- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 22, 2014

MIAMI (AP) - After dozens of child abuse-related deaths, Florida lawmakers may add money for nearly 200 new child protective investigators and other services, but critics worry the proposal overlooks funding to treat mental health and substance abuse problems that are at the root of most child deaths.

Roughly $47 million to fund child welfare services was approved Tuesday by House and Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations conference committees.

That includes $13 million to hire new child protective investigators in hopes of reducing caseloads and high turnover at the Department of Children and Families. It’s much less than Gov. Scott proposed. The bill also seeks to professionalize the workforce, employing higher caliber staff with experience in social work. The lawmakers also approved an $8 million increase for sheriff’s offices handling abuse cases, which Scott had requested.

The proposal did not directly fund Scott’s request for two-person teams to investigate cases involving the 20,000 most at-risk children, but officials could use some of the money for that purpose. DCF launched a pilot program using two-person teams in Miami-Dade and Polk counties and says it’s resulted in faster and more thorough investigations.

But child advocates warn that simply hiring more investigators won’t solve the problem. According to a report released last fall reviewing 40 child deaths, welfare authorities overlooked danger signs like parental drug abuse or domestic violence. Most children who died were younger than 5.



The latest proposal comes after child advocates pleaded Monday for prevention services funding. Mike Watkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care, said the bill is well intended but doesn’t deal with mental health and substance abuse issues that may be key to changing parents’ behavior and ultimately reducing abuse.

“There’s some good provisions in here but it’s largely administrative. It does not change the policy framework of the state of Florida to get at the root issues,” Watkins told a House committee.

Tuesday’s proposal does carve out $5 million for at-risk families with young children who need substance abuse treatment.

DCF’s contractors recently completed an assessment showing what services are available for at-risk families and the biggest gaps. Thirteen services, including crisis management and intervention and behavior management, were identified as critically unmet needs that affect child safety.

When asked whether the Legislature would address those gaps, Scott said “the right way of budgeting is to find problems and find solutions … if we find problems then we’ll work all year to get those done.”

Scott, who is up for re-election, has frequently criticized his likely Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, for slashing DCF’s budget during his 2007-11 term. But in 2011, Scott proposed cuts across several agencies, including $172 million from DCF’s budget and axing 1,849 positions, saying the agency would have to make due with less.

At a Miami town hall last week, Rep. Erik Fresen says lawmakers will fix what they can now, but said more needs to be done. He warned the “systemic issue is deeper than a specific plan.”

Fresen, R-Miami, and many other child welfare experts argue that meaningful change must include a conversation about family preservation. For several years, DCF has placed a premium on putting fewer children in foster care and, instead, offering family services while the child remains at home. But experts warn there are gaps in those services and lax enforcement, usually nothing more than a verbal agreement from a parent to stay away from an abusive spouse, attend parenting classes or to quit drugs.

“We sent a confusing message to the (child protective investigators): We should protect the child but we should keep the family together. So what does the (investigator) do? They try to do both and both fail,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who does not support such family safety plans.

Fresen agreed, saying “it is indisputable that the concept of keeping families together has led to a lot of these issues.”

The House bill requires parents to demonstrate “meaningful change” before their child can live at home, but some lawmakers worried it still relies on vague promises.

Hiring more investigators will likely lead to more children placed in foster care. That’s why DCF’s foster care contractors are seeking $7.6 million to hire 103 caseworkers and an additional $17.8 million for safety management services. Lawmakers included $10 million for the contractors in Tuesday’s proposal.

“If you add 400 investigators but don’t provide additional funding for services you will have an influx of children in need of services, without any resources to provide those services,” said Kurt Kelly, president of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the contractors.

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