In his second week on the job, the Department of Children & Families’ top administrator made good on his first formal pledge by appointing a professional social worker and agency veteran to be the state’s first statewide fatality prevention specialist.
Lisa Rivera, who started her career at DCF as a child abuse investigator and has worked at the department 17 years, will be the agency’s top child death administrator. Mike Carroll, her former boss at DCF’s Tampa Bay-area region before he was elevated to DCF secretary, promised to make fatality prevention a top priority by creating the position.
“We are committed to improving our response, consistency and transparency,” Carroll, who holds the top job on an interim basis, said in a prepared statement. “Lisa has the experience and expertise to lead this effort and engage communities in protecting children from abuse and neglect.”
With a master’s degree is social work, Rivera is the type of administrator lawmakers envisioned when they passed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s troubled child welfare agency earlier this month. The legislation, which passed both chambers unanimously, contains language favoring master’s-level social workers for sensitive investigative jobs. It has yet to be signed by Gov. Rick Scott.
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Rivera also has expertise in a subject that often is directly linked to child abuse: domestic violence between family members. Before joining DCF, a statement says, Rivera supervised a domestic violence center in Honolulu, and helped develop curriculum for treating the effects of family violence on children. Rivera continues to oversee domestic violence efforts by helping train Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies, who investigate child abuse for DCF, on domestic violence.
Carroll took over the reins of DCF on May 5, just after the annual legislative session ended, following a tumultuous year of public outrage over the deaths of small children whose families had been known to the agency. His predecessor, Esther Jacobo, took on the job, also on an interim basis, after former Secretary David Wilkins resigned amid a spate of child deaths reported by the Miami Herald.
In March, the Herald published a series of stories, called Innocents Lost, that detailed the deaths of 477 children whose families had been the subject of at least one abuse or neglect report. Concern over the deaths led lawmakers to change state law to emphasize the safety and welfare of children rather than the rights of parents.
The Herald had reported that child deaths had spiked after the agency implemented a far-reaching “family preservation” effort without first ensuring that communities had drug treatment, mental health, domestic violence and other services in place to protect small children who were left with drug-addicted or violent parents. The series also revealed that both investigators and their lawyers often made poor decisions about whether children would be safe without significant action.