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DCF: Trying again for better child welfare system

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Department of Children and Families had a pretty good legislative session, at least compared to other state agencies.

While DCF lost employees in its budget overall, it succeeded in advancing plans to redesign the state's child abuse hotline and child protective investigators – both of which had received plenty of criticism after last year's searing case involving the death of Nubia Barahona in South Florida.

"This year we came in with a very aggressive agenda and got everything we asked for," said DCF Sec. David Wilkins. "In exchange for that, I agreed to cut positions."

Wilkins had only been on the job a few weeks when – on Feb. 14, 2011, the eve of last year's legislative session – the corpse of ten-year-old Nubia Barahona and her critically-injured twin, Victor, were discovered in their adopted father's truck off Interstate 95.

In the wake of a blue-ribbon panel and a Miami-Dade grand jury report, both scathing, lawmakers learned that warning calls to the hotline about the twins had fallen through the cracks and that the child protective investigator sent to their home three days before Nubia's murder had departed without seeing them.

One of Wilkins' first moves was to hire 100 protective investigators right away, and another 100 since, for a statewide total of 1600. At the time of Nubia's death, the statewide turnover for CPIs was 37 percent – and in Miami-Dade County, where she died, it was closer to 60 percent.

"I don't know how a system can work effectively with that kind of turnover," said Roy Miller, president of the Florida Children's Campaign.

The 2012 Legislature approved the authority to redesign the training for CPIs and $9.8 million to raise the base salaries of investigators by $4,000 in the hope of retaining more of them – which Wilkins says is part of his strategy for doing more with less, given budgetary constraints.

"The big thing is retention," Wilkins said. "If 400 are leaving every year, it takes three months to get them up to capacity."

DCF's new budget increases the base salary for 828 fully trained CPIs from $35,900 to $39,600. It also creates a "career ladder" whereby 202 senior positions will go to $41,500 and 112 supervisors to $49,200. It creates 20 field supervisors with base salaries of $46,900.

The Legislature also signed off on $12.4 million for technological and training improvement to the state abuse hotline.

Miller said Wilkins had made the best of the options available to DCF.

"State employees haven't had a raise in five years and protective service workers walking in off the street as new hires were making the same amount of money as people who had been there for five years," Miller said. "So I think [Wilkins'] plan was thoughtful, and we hope it will reduce the turnover, which is a fundamental building block of improving investigation."

Meanwhile, the number of full-time employees at DCF will go down about 620, according to agency spokesman Joe Follick. Of those, 160 are already vacant and another 260 are due to the outsourcing of maintenance, food and other services at the state hospitals in Chattahoochee and Macclenny.

The remaining cuts are mostly due to a consolidation of human resources and IT support, which are being centralized.

Also passed this year:

-SB 2044/HB 803, known as the "Barahona bill." If signed by Gov. Rick Scott, it would require DCF to maintain a single electronic case file for each child and to oversee investigations for quality and timeliness. CPIs would be allowed to close an investigation if they deem it false and operators at the abuse hotline would be allowed to take calls from parents or legal guardians needing advice, even if the call is not made to report a crime.

Caseloads are another key indicator for CPI success. The Child Welfare League of America recommends no more than 15-18 cases per social worker, but Wilkins said that when he came in as secretary, some investigators had 80 cases.

Now, he says, the average is in the low 20s.

Another measure that passed (SB 1816/HB 1355) would require DCF to provide for web-chat and update other web-based forms for reporting child abuse, abandonment or neglect. It would increase criminal penalties for "knowingly and willfully" failing to report known or suspected child abuse, abandonment or neglect, or preventing another person from doing so. The bill carries an appropriation of $1.5 million, but critics say they're not sure how much it could end up costing.

Currently, according to Wilkins, the number of statewide investigations is rising at a rate of 9 percent yearly. That's partly because of publicity over the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State University, which also drew legislative attention to the measure.

Meanwhile, the Barahona case wasn't the last: In December, 8-month-old Gabrielle Crawford, died in Hillsborough County with broken limbs, allegedly at the hands of his mother, whose four older children DCF had removed.

In January, a nine-year-old found by police in his North Miami Beach neighborhood – beaten, naked and weighing 34 pounds – was found to have come from a family DCF had overseen since 2002.

In February there was a killing spree by a man to whom DCF had returned his sons – one of whom died in the rampage (along with an elderly man) and the other stabbed in the head.

Wilkins said that in some of those cases, DCF had done the right thing. In others, he added, improvements to the hotline and CPI system will have a dramatic impact.

Miller, who got his start running a hotline, agreed.

"It's far behind what you would expect to see in an operation of that volume and intensity," he said. "And the better the hotline, the better the workers and the better the technology, the more children are going to be protected."