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DCF Chief Says Progress Made With New Child-Welfare Law

Florida Department of Children and Families

The secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families on Thursday told a Senate panel his agency has made progress in carrying out a new child-protection law that came after a series of highly publicized child deaths.

In particular, Secretary Mike Carroll told the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee that the department has surpassed the law's requirement to post new child-fatality reports online.

He said six years' worth of data has been posted on every death reported to the state child-abuse hotline during that time.

"I think it's the best thing we've done," Carroll said. "We wanted to go back and put all child deaths on there so people could go back and see the history of child fatalities in the state of Florida."

Even as the meeting got underway, word was sweeping through the Capitol of the death hours before of a 5-year-old girl whose father allegedly threw her off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge into Tampa Bay.

And earlier this week, a 15-year-old Columbia County girl was arrested in the shooting death of her 16-year-old brother, with the Gainesville Sun reporting that authorities said the incident followed years of abuse in the family.

"The reasons why children are dying are complex, and we only touch a fraction of the kids that are dying," Carroll said. "But nonetheless, we have a responsibility to understand what's going on and to eliminate (the fatalities). Almost always there's a chronic substance-abuse issue, sometimes a mental-health issue, sometimes a domestic-violence issue. Those three factors are driving everything we do in the department."

In 2014, following years of such reports, the Legislature passed the sweeping reform measure, which required the department to be more transparent in reporting child deaths. It also beefed up accountability measures for the community-based care agencies that provide adoption and foster-care services.

Additionally, the law strengthened enforcement of the safety plans developed for abusive and neglectful parents, requiring child-protective investigators to develop safety plans before leaving children in homes. Now parents must do more than simply promise to stop drinking or to stay away from abusive partners --- they must follow through or lose custody.

The Department of Children and Families has also long struggled with high turnover among its frontline staff, and the Legislature last year allocated $13.1 million for 191 new child-protective investigators at the agency and $8.1 million for the six county sheriffs' offices that provide such investigative services.

Carroll said slightly less than 90 percent of the new positions have been filled, but that continuing turnover among frontline staff has prevented the department from filling all the positions. By March, he said, about 95 percent of the new positions will be filled, bringing the average caseload for child-protective investigators down to about 10.

"That's pretty good, because we'll always have an attrition built in," Carroll told the committee.

Some of the new investigators have been assigned to work in pairs on what Carroll called "the most complex, high-risk cases we have." Those cases usually involve children under 3 years old whose parents or caregivers have already been reported to the department for substance abuse, domestic violence, or both.

Carroll also said the department is going over previous child fatalities to be sure they were reported correctly, reconciling them with reports from other agencies such as the state Department of Health and the community-based care lead agencies.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the committee, said she planned to invite the Department of Health, which also tracks child abuse fatalities, to address the committee's next meeting later this month.

Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican who has long advocated for child-welfare reform, praised Carroll, who was appointed secretary last month after more than 20 years with the department, including eight months as interim secretary.

Detert recalled that roughly 15 years ago, when she and Sobel served on a House committee that oversaw child protection, "They'd give us their annual report, and it would say how many phone calls they answered, and they answered the phone 70 percent of the time. And anything we would ask them, they'd say, 'We don't capture that information.' "