The Broward Sheriff’s Office’s child welfare unit wanted to lower its caseload as quickly as possible last month, so leaders launched a contest. They called the competition “March Madness” after the college basketball tournament. They challenged child abuse investigators to close as many cases safely as they could. And they offered awards to the winning investigators and their bosses.
An email flier promised a pizza party — punctuated by three exclamation points — to the top unit.
Experts on child protection warn that it is unwise to incentivize investigators to cut corners or act quickly when they are tasked with determining the safety of children who may have been abused or neglected.
“This isn’t a game,” said Richard Gelles, director of the Field Center for Policy, Practice and Research at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s not a contest. These are life-and-death decisions.”
“They are making light of something that should not be made light of,” Gelles added.
Gelles, who is the former dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at Penn, has studied child welfare in Florida and elsewhere. “They are incentivizing haste,” he said of BSO’s contest. “They know better. Or they ought to know better.”
Paul DeMuro, a retired child protection and juvenile justice administrator and consultant with more than 40 years experience, including a stint as a federal court-appointed watchdog in Florida, called the contest “alarming.” Anything that has the consequence — intended or otherwise — of emphasizing speed, could leave vulnerable children at greater risk, he said.
“Under what conditions were the cases closed?” DeMuro asked. “Why were they open to begin with? There is a whole subset of important issues that need to be addressed.”
“It is good, and appropriate, to look at how long cases are staying open, and why they are staying open,” DeMuro added. “But those statements [from the BSO email] are pretty clear. There is an incentive to close cases, period.”
The contest appears to have commenced on March 5. It was called “March Madness Case Closure Competition.” The competition’s objective: “To SAFELY close out the most cases for the month of March.”
An email from Morgan Prussiano, the manager of BSO’s Child Protective Investigations Section, spelled out the details: “The top 5 [child protective investigators] with the highest amount of cases closed for the month will win 2 consecutive days” off of the unit’s rotation of abuse investigators.
“The squad with the highest average of case closures per CPI will win a pizza party!!!” the announcement said.
BSO administrators declined to discuss the contest. In a prepared statement, BSO’s director of child protection, Kim Gorsuch, said: “BSO closes cases following a complete and thorough investigation.
“This is in line with DCF’s operating procedures and includes a determination of whether children are safe. DCF policy requires that all cases be closed no later than the 60th day from the onset of the investigation. “All cases closed in March were thoroughly investigated and were near, or at, that 60th-day deadline.”
In a short statement, BSO’s newly appointed sheriff, Gregory Tony, referred to the competition as a “morale-building exercise.” He said: “BSO and the Department of Children & Families have a longstanding history of providing the best protective investigative services for the children in our community. I will never support any activity that would circumvent the quality of our investigative practices. Moreover, I will not allow any activities that would jeopardize the safety of our children.”
“My [child protection] personnel are dedicated, hardworking individuals who are often underpaid and overworked. Nevertheless, they operate under the highest degree of professionalism. I want to [assure] the public this event was intended to boost morale and reward the daily efforts of [child protection] personnel.”
In fact, BSO records show March was unremarkable for the number of child abuse allegations that were disposed of, with 987 closures, compared to 849 in February and 939 in January. The largest number of closures in recent months was last October, which recorded 1,092 closures.
“Make no mistake: it is our goal to continue to complete all investigations to the highest degree and in accordance with our standards and DCF operating procedures,” Tony said.
The Department of Children & Families, which contracts with BSO to perform abuse and neglect investigations in Broward, declined to discuss the contest.
In a short prepared statement, a DCF spokeswoman, Jessica Sims, said only that “the department was not aware of this initiative,” and added: “Child safety is always our first priority, and DCF does not condone any activity that would diminish safety as a top concern in any situation.”