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DCF Considers Working With Law Enforcement On Child Investigations

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - In the state of Florida, the child death toll rate continues to climb and officials, along with children's advocates, are pondering whether a two-fold approach, bringing sheriffs in on child investigations, can help save children's lives.

Esther Jacobo, since taking on her new position as Department of Children and Families Interim Secretary on July 18th, has seen two more child die despite contact with her agency.

In an effort "to strengthen our child protective investigation efforts," Jacobo asked DCF's regional managing directors on Friday to find ways to work alongside law-enforcement agencies for child-protective investigations.

Last Thursday, the day before Jacobo's request, three-year-old Dakota Stiles drowned in a filthy pool in Indian River County.

Six counties in Florida, Broward, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Seminole, already work with sheriffs to conduct the investigations.

But while Florida has seen children's deaths that prompted changes to its child-welfare system, those who have weathered such cycles warn against acting too quickly. There's been a long-running debate between advocates of removing children from their homes to keep them safe and advocates of strengthening the family to keep it together.

"I've seen the pendulum swing back and forth between family preservation and child safety, and I think child safety is number one," said Major Connie Shingledecker, head of the investigative services unit of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. "It should always be number one."

The first Florida sheriff's office to take on the responsibility for child protective investigations was the Manatee County office, in 1997, and Shingledecker was there at the time.

She said the shift was sparked in part by outrage in 1995 over the death Lucas Ciambrone, a seven-year-old who weighed 27 pounds and "was pretty much caged in his room." Authorities counted more than 300 wounds and scars on his body.

Few children's deaths roil the system like that of Lucas Ciambrone, whom Shingledecker compared to Nubia Barahona, the 10-year-old girl who died in February of 2011.

Shortly before she was found dead, a caseworker went to her home and left without seeing her. She was tied to her twin brother in a bathtub in a house surrounded by gates and hedges.

"Imagine if law enforcement had gone to the Barahonas' house," Shingledecker said. "Do you think they'd have gone away without seeing if those children were safe?"

That's an obvious advantage of having the sheriffs do the investigations, which are often conducted in dangerous neighborhoods, after dark.

In February 2010, the Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) released a research memorandum concluding that sheriff's offices have advantages for conducting child-abuse investigations. OPPAGA reviewed the costs, processes and outcomes of child-protective investigations conducted by the sheriff's offices compared to those conducted by DCF, noting that "due to their law enforcement affiliation, child-abuse investigators working for sheriffs generally have greater access to training and specialists, as well as enhanced cooperation and community respect not always afforded to DCF investigators."

Another advantage is that "there's a level of direct supervision by the law enforcement sergeants, especially in the significant cases," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, whose office has conducted child-protective investigations for 12 years.

As powerful constitutional officers in their jurisdictions, the sheriffs who oversee child-protective investigations can maintain their own standards regardless of changes at DCF.

Before leaving DCF, former Secretary David Wilkins directed the agency to eliminate what are known as "second party reviews," which involve supervisors double-checking investigations in high-risk cases. Gualtieri said he wouldn't consider such an idea, which DCF also ultimately put on hold.

"That's crazy. We're going to still do second-party reviews --- they're going to be done by the sergeants --- because that's one of the ways that we've had such success," he said.

The consensus is that a successful strategy for child-protective investigations requires a two-fold approach -- dependency and criminal investigations, which are different animals. Shingledecker said the majority of cases involve neglect, not abuse, and that investigators require training to spot and understand them.

For instance, Major Robert Bullara of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said the majority of children's deaths in his jurisdiction are due to drowning or to co-sleeping with their parents. So far this year in Hillsborough, he said, there had been nine deaths --- five from co-sleeping, two from drowning, and one from inadequate supervision. One child was shot.

In cases of drowning or co-sleeping, Shingledecker said, most involve substance abuse as well. So drug-squad officers need to be cross-trained, too.

Gualtieri and Shingledecker said individual sheriffs must make up their own minds about whether to take on the added responsibility of child-protective investigations. Gualtieri also said those sheriff's offices can only succeed with adequate funding, and he'll be talking with lawmakers about it in the run-up to the next legislative session.

"It's not a job you put down at 8 to 5, like of you work in the secretarial pool," Bullara said. "It's a way of life. You've got to be passionate to want to do it."

The sheriffs' offices are cautious about the child safety "transformation" driven by Wilkins and now being "reset" by Jacobo. Shingledecker said the best approach is not a massive overhaul but to build relations between law-enforcement officers and child-welfare workers, train them jointly and conduct investigations together.

"You'll never know the lives you save --- only the ones you don't," she said. "You have to take those opportunities and learn from them, so that child's life is not in vain."

(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.)

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