The Department of Children & Families has been under fire — and not for the first time — for a spate of child deaths in families that had come to the attention of the child welfare agency. DCF is charged with protecting those children. It has one of the hardest jobs in Florida government.
Gov. Rick Scott has responded to those deaths by proposing tens of millions of additional dollars for the embattled agency.
However, Scott says it is unfair to suggest that his administration has shortchanged child welfare in the past. Despite cuts in the overall DCF budget — including an $88 million reduction during last year’s legislative session — Florida has actually funneled more money into child protection on his watch, Scott told the Miami Herald.
In advance of publication of Innocents Lost, an investigative report about child deaths in today’s Herald, Scott agreed to a brief interview, accompanied by Esther Jacobo, DCF’s interim secretary. Mary Ellen Klas, the Herald’s Tallahassee bureau chief, asked about his commitment to child welfare. Here is a transcript, edited and condensed:
Gov. Scott: “Any child that dies, your heart breaks. I'm a dad with two girls and three grandsons. Your heart goes out to anybody who’s abused or harmed. You want that to happen to nobody.
“When I came in, I brought in a new agency head, David Wilkins. He wanted to figure out how to improve. [He wanted] to stop the turnover of investigators. So we increased the funding for salaries and created a career path. He said we needed more money to put into more data, so we increased IT funding. We've increased funding for child protective services every year.
“In the last [Charlie Crist] administration, that was cut, and in my administration it's increased.
“When Esther came in, she did the right thing. She said ‘I care about these children. What can we do better?’ So she brought in a third party, the Casey Foundation, and they did their review and recommended expanding the scope of what investigators do. That makes sense. [But] to do that, we needed more money for more investigators so we increased it. In my [2014-15] budget plan, we increase investigators by 400 and add $31 million in the budget...I’m proud of what David did, and what Esther is doing.”
Herald: The child death numbers the Herald found [477 over six years] must come as a surprise to the agency because DCF is not reporting these numbers.
Secretary Jacobo: The numbers are not a surprise. You're talking about verification versus reporting...Child abuse deaths have gone down [since peaking in 2009] in Florida.
Herald: Would you like to see more transparency in the reporting?
Jacobo: "In terms of transparency, I can't imagine being more transparent. There are laws governing what we can and can’t release. You have all our numbers. All of those things are things we could provide under current law. If you have them, the public has them."
Herald: We found most child deaths involve infants or toddlers. A lot of the deaths are drownings or suffocations, many of which are reported as tragic accidents rather than abuse or neglect.
Jacobo:"When a death comes into the hotline, they go out and investigate and they determine whether it is verified [as abuse or neglect] or not verified. The cases you're talking about, drownings and unsafe sleep cases, there is a discrepancy in many places as to how they're verified...It depends on many factors, and like a police officer [determines] whether there is probable cause, an investigator can determine whether there is a verification.
"I want to make it clear that there has never been a directive to change the definition of neglect. That is in the statute and it's part of what we do every day. There is no change in what neglect is. That is not the case at all."
Herald: Often children are left in homes where there is drug abuse or domestic abuse, and families don't have treatment. Those services have been cut. What are you doing to help the families repair, and will you revisit the policy of keeping children in the home?
Scott: "That decision is made by a judge, not the agency. There’s a process. Federal and state law make that decision and a judge makes that decision. The agency doesn't get to make that decision."
Herald: Are there some cases where you should be more aggressive?
Jacobo: "We get this question a lot... We have state and federal laws that require that we make every reasonable effort to keep a child in the home with services if we can. That's not a policy or something we made up. That is in state and federal law, and it mirrors laws across the country, because there's evidence that children do better if we can provide services in the home."
Herald: The agency has $88 million less than when you began and you have gaps in services.
Jacobo: "But not in child welfare, look at the funding for CBCs [community based care organizations, which provide services at the local level under contract with the state] in terms of what services have been funded, because [DCF] is a mammoth agency. We do all kinds of things. We need to focus on the child welfare piece."
Herald: Governor, you're comfortable with your level of funding?
Scott: "I've done exactly what Esther recommended. The Casey Foundation looked at child deaths and said we need to expand what the investigator does, and the only way to do that was to add more investigators."