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Five Questions for Bob Butterworth

September 1, 2013 - 6:00pm

Bob Butterworth has worn a lot of hats. He's been a judge, a prosecutor, a law-school dean and the Broward County sheriff. As Florida's four-term attorney general, he helped lead multistate litigation against the tobacco industry, bringing billions of dollars to Florida.

Then, in 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist, who'd followed Butterworth as attorney general, tapped him to head the troubled Department of Children and Families. Butterworth led a successful revamp of the food-stamp program just in time for a doubling of program participants during the economic recession. He also closed many cases that DCF had been litigating.

Now, Butterworth chairs the Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, a nonprofit with a contract to be Broward's privatized "managing entity" for mental-health and substance-abuse programs. He is of counsel at Fowler White Boggs in Fort Lauderdale, specializing in government affairs.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Bob Butterworth:

Q: You've seen DCF go through up-and-down cycles before. What's your best advice to DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo and child-welfare workers in regrouping after the recent turmoil and moving forward?

BUTTERWORTH: The agency has always gone in cycles, unfortunately. And it's not just Florida. You take any other agency like this in the country -- and you're dealing with people literally at the actual worst times in their life sometimes. You try to do your very best, and a lot of times -- unfortunately -- it will not work out.

A couple of things that Esther said immediately, in her first interview: transparency and accountability. George (Sheldon, Butterworth's deputy and successor as secretary) and I used that, obviously, in our first comments. And we also said that with the people that we're dealing with, we have to understand a sense of urgency and also common sense. We have to stand behind the people on the front lines, give them the best training we possibly can, the best working conditions we possibly can, and allow them to make decisions based upon what they see and the best decision with the information that they have. You need good supervision. You want to cut the turnover rate. I'm glad the salaries got increased a little bit.

Q: As a former sheriff, what do you think about sheriffs doing more child-protective investigations?

BUTTERWORTH: I've been advocating for 20 years that the sheriff's office should be doing the child protection and the adult protection work. I think they're best suited for it. There's upward mobility. They'll have a car. They'll have somewhat of a uniform, no gun. They'll have a very sophisticated radio system. And they'll have a backup immediately there.

I do think the six sheriffs that are doing it are doing good jobs. I think DCF is doing a good job. But what happens when something goes wrong -- and I don't mean this to be disrespectful to the media, but the media will come to a conclusion pretty quickly that someone messed up. And the only way -- in my 40 years in this business -- that if you have something that's messed up, if a child dies, unfortunate, the only thing you should do is let the media know immediately. Immediately! Everything that you have that can be given out. I went to court, George went to court, to open up certain things. If the media have the whole story, you'll find out that the story will be a little different. It'll be a little more balanced.

Q: You've got a lot of confidence in Esther Jacobo.

BUTTERWORTH: I have confidence in Esther, but I also have confidence in the department. When I got there, one of the first things I said was, "This is one of the most underestimated departments in government. These are people that do a good job. They care a lot. I represented them for 16 years as AG. I know what they do. I know what they're capable of doing."

There are some problems, there are issues of turnover, issues of morale. As you always have in agencies, there are a lot of issues. I think we can resolve a number of them.

Yes, I think Esther -- I mean, she came out of (Miami-Dade State Attorney) Kathy Rundle's office, she came out of (former Miami-Dade State Attorney) Janet Reno's office. Whenever someone gets to a high level in Janet Reno's office or Kathy Rundle's office, like (DCF Children's Legal Services Director) Mary Cagle did. Mary Cagle was the first person I hired (at DCF), and she wanted to bring Esther in. As far as I was concerned, there were no questions asked. Like Mary, anybody that comes out of that Miami-Dade state attorney's office and worked for Janet and Kathy at a very high level -- they're going to do a great job.

Q: What sort of relationship should DCF have with the community-based care organizations?

BUTTERWORTH: A great relationship. It's a partnership.

The department has a certain responsibility when it comes to child protection, adult protection. Part of it is contracted out to not-for-profits. I'm very much in favor of that. I'm one of the ones who thought it was a mistake 40 years ago when we decided to have (a Florida Health and Rehabilitative Services department) because the federal government decided that, "Oh, we should have a centralized social service agency at the state level." Well, this is not Wyoming. We have a lot of people here. And we did back then and more now. But the local people know what the local problems are.

In a few cases, both George and myself, in both of our administrations, we had to literally get rid of CBCs and put a new CBC in. You don't embarrass anybody.

With the CBCs, its got to be a constant, a constant partnership. And they've got to be part of everything. They were part of our management teams. They were part of everything that we did. We brought foster kids into it -- let us know what you need! I don't know what a foster kid needs.

Q: But you and Sheldon started having DCF listen to them.

BUTTERWORTH: You've got to listen to them.

Are we in the business of helping kids, or are we in the business of abusing kids? Let's look at our entire system as to how we're working this thing out. I mean, these young adults are telling us, "I understand why I was taken out of my home by a social worker X number of years ago. They probably made the best decision. But when I look back on it, I might have preferred to have stayed in my own home with my own family, being abused by them, than being abused by strangers."

OK. I came to the conclusion that we're taking the wrong set out of the home. We should keep the kids in the home, to stay in the same school, with the same friends -- and we'll drop in a couple of parents. OK, that's not going to happen, so the next best thing is, No. 1: the safety of the child. Now, if we can work with the CBCs, and bring services into the home and keep that family together -- safely, safely, not as primary but secondary. If we can do it, let's try it. And we dropped from 33,000 (children in state custody) down to maybe 19,000 in four years. When George was secretary, it went down to 19,000.

But with that comes a lot of responsibility. You've got to have the CBC working with the department, and with law enforcement, and with the schools. I mean, I could not understand the school systems that would By law a homeless child can stay in their same school, not to taint the child. A foster child did not get that same protection. And in many counties, the foster kid might go to another school that they might be assigned to due to the foster home or group home. Worst thing in the world. New friends they don't know. They're labeled. So we tried to get schools to treat the foster child the same way they did a homeless child. Pick them up first and drop them off last, so no other kid knows where they're living.

You learn more from sitting down with the kids that aged out (of foster care).

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