Head of Florida’s long-troubled child welfare agency steps down

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll
DCF Secretary Mike Carroll Florida Department of Children & Families

The head of Florida’s long-troubled child welfare agency is stepping down, the state announced Friday, after a four-year stint that saw him serve longer than the agency’s other recent chiefs.

Gov. Rick Scott praised DCF Secretary Mike Carroll Friday as the embodiment of DCF’s “ideals and mission.” He oversaw the fraught agency as long as he did by earning the respect and admiration of a legion of stakeholders, including agency contractors, lawmakers and his own staff.

However, Carroll, whose department served some of the poorest and neediest residents of the state, including abused children and their parents, elders, survivors of domestic violence and Floridians with mental illness, was unable to stem the tide of high-profile calamities, especially the abuse deaths of vulnerable children.

Missteps by the department often made state and national headlines: a youngster whose father’s mental deconstruction was well-known was tossed into Tampa Bay; an adolescent foster child suffering a long-documented emotional collapse hanged herself from a Miami Gardens foster home while livestreaming on Facebook.

Carroll — a 28-year-veteran of the Department of Children & Families and its predecessor, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services — will leave effective Sept. 6, according to a statement from Scott’s office. A replacement has not yet been named.

“Throughout his career, Mike has focused on innovative solutions to complicated problems, finding ways to enable better outcomes for children and families,” Scott wrote in a news release.

Carroll became the third leader in a year to take over DCF’s reins in 2014, amid one of the most tumultuous reckonings in the agency’s history. A Miami Herald investigation that year had detailed the deaths of 477 children since 2008 — deaths that occurred even though their families had histories of dealing with the agency. When Carroll took the top slot, he stated that any child’s death was “unacceptable” and that the department needed to improve.

But under Carroll’s tenure, the agency continued to struggle with high-profile child deaths. In 2015, an agency report documented missed opportunities in the case of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck, who died when her father dropped her from a St. Petersburg bridge into Tampa Bay. That same year, Carroll also acknowledged “system failures” in the brutal deaths of two other Tampa Bay-area children. As recently as May, a scathing report faulted several — including agency investigators — in the January scalding death of 1-year-old Ethan Coley of Homestead.

Carroll, when he addressed a legislative committee last year following the suicide death of 14-year-old Naika Venant — which was livestreamed on social media — noted what he said were the department’s limits in helping “broken” kids.

“One of the misconceptions we have out there is ...that we can fix folks. We can’t. We need a partner,” he said, describing the department’s review of Naika’s death. “We can provide a hand up; we can provide services, but we need folks to engage with us in those services. We don’t change people. Folks make that change themselves.”

Scott’s office, in a statement, made no mention of the troubling cases but praised Carroll for increasing substance abuse treatment services in the state and setting record adoption numbers.

Among the seven accomplishments listed by Scott in his news release was DCF’s “enhanced transparency” the past four years.

In the wake of the Herald’s series on child deaths, the Florida Legislature unanimously passed a significant reform law, including a mandate that details of all child fatalities be posted on a website accessible to the public. DCF acceded to lawmakers’ wishes, making available reports on the deaths of most children who became victims of abuse or neglect at the hands of parents or caregivers.

But a close look at the reports — called death reviews — shows that most provide less information than those produced years earlier. Past death reviews were significantly longer, and offered sometimes painful assessments of agency performance.

And the agency continued to often hide its mistakes behind a veil of confidentiality, refusing to discuss its performance even in the most egregious of circumstances. On the day Scott touted agency transparency, DCF declined to tell a reporter with Florida Keys News whether DCF had prior contact with a Key Largo woman, 41-year-old Jennifer Renee Franklin, arrested Friday on charges of capital sexual battery of a minor. The woman’s boyfriend also had been arrested on two counts of cruelty toward a child.

The man, 36-year-old Randell Howell, has been accused of beating the boy regularly, making him clean urine off the toilet with his own toothbrush, and withholding food and clothing as a form of punishment. Deputies found bruises on the boy’s arms, legs and hips.

The governor also praised Carroll for conducting “a comprehensive review and [making] significant improvements at state-operated mental health treatment facilities.” But that evaluation occurred only after the Tampa Bay Times and the Herald Tribune in Sarasota jointly published a blistering report in 2015 documenting the devastating consequences of systemic neglect and $100 million in budget cuts: nearly 1,000 patients had injured themselves or others, including 15 resident deaths.

As for the children, who represent both the lion’s share of DCF’s budget and its greatest source of turmoil, advocates suggest that very little has changed over the past four years.

As president of Florida’s Children First, Howard Talenfeld has been studying — and suing — DCF for many years. He said Friday that DCF continues to be plagued by many of the same systemic failures that have bedeviled the agency for generations: low pay and crippling turnover among investigators and caseworkers, a dearth of beds at foster homes, especially for kids with emotional or behavioral illnesses, and chronic physical and sexual abuse at shelters.

“We have a very inexperienced frontline in the child protection system,” Talenfeld said.

A significant obstacle to fixing the problem: administrators laid off most of DCF’s “quality assurance” staff about five years ago, Talenfeld said. So the agency lacks the ability to deeply measure its own performance and correct the course.

“Kids are being failed,” he said. “I want to be clear: There is not enough oversight to meet the needs of children. We have not been able to address that.”

Carole Shauffer, director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, said Friday she doesn’t hold Carroll directly responsible for Florida’s failure to reform its chronically troubled child protection system. She blames Scott, and the Legislature, she says, for decades of financial neglect — though Carroll never publicly expressed concern about his agency’s lack of resources.

“Florida, to me, is just so frustrating. You can’t keep running this system with no money whatsoever. There’s an expose, and they fire a few people, but they still get no money.

“You can’t keep blaming this on every individual secretary,” Shauffer said. “Something is wrong with a system that keeps producing all these failures. You can’t run it on the cheap. You can’t keep running on nothing.”

Carroll’s departure is another in a number of high-profile state resignations, which are typical as Scott nears the end of his second and final term. The embattled head of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, Christina K. Daly, also is stepping down later this month.

Shauffer said Carroll’s “mysterious” departure so late in Scott’s final administration will make it extremely difficult to recruit a high-caliber replacement. Even if one of the two Republicans vying to replace Scott is elected in November, there will be no guarantee he will retain the short-term secretary.

“Who can they hire now?” she asked.

David Goodhue of Florida Keys News contributed to this report.