Gov. Rick Scott visited a Department of Children & Families service center in Opa-locka on Tuesday to tout additional funding and staffing for the troubled agency's child protection system.
Surrounding by child abuse investigators and supervisors, Scott pledged again -- as he did earlier this year -- to commit about $39 million in new dollars to hire more staff and lower caseloads. He then chastised the Florida Senate for not including the money in its budget while defending gaps in his own child welfare budget.
After praising the work of local investigators, Scott said: "I am asking the Senate to do right by our children."
Katherine Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz of Destin, said that's precisely what the Senate is doing.
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She said the Senate set
aside dollars for child welfare reform "from day one of our budget planning," adding: "President Gaetz has communicated this point throughout session, as have other senators working on this legislation."
In January -- months after the Miami Herald wrote about the deaths of four children whose families had prior DCF contact -- Scott announced a proposal to commit $31 million in additional funding to hire new investigators, as well as another $8 million for sheriff's offices that also investigate child abuse.
The Senate has set aside $33.5 million in new money for child welfare programs, but has not identified where the money will be used. The House is proposing to spend more than the governor -- $44.5 million, enough to hire additional child protection investigators and provide $4.5 million in new money for services for troubled families.
During a news conference at the center, Scott deflected questions about why his proposed DCF budget will not provide additional money for the treatment or supervision of parents accused of abusing their children.
Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo has begun a survey of private agencies throughout the state to identify "gaps" in the state's ability to provide services. Scott said he does not plan to seek additional dollars until the analysis is complete -- meaning any new spending won't arrive for at least a year under Scott's plan.
After a brief tour of the center, Scott praised the work of local investigators, acknowledged the difficulties of their jobs, and promoted an investigator from the center to supervisor as her boss, Jacobo, beamed.
"They are truly public servants," Scott said of the investigators, as they observed the news conference in their lobby. "They are on the front lines when it comes to protecting Florida's most vulnerable children."
Also in Scott's crosshairs Tuesday: former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat who is challenging Scott's re-election. At his news conference, Scott accused Crist of cutting dollars from the state's child protection budget.
Crist has maintained he was forced to make tough decisions during his administration, which included some of the bleakest economic times in recent memory, resulting in a near-collapse in state revenue.
Scott's proposal comes after the state reduced the DCF budget by about $100 million, including his vetoes, during the current fiscal year.
Scott conducted his news conference amid a growing chorus of calls to reform the agency, as well as a scathing report from Casey Family Programs, a child welfare consultancy that identified systematic flaws in the way DCF handles cases. The report, which involved the study of 40 child deaths in which DCF had a prior family history, included 13 recommendations.
Hiring the additional investigators will allow the state to reduce caseloads from the current 13.3-per-worker to about 10, DCF says. The agency is also starting a pilot project that pairs two investigators in cases where children were determined to be at high risk of abuse or neglect. DCF says it now has 1,084 child protective investigators, excluding supervisors.
In March, the Herald published a series of stories, called Innocents Lost, that detailed the abuse or neglect deaths of 477 children whose families had a prior history with the state. The children died since January 2008.
The series prompted lawmakers to rewrite portions of a child welfare reform package that was making its way through the Legislature since last summer. It would be the most substantial overhaul of the children welfare system in a decade or more.
Legislation in the Senate would improve training, rein in so-called "promissory note" safety plans and make it easier to remove children from unsafe homes in cases in which the parents or caregivers have demonstrated a pattern of child abuse or neglect.
Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.