MIAMI -- A year’s worth of horror stories about children beaten, shot and starved and drugged to death by their caregivers has taken a toll on the men and women on the front lines of child protection in Florida, who must cope with high case-loads and low pay.
And so when Gov. Rick Scott called a news conference Tuesday in Miami to announce an infusion of new money for the Department of Children & Families, Erica Lee, a senior child protective investigator, was eager to attend — and happy with what she heard.
“It means more support for us,” Lee said Tuesday morning after Scott made the announcement of an additional $31 million to, among other things, hire additional investigators. “Case-load is important, and they are very high, so of course we want to reduce that case-load, and in order to reduce that we need more [investigators.]”
Scott’s proposal — which must pass muster with the Legislature — would mean DCF could hire more than 400 additional investigators. The announcement comes at a time when DCF has been under fire over dozens of child deaths due to abuse and neglect in families that were already on the agency’s radar.
“This is the right thing to do for our children,” said Scott. “There are vulnerable children all across this state. Adding this funding to DCF, making sure we have more investigators . . .is just historical.”
Scott recognized Lee and other child protective investigators who, he said, save children on a daily basis.
“Erica goes above and beyond and her energy is contagious,” he said. “She is always available to the families she serves, and ensures they receive the best services for their needs.”
The governor’s proposal also includes an additional $8 million to sheriff's offices to investigate child abuse complaints. In some counties, including Broward, responsibility for child abuse investigations has been shifted to the local sheriff’s office.
DCF interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, who was present for the news conference, called the move “a historic response to the urgent need in child welfare.”
“Your budget proposal is a concrete demonstration of your support and commitment to those doing the job of protecting children,” Jacobo said to Scott. “Thank you for having the faith that we can do this right and for fighting to get the resources so we can do this right.”
The state’s dismal record of protecting vulnerable children could become a liability for the governor heading into an election cycle. In the past, Scott has made a practice of cutting child welfare funding. In his first budget in 2011-12, for example, the governor recommended reducing funding for DCF by $238 million. In 2011-12, Scott recommended increasing the agency budget by $1.7 million over the level approved by lawmakers a year before but, in 2013-14, he recommended reducing the budget again — by $75.7 million — below what lawmakers had approved the year before.
After the Herald reported last summer on a cluster of child deaths in South Florida, some involving bungling by the agency, DCF’s secretary stepped down, and Jacobo stepped in as a stopgap replacement.
The governor also used the news conference to announce his selection of Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera as his new lieutenant governor, and that announcement quickly overshadowed the one about DCF dollars.
Afterward, Jacobo said the more than 400 new positions will include 296 child protective investigators, 61 senior child protectors and0 59 supervisors.
The governor’s recommendation also includes restoring 26 of the 72 quality assurance positions that were cut under the governor's previous budget proposals — reductions that child advocates blamed for contributing to some of the child deaths.
Currently, there are about 1,084 DCF child protective investigators, not including supervisors.
“The thing about our job is we are not in just one place, we are everywhere,” said Lee, the investigator. “We are visiting homes; We are visiting schools; We are going to police stations for police reports; We are interviewing family members; We are talking to doctors; We are getting collateral contacts; We are driving; We are picking up children and going to court. We are doing a lot and it’s hard to do that if you are getting one or two cases a day.”
A goal of Tuesday’s proposal, according to Jacobo, is to reduce the case-load from the current 13.3 cases per investigator to 10. She said there also would be some new safeguards, including having two-person teams handle cases involving children under age 4 when the family has a history of domestic violence, substance abuse or mental illness; and the ability to assign employees to do random quality checks on open cases.
“If you don’t have the resources you can’t do the job,” she said. “What we have found is it’s not that investigators are not doing their job, it’s when you have a case-load of 20-30 cases, how can you do your job?”
Scott’s proposal was called a “welcome first step” by the Florida Coalition for Children, which advocates on behalf of abused and neglected children and the agencies that serve them.
“However, what Florida’s community child welfare agencies understand better than anyone in Tallahassee is that with improved identification of children and families in crisis also comes a need for a greater commitment to providing adequate resources for the front-line workers.”
“To that end, we look forward to working with the administration and the Legislature to guarantee that we are fully funding all of the services and programs necessary to protect our state’s most vulnerable children,” it said in a statement
Miami-Dade Commission Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, who was present at the news conference, lauded the proposal.
“We have a great responsibility in this country to make sure that children are respected, that children are loved and that children are safe,” she said.
Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald’s Tallahassee bureau chief, contributed to this report.