The state Department of Children & Families needed a huge dose of good news and, this week, the agency got some. Gov. Scott threw his support behind DCF on Tuesday, announcing that he wants to add $31 million to the agency’s budget. That money will let DCF add more than 400 new investigators.
After a year of horror stories in which children in the agency’s files were killed by negligent, violent, drunken and abusive caregivers — a word used very loosely, of course — could the governor really propose anything less? In the past, he has, cutting DCF’s budget, which, along with flawed policies, hamstrung its ability to keep kids safe and rehabilitate troubled families.
Plus, the tragedy of children dying while under DCF oversight is nothing new, unfortunately. What made 2013 extraordinary was the seemingly unrelenting frequency of the deaths. So the governor has seen the light — and, perhaps, the ballot box it illuminates in November.
But the governor can make his good news even better by showing that he actually means it.
His $31-million proposal is just the start of what likely will be a long and tortured road to actual funding. The Legislature has to approve it. And for any reluctant lawmakers to vote Yes, the governor has to make it unequivocally clear that he considers it a priority.
Let’s face it — we’ve been here before, with little to show for the governor’s stated commitment to making life better for the state’s most vulnerable residents other than the headlines.
Two years ago, after the Miami Herald laid out in stomach-churning detail the horrific treatment many elderly and mentally challenged Floridians endured — or succumbed to — at loosely regulated assisted-living facilities, Mr. Scott promised to take action. But in 2012, there was barely a peep out of him when the Legislature met, and reform went nowhere. The governor did, however, appoint a task force to address ALF regulation, one that was top-heavy with industry insiders. Needless to say, the industry remained well cocooned from more-stringent rules.
Mr. Scott took a similar tack last year, when he did a 180 and declared that he supported expanding Medicaid coverage for up to 1 million poor and low-income Floridians. This after steadfastly refusing to do so — even though the federal government was picking up the hefty tab. But his support was late, and benign. Lawmakers failed to come up with legislation, and the governor didn’t call a special session.
Mr. Scott’s declaration of intent to give DCF $31 million could be the real deal, but he will have to show a higher level of leadership than he has so far on these issues.
Additionally, all the money in the world won’t mean a thing for children and their dysfunctional caregivers if new investigators — and those already on the job — are not properly and thoroughly trained and given the tools to do their jobs efficiently.
For instance, the proposed funding would allow DCF to send two investigators to a family’s home, instead of one. But what’s the point if two ill-trained workers end up saying, “Gee, when the drunken mom and her abusive boyfriend promised to be stellar caregivers, how were we to know that they would kill the toddler?”
It happened too many times last year. Right now, DCF needs a permanent leader. If Mr. Scott can both secure the funding he says he wants and appoint a progressive agency head with a proven track record on child welfare, then his good news will be great news for Florida’s vulnerable children.