We all know it; leading the Department of Children and Families is a difficult and thankless job. The front-line jobs in the state’s child welfare system are even tougher. The learning curve is steep, every lesson is hard, and failure, as we are tragically reminded, is far too painful and costly.
In the wake of recent tragedies, everyone is searching for answers, trying to figure out what went wrong. From county sheriffs and local and community-based care providers to religious and community leaders, everyone wants to, and should, do whatever is necessary to prevent the loss of another vulnerable child.
Getting all of these partners to work together toward this worthy goal isn’t easy, but it is essential. We all have a part to play in solving this problem that is impacting our state; a philosophy that newly appointed DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo has embraced.
While it is true that more must be done to recruit, train, supervise and retain qualified front-line staff responsible for responding to allegations of abuse, we will never achieve sustainable change in child protection services without a significant increase in prevention efforts that strengthen vulnerable families before abuse ever begins. Most at-risk expectant and new parents realize they need help, but help isn’t always available before tragedy strikes.
Ensuring children are safe and nurtured at home has been the work of Healthy Families Florida since its legislative inception in 1998. Administered by the nonprofit Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida through a network of local providers, Healthy Families is the state’s preeminent child abuse prevention program. A rigorous independent evaluation revealed that Healthy Families is an effective prevention measure that is proven to prevent abuse and neglect in 98 percent of the children in high-risk families served.
For the past 15 years, DCF has been an able and supportive partner. Thanks to an additional $3 million legislative allocation this year, the blessing of Gov. Rick Scott and the support of local partners, Healthy Families’ reach has been extended to serve additional families in parts or all of 58 of Florida’s 67 counties, which is a big step in the right direction.
Bringing these proven prevention services to scale, so every at-risk family has access to the help they need, will require additional investment; but it is still far less costly than failure.
T. Wayne Davis, chair, Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, Tallahassee