1. Opinion

Aiming to improve Florida child protections

It has been nearly a year since Nubia Barahona, a beautiful 10-year-old girl from Miami, was found dead in her father's truck off I-95 in Palm Beach County on Valentine's Day.

It is difficult to describe the impact her death has had on so many. Every time an innocent child dies, we all suffer from the loss of dreams and wishes that will never be pursued. However, this death highlighted numerous issues in our child welfare system that needed to be addressed in order to drastically improve the overall child protection program. The governor and I pledged we would deliver an improvement plan that would both address these issues quickly and thoroughly with an appropriate redesign of the investigative process.

Over the past 10 months, we have implemented recommendations developed both by an independent task force as well as the Miami-Dade grand jury. We have also prepared a complete legislative package to establish a true front-end capability for the child protection investigation function that we believe will be a national standard.

The legislative package has two components: to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the investigative process through changes to our child protection law, and to redesign the career model and operating processes including performance management of the child protective investigators.

House Bill 803, sponsored by Miami Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, and its companion bill, Senate Bill 2044 sponsored by Sen. Ronda Storms, clarifies language to provide for a family safety framework for investigators that will improve and standardize our processes statewide.

To address professionalization and retention of investigators, the Department of Children and Families seeks an increase in salaries, establishment of a career ladder, approved credentialing and training, and implementation of law enforcement best practices.

Funding is requested for 120 additional investigative staff and supervisors along with appropriate salary increases and performance definitions for career advancement. We are also seeking an appropriation to implement critical training and technology efficiencies that will improve the delivery of services to our children and families.

We are not asking lawmakers for a handout. In the past year, this department has shifted its time, money and resources to lower administrative costs and to afford these investments while increasing our focus on the most critical job we face — saving lives and making futures brighter for each of our fellow Floridians. Implementation of these recommendations will dramatically improve the child protection system and provide a more seamless and focused system to allow investigators to make the critical, real-time decisions necessary to save children's lives. To do anything less would only compound the tragedy of Nubia's death.

David Wilkins is secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.