DCF Budget Request Would Slash Caseloads, Pair Investigators

By: Margie Menzel News Service of Florida | Posted: January 3, 2014 3:55 AM
Esther Jacobo

Esther Jacobo

The leader of Florida's troubled child welfare system is asking Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature for the funding to slash caseloads for frontline staff and other proposals aimed at keeping more children safe.

Department of Children and Families Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo said she has met with Scott about her proposals, including one that would reduce caseloads to 10 – down from a current 13.3 cases per child protective investigator.

She also proposes to put two-person teams of investigators on all cases involving children under 4 with risk factors such as domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness in their homes.

Additionally, Jacobo said, she told Scott she wants to put quality assurance oversight of open cases in real time, meaning that child protective investigators would be able to get help making critical decisions while they are still in process.

The proposals follow the recommendations of the nonprofit Casey Family Programs, which reviewed 40 child deaths in Florida and concluded that both DCF and community-based care organizations should focus less on specific incidents of abuse and more on reducing the risk to children by providing services to stabilize their families.

"(Scott) wanted me to walk him through what we needed for resourcing," Jacobo said. "He had a lot of questions about how we were doing it. He wanted to make sure we were doing it right."

She wasn't ready to say what DCF's legislative budget proposal would cost.

"I think we're very close to coming to a specific number, but all of these things were things that he asked me about, that he wanted to know about and that he felt if it's going to stop kids from getting hurt, he's completely on board with it," Jacobo said.

And Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz wasn't ready to say whether the governor will put those items into his proposed budget, which is nearing completion and expected within weeks.

"We have no announcement on our proposed budget yet," Schutz said in an email. "We are prioritizing spending on critical services as we craft the budget, and vital child protective services will not be reduced."

The proposals come as Florida Democrats have been blasting Scott for cost-cutting in the face of the wave of child deaths that roiled the state in the spring and summer and contributed to the departure of former secretary David Wilkins in July.

Children's advocates have charged that some of the deaths were attributable to cost-cutting measures, such as Wilkins' elimination of 72 quality assurance positions.

With Scott facing re-election later this year, child protection is likely to be a campaign issue.

On Dec. 19, House Minority Leader Perry Thurston held a press conference, reminding Scott of a recent Casey report "that found systemic failures at DCF, many of which are linked to diminished resources. Their recommendations to address the perilous state of children in your care included hiring skilled social workers, dramatically reducing worker caseloads, restoring budget cuts and providing more resources for mental health and substance abuse programs to keep families safe."

The current DCF budget is $2.815 billion, down from $2.886 billion in 2012-2013. As Jacobo led the annual budget-cutting exercise required of all state agencies, both she and the governor's office repeatedly said that while other areas of the agency faced cuts, funding for child protection did not.

Some children's advocates hailed the DCF budget proposals.

Alan Abramowitz, executive director of Florida Guardian ad Litem, said if the proposals get funded, frontline staff "are going to be able to go the extra mile on every case. You'll see really intense investigations and better outcomes."

Others praised the proposals, but cautioned that if Scott cuts other DCF services, that could undermine the improvements to child protection.

"We know mental health issues, domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse are the main causes of abuse to these kids," said Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida's Children First. "So if we start cutting back on those services, these other changes aren't going to make that much difference."

And while Thurston acknowledged that Jacobo's proposals are "a step in the right direction," he also called on Scott to fully fund all the services recommended by Casey.

"You've got to have a holistic approach," he said. "Not a silver bullet."


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