Florida Politics

DCF cites progress in protecting children, challenges in keeping staff

After an infusion of new money, new hires and new guidelines, the Department of Children and Families told legislators this week that it is making strides in handling abuse and neglect cases but it still faces steep obstacles.

The 2014 legislation which rewrote the state’s child protection laws has not stopped the 30 percent turnover of investigative staff and has led to a spike in the number of children being removed from their homes and put into state custody.

“Because children are unsafe they are placed with their relative, non-relative or licensed care,” said Janice Thomas, deputy secretary of DCF.

She told the House Subcommittee on Children and Families that since September 2013, the agency has “seen a steady increase in that and that is causing a lot of resource stress on our community based partners.”

The 2014 law required that the agency shift its focus from keeping children in homes to protecting them, with the goal of ending the tragedies that led to 477 child deaths in the last six years, as chronicled by the Miami Herald in its Innocents Lost series.

“It has been made very clear in the state of Florida that safety comes first, ” Thomas said.

The agency has contracted with an Ounce of Prevention and the Casey Family Foundation to analyze what is causing the increase, but Thomas said she attributes it to the increased focus on so-called “safety plans.”

The legislation required DCF to changes its policies regarding the use of the signed agreements from troubled parents that require them to alter their behavior for the sake of their children. The Herald series noted that more than 80 children died after such a plan was signed, and Thomas acknowledged that in the past they “were somewhat promissory notes.”

“We have done a lot of work training people saying that is not a safety plan,” she said. “But when you actually write a safety plan that keeps a child safe it is much more difficult than it seems. Learning how to do that is something we have to improve on.”

Meanwhile, the agency has hired 270 new child protective investigators. But for every three they hire, she said, they lose one. The turnover is attributed to the high stress of the job and the fact that the emphasis of the new law requires investigators to assess a family more than investigate the abuse.

“It is a high-pressure stress situation,” said Thomas, a former investigator.

The agency also was required to list all deaths of children under age 5 who die from abuse and neglect and investigate when the department has had any involvement to determine the root causes of the tragedy by deploying a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team.

Since the law took effect, there have been 30 CIRRT teams deployed across the state, including 11 in the Suncoast region and four in the Southeast.

The teams have found some weaknesses, Thomas said.

“We continue to see that child protective investigators are not always using all the prior information we have on the family to determine what the safety assessment will be,” she said.

The agency has instead instituted new training programs to help investigators better understand how to use family histories.

“It is often a very complex history,” she said, noting that often there are children in a home with different fathers.

Out of the 369 deaths chronicled by the agency in the last year, 18 of them have been classified as inflicted traumas, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll told a Senate committee on Thursday.

“Most of the other stuff, even when there is parental neglect involved, most of the parents were not intending to kill their child,” he told the Senate Children, Families and Elder Care Committee.

But, he added, “Even though many of them don’t rise to the level of abuse and neglect … it is a public health issue.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and at 850-222-3095. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas