- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - The man appointed to lead Florida’s social services agency has a track record of mobilizing resources to better protect children.

In 2012, after nearly a dozen Tampa area children had died while their cases were being investigated by child welfare officials, Mike Carroll combed through data and noticed familiar patterns: substance abuse, domestic violence and children under the age of 3.

Carroll, then a regional manager for the state Department of Children and Families, piloted a rapid safety feedback program, handpicking his most experienced staff and immediately bringing them in on complicated cases. Too many cases, he said, had included “a poor assessment on our part where we just don’t connect the dots.”

Two years later, that pilot program has been implemented in 70 percent of the state and Carroll is at the helm of the troubled department. Carroll, who has been with the agency for 24 years, took over as interim secretary in April and Gov. Rick Scott named him the permanent head on Monday.

“I would much rather be engaged in reviewing cases when they’re active and making decisions regarding our intervention … than doing a retrospective review after a bad outcome and trying to figure out what we missed,” said Carroll, who managed the 11-county region from Pasco to Collier County.

For years, the agency has worked to reduce caseloads and staff turnover, but Carroll said it’s still not possible to field the necessary level of experience in every case.

At the regional level, Carroll joined with local foster care providers to perform comprehensive case reviews and immediately flag cases of children who fit the profile. At the time, it took weeks for caseworkers to get that information. Now, a computer system can immediately identify those families.

The system also flags a meeting between a caseworker and higher level supervisor within 24-hours to assess the best way to move forward. The agency has been criticized for years for missing glaring red flags in child death cases and has struggled to train new and low-level employees to think critically.

Like his two predecessors, Carroll also took over in a time of crisis. The Legislative session had just ended last April, and a scathing Miami Herald series on the deaths of 477 children in the past five years was prompting system-wide reform.

Since then, the agency was again thrust into the spotlight after a Bell, Florida, man fatally shot his daughter and six grandchildren in September, and the follow-up investigating showed glaring missteps. Over an eight-year period, the agency was called 18 times - including once just weeks before the killing - with allegations that the man’s grandchildren were being mistreated, abused or neglected.

Carroll said DCF needs to partner better with law enforcement and figure out which prevention services are actually working.

“We have a lot of anecdotal stories about which ones are working best but we’ve got to get to a better place of understanding what the scope of our interventions need to be and the impact they have,” he said.

Ron Zychowski, who worked with Carroll for 14 years and now leads a private social services agency called Eckerd, said Carroll won’t stand for the status quo.

“He’s going to be absolutely transparent about whatever is going on in the agency, good bad or indifferent,” said Zychowski. “He’s going to require accountability not only of his staff but of all of us in the private sector.”


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