In the wake of a wave of children's deaths last year, Gov. Rick Scott is calling on the Florida Legislature to include about $40 million in additional money for child protection in the next state budget, the governor announced Tuesday in Miami.
Scott's budget proposal includes nearly $32 million for the state Department of Children and Families for child protective investigations and $8 million for six Florida sheriff's offices that handle such investigations.
Scott called his proposal a "historic" budget increase for DCF, and Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo agreed.
"But this is also a historic response to the urgent need in child welfare," she said. "It is a historic and quick response to the things that we have identified as a challenge."
The challenges became evident last spring and summer as about 20 children whose families had already drawn the attention of DCF died of abuse or neglect.
Democrats and children's advocates charged that some of the deaths were attributable to Scott's past budget-cutting and that of Jacobo's predecessor, David Wilkins, who cut 72 quality-assurance jobs and was moving to eliminate second-party reviews when he resigned under fire in July.
The total DCF budget during the current year is $2.815 billion, down from $2.886 billion in 2012-2013.
If lawmakers approve, the additional funding would allow DCF to hire 400 more child-protective investigators, which would slash caseloads from an average of 13.3 to 10, putting the agency within recommendations for best practices.
It would also allow for the use of two-investigator teams for cases with the highest risk of serious child maltreatment: children younger than 4 with factors such as substance abuse and domestic violence in their homes. DCF has been piloting the use of paired investigators for high-risk cases in Miami-Dade and Polk counties.
Also included in Scott's proposal are 26 positions to perform preventive “real time” quality assurance reviews on open child-protective investigations, also for the most vulnerable children. That would restore half the quality-assurance positions that Wilkins cut, while moving them from reviewing closed cases to guiding decision-making in open ones.
"We're so happy to see some of the quality-assurance positions are being reinstated," said Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida's Children First. "It's going to lead to more safety for kids."
Also pleased were the sheriffs' offices that conduct child-protective investigations in Broward, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Seminole counties, rather than DCF having the responsibility. They would split $8 million.
"It's a step in the right direction," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. "It means we'll have the resources to do the job effectively and not strain the system."
Gualtieri said his child-protective investigation unit had been operating at a deficit.
But assuming the funds come through, Gualtieri and Maj. Robert Bullara of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said, the increase might encourage other sheriffs who have been considering taking on the additional responsibility.
"I think you're going to see a continued effort by Tallahassee to work on the child welfare system," Bullara said.
Sen. Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican who is chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said she thinks lawmakers will evaluate Scott's proposal and are interested in addressing the child-protection issues.
"I do think there's an appetite to look at what the Department of Children and Families is doing and how we need to fund them so they can do their job better," Grimsley said.
House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, reserved judgment following Scott's announcement. Thurston blasted Scott last month for "systemic failures at DCF, many of which are linked to diminished resources" and calling for "dramatically reducing worker caseloads, restoring budget cuts and providing more resources for mental-health and substance-abuse programs to keep families safe."
On Tuesday, Thurston said in an email that he wanted to see the details of Scott's proposal --- and whether the governor will follow through.
"To make the necessary fixes to DCF, it will take a governor who is willing to advocate throughout the upcoming legislative session for effective budgetary and policy solutions," Thurston noted. "I look forward to seeing if Governor Scott is truly committed to preventing more deaths of Florida children in state custody."
As of Tuesday, details of the governor's budget proposal did not include the local community-based care agencies that provide adoption, foster care, family and case management services. Those agencies were still waiting to hear whether they, too, would get an increase in Scott's budget proposal for front-line staffers who manage the cases referred by DCF.
Kurt Kelly, president and CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the community-based care agencies, called the announcement "a welcome first step." But he also noted that "with improved identification of children and families in crisis also comes a need for a greater commitment to providing adequate resources for the front-line workers who deliver the ongoing services and who will provide for each child’s safety."