MANATEE -- The Florida Department of Children and Families directly oversees child protective services in all counties except six: Broward, Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Seminole and Manatee.
In four counties, including Manatee, a statute enacted in 1998 established a grant agreement giving the sheriff's offices "all responsibility" for child protective investigations. Since then, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office has had sole discretion over child abuse investigations, with little oversight from DCF.
For fiscal year 2015-16, the sheriff's office received more than $4.9 million from DCF as part of the grant agreement. The money is earmarked for the Child Protective Services Division and "may not be integrated into the sheriff's regular budgets," according to the statute.
Gov. Rick Scott has proposed an additional $22.9 million for DCF in next year's budget to provide an additional 272 case managers. It is unclear whether the Manatee County Sheriff's Office will receive a piece of that pie, since they employ investigators and not case managers.
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The process of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, DCF and the Safe Children Coalition has come under scrutiny after the gruesome discovery of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas' death. The Bradenton girl's body was found stuffed in a freezer Oct. 18 and her mother, Keishanna Thomas, has been charged with abuse of a dead body, aggravated child abuse and child abuse. There are 12 documented reports of abuse by Keishanna Thomas on file with the sheriff's office and DCF in the 14 years before the child's body was found.
Charlie Wells, Manatee County sheriff in 1998, said the DCF oversight agreement was the result of a discussion between certain sheriffs and then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
"At the time, DCF was just having monumental problems with kids that were either physically abused or killed," Wells told the Bradenton Herald last week. "DCF was taking a beating."
Wells said he can't remember if Bush approached him about the agreement or if it was the other way around. What he does remember is DCF was an absolute mess, with negative headlines appearing every day, and he felt something had to be done about it.
When the sheriff's office took over the process, Wells said he offered the department's child abuse investigators the chance to keep their jobs within the sheriff's office as long as they could pass a background check.
"I think there were 25 workers with DCF at the time, and less than half passed their background checks," Wells said. "I don't remember the issues with all of them, but I remember one guy during a polygraph test admitted to currently using cocaine."
DCF 'pilot program'
The program was meant to improve child protection services in those counties, and in some ways it was a pilot program, Wells said. The statute states explicitly that DCF could look into implementing the program with sheriff's offices in other counties starting in 2000, but only two additional counties, Hillsborough and Seminole, have signed on.
Maj. Connie Shingledecker, who heads the Child Protective Services Division of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, said the sheriff's office handles all investigations, only getting input from DCF once children are removed from the home and legal services need to establish probable cause. The Safe Children Coalition then handles all voluntary child protective service programs and works with families after children have been removed. The coalition also handles temporary and foster care of children.
The Safe Children Coalition has continued to deny all requests for comment in the Janiya Thomas case, referring all the Herald's requests to DCF and the sheriff's office.
John McKay, a former Florida state senator representing Manatee County in 1998 who became Senate president in 2000, said the program was a way to try what seemed like a good idea when DCF was going through turmoil. If it worked out in those counties, it was thought the program could eventually expand throughout the state.
"You've always got to keep evaluating what's working," McKay said. "I've been out of it for a few years, but I've always been pleased with the job that they're (the Manatee County Sheriff's Office) doing."
McKay stressed the switch was all about trying to better execute child protective services, noting DCF wasn't working well because of the amount of tasks it had to deal with at the time.
"It wasn't about trying to save money. It was just a thought of who could do a better job," McKay said.
A look at child deaths
Child fatalities in those six counties aren't particularly different than the rest of the state, according to DCF reports.
Child deaths in 2014 in the six involved counties make up 27.5 percent of total state deaths, most from Broward and Hillsborough, which have the second- and fourth-highest populations in the state.
The Florida county with the highest population, Miami-Dade, only has 31 child deaths since 2008, compared with Broward's 42.
Manatee County had seven child deaths in 2014, none with prior involvements by child protective services. So far in 2015, Manatee has had 10 child deaths, five with prior involvement with child protective services within the past five years and two with prior involvement in the past 12 months.
Collier County, with a population similar to Manatee's, has had four child deaths in 2015, one with prior involvement with DCF in the past five years and none with prior involvement in the past 12 months.
Marion County, another county with similar population to Manatee, has had 12 child deaths in 2015, six with prior DCF involvement in the past five years and none with prior involvement in the past 12 months.
In those counties, CPS is accountable to DCF. Within the sheriff's offices, investigators are held to the same standards as DCF employees and are under the supervision of the sheriff's office. The sheriffs in those counties then submit a report to the Senate president, the Speaker of the House and the governor each year.
State Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said the most recent report shows the work by sheriffs' offices are on the same level as the work by DCF.
"It was neck and neck with state versus county, like just half a percentage point off," said Boyd, the House vice majority leader and majority whip.
Boyd said legislators would be open to expanding the system throughout the state, but they prefer to have sheriff's offices approach them about wanting the program, rather than forcing it on law enforcement offices possibly not be equipped to handle child protective services.
The most recent report to Florida government leaders available, for fiscal year 2013-14, ranked all involved sheriffs' offices at least 95 percent for quality performance. Manatee County received a 95.2 percent quality performance score, with interviews with other involved children its lowest performance score.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby