Department of Children and Families Secretary Esther Jacobo appeared before the House Healthy Families Subcommittee and described the agency's focus on improving and expanding the child protection investigators, saying the goal of is to have them work "not faster but better."
Jacobo described how the agency has launched a pilot program to pair two investigators, one more experienced than the other, in Polk and Miami-Dade counties, a recommendaiton made by the Casey Family Foundation which conducted a critical report of how the agency handles at-risk children. The foundation reviewed 40 deaths of children under DCF oversight and concluded that they were a result of inadequate family and safety assessments, inadequate follow-up and inadquate early intervention.
Jacobo said when a call comes into the hotline and they identify risk factors -- such as a child under age 3, a prior DCF history, a boyfriend or paramour involved and mental health or drug abuse history. Investigators go out in a team so they "part of it is we have to look at the whole family dynamic which we havent' been doing thus far."
"It seems like the quality of the investigatoions are getting better and we're making better decisions,'' she said. She said the pilot has worked so well, they plan on implementing it statewide. Gov. Rick Scott has recommended hiring 400 additional child protection staff and Jacobo said that would allow for investigators to work in pairs across the state and provide "two eyes on the case" and also the ability of a mentor to help younger investigators to be more efficient.
Neil Skene, former special counsel at DCF under former secretatries Bob Butterworth, told the committee that the focus on increasing the number of investigators is flawed. Instead, he said, the focus should be on providing services. "I don't know how many people it takes to see than a child is in danger,'' he said. Those children need services such as therapy and other assistance.
"You can't legislate good management,'' he said and urged the legislature to refrain from its instinct impose more rules and regulations. "I'd rather get the investigator better trained and better prepared,'' he said.
Pam Graham, professor of social work at Florida State University who sits on the child death committee that reviews all the deaths of children from abuse and neglect. Of the 432 children whose cases she has reviewed, most of them were under the age of 5 and 40 percent of those cases were already under DCF managment, Graham said.
"Many of them could have been prevented,'' she said. "...We are not going to prevent every single death,'' but a better focus on helping parents be good parents, better assess safety risk and reduce the number of kids who are forced into foster care could improve the situation.
She said the turnover in child protective investigators at DCF is 30 percent, an annual cost of $6 million and said the main reason is a lack of professional environment, a toxic work environment, no respect for thier professional expertise and a lack of advancement.
Graham urged the committee to rely more on social workers, who are trained in child maltreatment and the services the children need and noted that taxpayers are training many social workers in Florida schools but the state is not relying on them.
Jacobo also showed the committee a video that focused on the child protective investigators, focused on the "star investigators" which the agency put together, she said, "so our community can see the faces of the investigators." The first
One investigator, Matt, 'it's a job you're probably not doing to get a lot of applause." Another named Agnus recalled how a foster child remembered her for placing her in foster care and, although she didn't remember the case, told her "you saved my life."
"That is the moment when I realized this is what I do. I change people's lives," Agnus said.