TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After months of reports about problems in Florida's child-welfare system, lawmakers this year approved a sweeping reform bill that included establishing an institute to guide state leaders, in part, by evaluating the success of their policies.
Now, as the Florida Institute for Child Welfare at Florida State University prepares its first report to Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, people responsible for improving the lot of the state's children hope the institute will provide important perspective.
"We really need to have a much better way of measuring the impact and the outcomes, in terms of whether we're having any success," said Mike Carroll, interim secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.
"To have that research capacity is going to be invaluable for all the people in Florida who work with children," said Wansley Walters, chairwoman of the state's Children and Youth Cabinet and a former secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Senate Bill 1666 passed after a scathing review by the Casey Family Programs of 40 children's deaths from abuse and neglect, pointing to systemic woes in Florida's child-protection system. Lawmakers focused on ways to reduce caseloads and turnover of front-line staff, and they allocated funds to hire more child protective investigators and case managers.
But the new institute's interim director, Patty Babcock, who has been on the job 10 weeks -- mostly traveling and observing people in the child protection system -- said workforce issues remain Florida's biggest problem in keeping children safe.
"We just don't have the manpower to do what we need to do," she said. "Without the dollars for that workforce issue, we're not going to be able to, one, keep kids safe. And two, we're not going to be able to get them into the services they need in a timely manner."
Babcock said frontline child-protection workers are still burning out from handling too many cases, so that despite the new hires, the system is stretched thin. She described "watching the frontline workers … just the low morale, really low morale based on caseload and feeling overloaded. And you have supervisors who are carrying caseloads as well."
That means the supervisors don't have as much time to review the decisions of frontline staff, she added.
But Babcock also said that in crafting a long-term strategic plan, she would lay out the steps to acquire the necessary funding, over time and by getting the most value for the money.
She also pointed out that many cases are deeply complex, with families dealing with substance abuse, poverty, domestic violence, and mental-health and disability issues all at the same time. The services they receive cut across multiple state agencies and funding sources, Babcock said, and an analysis of their outcomes could help guide the state's spending.
Mike Watkins, executive director of Big Bend Community Based Care, said he met with Babcock for two hours and came away impressed.
"I left there thinking maybe for the first time, we have somebody that is able to stand back from the minutiae and steer a course that makes sense," he said. "Not being a (Department of Children and Families) employee enables her to have an independent viewpoint."
Babcock's report to state leaders is due Feb. 1, as legislative committees are meeting for the upcoming session. The Children and Youth Cabinet -- which is crafting its first new strategic plan since being established in 2007 -- has scheduled a webinar with Babcock for January.
"I see this as such a great opportunity that we're not going to have again for awhile," she said. "And we just need to capitalize on it and get the decision-makers to really understand what it means to be in the child welfare system, and what it means for Florida when these children grow up to be adults."