In the late 1990s, Florida embarked on an experiment in child welfare.
After a spate of child deaths, the state’s Department of Children and Families enlisted a few sheriff’s offices — including in Pinellas and Pasco — to handle child welfare investigations in their counties, with the state handling investigations elsewhere.
In February, department Secretary Shevaun Harris announced in a letter to the seven sheriffs running those investigations that the experiment is over. In an effort to make investigation standards more uniform statewide, sheriffs will no longer run child protection units anywhere in Florida. Lawmakers want the department to retake those duties by Jan. 1.
“We’re in a different mindset today than we were 10, 12, even 7 years ago,” said Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, who’s running Senate legislation that would make the transition a part of state law. “We’ve really moved more to keeping families whole.”
But records show the move, which will affect child welfare where a quarter of Floridians live, is fueling turnover among child protective investigators — staffers who are difficult to recruit and retain. Current sheriff’s office employees face a choice: remain a child protective investigator and work for the state, or find a new job.
Sarah Pierce, a training supervisor for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, assessed the changeover in an email to a Department of Children and Families.
“We are needless to say having a lot of transfers, resignations, and lots of emotions,” Pierce wrote in the Feb. 24 email, which the Tampa Bay Times obtained in a public records request.
A Pinellas sheriff’s office spokesperson said that as of Monday, three of its 50 investigators had resigned since the announced change. That team currently has 27 vacancies. The Seminole County Sheriff’s Office lost two investigators and was planning for another nine transfers from its staff of 24 investigators, records show.
The sheriff’s office employees who transfer to the state so they can continue to be child investigators will likely have pick up cases from departing colleagues.
Every case involves a vulnerable child, noted Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells. Although he said he understands Harris’ vision, he questioned whether the state would have enough investigators to handle these important cases.
“That’s the only priority,” Wells said. “That is the main goal, taking care of these children.”
The state is already struggling with turnover and overburdened investigators working on grueling, emotionally taxing cases. The state saw a 71% turnover rate among child protective investigators last year, according to the department. (Harris told lawmakers on Wednesday that the turnover figure had decreased to about 40% this year.)
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Despite such high turnover at the state agency, some child welfare advocates say the move is welcomed. The sheriffs are more likely than the state to remove children from their families when less drastic intervention could suffice, those advocates say. The Times reported in 2021 that sheriff’s offices averaged a removal rate of 6.5%, higher than the department’s average of 4.9%.
“We do have recruitment and retention issues, but as a parent, and as a former foster youth, my concern is not with the employee, it’s with the child,” said Victoria Zepp, a child welfare lobbyist in favor of the transition.
In many ways, the current situation echoes the transition some state employees made to sheriff’s offices in the 1990s, in which state investigators had to decide if they wanted to remain a child protective investigator at a new agency.
The state started letting sheriff’s offices handle child protection cases in 1997 with a Manatee County pilot program. Lawmakers the next year expanded the program to include Broward, Pasco and Pinellas.
“A lot of kids were falling through the cracks, a lot of kids ended up dying,” said Everett Rice, who was the Pinellas County Sheriff at the time. “The Legislature ... wanted to experiment and see if the sheriffs would be willing to take it over.”
Rice said the idea was to add accountability. Because sheriffs are elected officials, the logic went, voters could more easily remove leaders ineffective at keeping children safe.
News reports described an environment of uncertainty and high turnover in Pinellas and Pasco as state employees anticipated transferring. Some state employees left ahead of their transfers because they feared the sheriff’s offices’ intense screening process, which included polygraphs. Others worried their benefits would not roll over.
The caseload for the average child investigator in Florida swelled after the transition to nearly twice the recommended level in some places because some employees left their jobs.
In the nearly 25 years since, three other sheriff’s offices joined the experiment — Seminole in 2000, Hillsborough County in 2005 and Walton County in 2018. Citrus County briefly took over investigations but gave back responsibility to the state in 2012.
Although state officials say sheriffs are on board, some appear to have complicated feelings.
At Wednesday’s committee meeting, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said she’d heard that her local sheriff, Broward County’s Gregory Tony, is “vehemently opposed” to the move.
In a statement, Tony’s office did not directly weigh in on the merits of the transition, but said the sheriff is working with the state to make sure it goes smoothly. Tony has not communicated with Book about the move, his office said.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a supporter of the transition, sent an email to Harris the day of the announcement relaying his employee’s questions regarding the news. The entire unit of child investigators at the sheriff’s office will be affected by the change.
“As you can imagine, the biggest questions employees have are about pay, benefits and seniority,” Gualtieri wrote. “There are also questions about working conditions and how things work without them having assigned agency cars, etc.”
While sheriff’s employees get government-issued cars to make home visits, many state investigators don’t.
A pilot program in central Florida showed the importance of agency cars. After the state gave investigators vehicles, a study found that 95% of respondents said they performed better at their job.
The starting pay for child protective investigators in the sheriff’s offices is also higher. Hillsborough County, for instance, starts its investigators at nearly $52,000 a year. The state starts at $39,600, according to a 2022 report.
The House and Senate bills say sheriff’s investigators can work for the state at their current salary. But this may create two tiers of pay for investigators depending on whether they worked for a sheriff’s office. The Department of Children and Families did not respond to questions the Times sent to the agency regarding the transition.
Another $2.1 million in the House budget would give state-funded cars to investigators who drive the most.
But pay and transportation are funding issues to be decided by state legislators — one of hundreds of budget items to be negotiated before the May 5 end of the legislative session.
Emails between Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office staff show employees are anxious.
“This transition is not easy for us,” one employee wrote on March 3. “I have no idea what I’m going to do.”