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Lawmakers Grapple With Changing The Culture At DCF

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Both chambers of the Legislature took up child-welfare reform Tuesday, hearing from a wide range of experts with research about staff turnover and caseloads.

But one number stood out: 432, the number of Florida children who died of abuse and neglect in 2012, according to Pam Graham, a social work professor at Florida State University.

Graham, who spoke to the House Healthy Families Subcommittee, served on the State Child Abuse Death Review Committee. Of the 432 children who died in 2012, she said, 40 percent were already involved with the Department of Children and Families.

"It pains me that if the right people had been helping those families, a lot of the deaths could have been prevented," Graham said.

The number of child deaths usually mentioned in legislative committees is 40, the number that the Casey Family Programs, a policy group, reviewed after a series of child deaths last year.

And that's how many it took to prompt legislative leaders to vow to overhaul the child-welfare system.

"The public is crying out to us to have revolutionary reform," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. "We don't want to keep reading about children's deaths. …However, we're going to do it in a pragmatic way, step by step."

Sobel's panel and the House Healthy Families Subcommittee examined such steps as requiring all new child-protective investigators to have social-work degrees and helping the current investigators get such degrees.

Not everyone who spoke to the lawmakers agreed on how to fix the workplace culture at DCF, but virtually all said it had to be done.

"The thing that we keep coming back to is a lack of fraternity," Mike Watkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care, told the Senate panel.

To the House panel, Mary Alice Nye, of the Legislature's Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability, said child-protective investigators report feeling pressured to close cases within a 30-day window and to get all of their work done without filing for overtime pay.

The investigators "felt that they were less and less able to use their knowledge and expertise in decision-making," Nye said.

They also reported spending 50 to 80 percent amount of their time on administrative tasks and expressed concern about going into homes where there had been violence, difficulty in getting law enforcement officers to meet them there and using their own cars for work, which could identify them in small communities.

"They generally indicated they felt support from their immediate (supervisor) but not from DCF or the lead (community-based care) agencies," Nye said.

DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo said a program to pair child-protective investigators was being piloted in cases where a child is 3 years old or younger, has a prior DCF history and other family risk factors such as domestic violence, mental illness or substance abuse.

Jacobo said the pilot has been so successful that it will go statewide. Gov. Rick Scott has recommended hiring 400 additional child protective investigators, bringing their caseloads down to 10 apiece.

Sobel said it's important for state agencies to be more consistent.

"Stop the turnover and create a workforce that likes where they're working and enjoys what they do and accomplishes a lot," she said. "For the sake of the kids, we have to do this."

According to OPPAGA, the turnover for child-protective investigators in Florida is 20 percent. For the case managers who provide services at the local level, it's 30 percent.

"The News Service of Florida's Margie Menzel contributed to this report."

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