TAMPA — Child protective investigators are the front line of the foster care system, called out all hours of the day or night to decide whether a child caught up in domestic violence, parental drug abuse or other problems should be removed from the home.
Yet, despite the high stakes of their work, many investigators in Hillsborough and Pasco counties are carrying a case load far heavier than experts recommend.
Roughly 25 percent of investigators in Hillsborough County and 40 percent in Pasco are juggling more than 20 cases at a time. Twelve is the number suggested by the Child Welfare League of America, a Washington, D.C., non-profit that advocates for best practices in foster care. The two counties are also outliers compared to the rest of Florida where just 8 percent of investigators carry a similar caseload.
The extra workload takes a toll. Highly stressed investigators are more likely to quit, said Christine James-Brown, president and CEO of the Child Welfare League. There is also more risk that investigators will make mistakes or take shortcuts. At least four investigators in the Tampa Bay region were arrested this year for falsifying records, including one who faked the result of a mother’s drug test.
“It puts children at risk. It puts workers under pressure,” James-Brown said. “They have to spread their time across those cases and that means not every family and child gets the amount of attention that’s required.”
Pasco and Hillsborough are among seven Florida counties where investigations into reports of neglect or abuse are conducted by trained civilians under the watch of the local sheriff’s office. The list also includes Pinellas County, where Sheriff Bob Gualtieri sees agencies struggle to pay investigators and cover rising costs like health insurance, utilities and the cost of vehicles used for home visits.
Gualtieri said the state is shortchanging those counties. That’s unlikely to change under a record-high $91.4 billion state budget proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The budget includes $57.6 million for child protective investigations in the seven sheriff’s offices — an amount that has barely risen since 2015.
Agencies are forced to leave some investigator jobs open so they can operate within budget, Gualtieri said.
"Those open positions are what allow us to pay our bills,” he said.
Pasco has about 50 investigators, state records show, with 20 of them handling more than 20 open cases. Two investigators have a caseload of 30 or more. The county was fourth highest among Florida’s 67 counties in the state’s ranking of investigator caseloads.
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Officials in Pasco also blame state funding, saying it has failed to keep pace with the county’s growing population. The Sheriff’s Office does not subsidize the budget for its Child Protective Investigations unit.
“Often, extensive investigations coupled with a busy time of year and lack of funding to properly staff results in elevated caseloads,” Pasco director Ken Kilian said in an email.
Pasco also hasn’t benefited from the help the state has provided recently to agencies such as Hillsborough County’s. The Florida Department of Children and Families sent a team of investigators to work on reducing open cases.
“Our hope is that the department would make the same offer to us to assist our investigative and supervisory staff,” Kilian said.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office requested the help in June. At that time, about 37 percent of investigators had at least 20 open cases. The relief team included three supervisors and nine investigators and closed 450 cases referred by the Sheriff’s Office, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Crystal Clark.
Even with that help, Hillsborough County still ranked fifth highest in Florida for caseloads over 20. Clark blamed the number of vacancies among sheriff’s investigators. Only eight out of 100 positions are vacant but a number of investigators are still considered to be in training and on a “protected” caseload, she said.
“As they progress through training, they will be on a full case count,” she said. “As this occurs ... caseloads will come down.”
Hiring and retaining investigators is a nationwide challenge, said James-Brown with the Child Welfare League. She describes investigators as the foster care system’s first responders and said many suffer from secondary trauma because of the abuse and neglect they see up close.
“This job takes you out in the middle of the night into the most high-risk, tension-filled environment you can imagine when some stranger is coming into a household to make a decision about whether to take a child away,” she said.
Most investigators in Florida work for the Department of Children and Families rather than sheriff’s offices. A bachelor’s degree is required. Judging from a statewide retention level of just 57 percent during the past year, the level of pay — about $42,000 for a newly certified investigator in Florida — hardly compensates for the workload and level of stress.
Almost 34,000 reports of abuse and neglect were made to the state’s hotline in October. Not all meet the criteria for an investigation but those that do trigger a raft of deadlines. Priority reports must be responded to within four hours. Other calls require a response within one day. Investigators must lay eyes within 24 hours on every child reported as being at risk. Every case must be concluded within 60 days.
The pressure can lead investigators to take short cuts.
In June, Pasco investigator Kaylynn Scott, 24, of Dade City, was arrested on charges that she lied about interviewing and drug-testing two parents. Scott documented parent interviews that never took place, detectives said. She also reported a clean drug test from a mother who told deputies she would have tested positive if if she had been tested at all.
In September, Pinellas investigator Taylor Ashleigh Martin, 26, was arrested on charges that she falsified interviews with neighbors of a family she was investigating.
Pinellas made keeping caseloads manageable a priority after exit interviews showed this was the main reason investigators were quitting, Sheriff Gualtieri said. The sheriff’s Child Protection Investigation Division streamlined investigations so most time is spent on serious allegations.
Only one Pinellas investigator now has a caseload of more than 20, state records show, ranking the county among the best in the state.
“We needed to stop the revolving door,” Gualtieri said. “The driving factor in losing people is the stress caused by high caseloads.”