DCF unveils new child abuse prevention strategy

New method begins in October

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Two years after the high-profile death of a child in a pickup truck, the Department of Children and Families is unveiling an intensive new strategy for keeping kids safe. The transformation change comes as the department is under fire for four Miami-Dade child deaths in May.

The rollout of the new method begins in October, but isn't likely to be implemented statewide until February or March of next year.

Child abuse investigator Letitia McClellan and case manager Sheyla Ferguson walk into the unknown every day.

On this day, they are checking up on a baby in foster care. The baby's mother has mental health issues and can't care for the infant.

When asked about whether or not the mother is cooperating with the referral, McClellan said, "I don't know if she really understands."

The case might be handled very differently in the future. Everyone involved with child protective services is undergoing eight days of specialized training in a method that is 180 degrees different from current methods.

"The goal of the new program is to do away with checklists and actually listen to the client," McClellan said. "We're looking at family functioning, the parenting, the discipline. Just entire family as a whole."

"We are moving away from a compliance," Ferguson said. "Yes, you know, they complete one or two classes. More towards, do we see a behavioral change in their parenting?"

DCF Secretary David Wilkins said every investigator in Florida will now be using the same playbook.

"Now we have the technologies and the data collection activities occurring," Wilkins said. "So we can really measure which programs work and which situations. Before that we just didn't collect that kind of information."

There are some fears more children will be taken from their homes, or the caseloads will go up as investigators spend more time with each family. But Wilkins said pilot programs don't bear out those fears.

DCF had contact with all four children killed in May. Two were murdered, and investigations into the other two deaths are incomplete. Wilkins said the agency is reviewing its contact with the families for clues.

"Any time you've met a family before then and a bad thing happens, we have a lot of information on that situation," Wilkins said. "We're able to go back and reflect what services did we offer, what did we not offer, could we offer different types of services? And definitely, we are going back and looking at our actions in those cases."

The agency is in the process of transforming its investigative and service functions. Whether new methods would have helped the four children is uncertain.

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