. Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee, Broward and Seminole counties already have adopted this model.

But the Citrus Sheriff's Office was just weeks away from signing its contract when the Legislature decided not to fund the project or similar plans proposed in Hillsborough and Sarasota counties.

For Citrus officials, the decision meant months of planning and training for naught. But in Hillsborough, the Sheriff's Office had to pay back nearly $400,000 of startup money and figure out what to do with the new employees that it hired to handle child abuse investigations.

That situation raised warning flags for Citrus officials, Wyllie said. DCF has approved startup funds for Citrus, but he said Wednesday his transition team will not sign even a preliminary contract this year until state lawmakers approve full funding for the effort.

"I don't think we're willing to take that chance because of what happened last year," he said. "We're going to ride on the side of caution this year."

So far this year, only Citrus and Wakula counties have expressed interest in taking over child abuse investigations, said DCF Tallahassee spokesman Tim Bottcher. The department has had preliminary conversations with the agencies about the initiatives, he said.

Citrus sheriff's officials proposed a $1.3-million operating budget for the project last year. Wyllie said they will modify that request slightly this spring to adjust for the increase in case loads and investigators' salaries.

The agency wants eventually to hire 11 investigators who would work in a new unit handling abuse, neglect or abandonment cases. The employees would not be sworn officers but would receive department cars, detective-level training and lighter case loads than those handled by DCF investigators.

DCF would serve as the contract manager and oversee the Sheriff's Office's performance.

On Wednesday, Sheriff Jeff Dawsy said he continued to be a proponent of the plan. The challenge facing legislators, he said, was to figure out how to appropriately fund each county pursuing this model.

His agency is looking for a secure funding stream, one that allocates more money for protective investigations than currently is budgeted to DCF. If the dollars come through, the agency will be ready, officials said.

"I think it's very important," Dawsy said. "I think this is where (child abuse investigations) should be."

_ Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303 or cjenkinssptimes.com.

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