From the Daily Commercial
By MARGIE MENZEL THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
ORLANDO – The leader of Florida’s embattled Department of Children and Families opened the annual Child Protection Summit on Wednesday with a pledge not only to save lives but to “protect the light” in children’s eyes.
“A lot of times, we say we save lives as if the only thing we do is prevent child fatalities,” department interim Secretary Mike Carroll said during the event in Orlando. “To me, preventing child fatalities is a given. It’s an absolute must. …But that’s not what I mean. When I say we save children, it’s about protecting the light inside of them and helping it to burn brightly.”
Carroll also acknowledged the intense scrutiny he and his colleagues received after a series of child deaths, calling this “a pivotal time in the history of child welfare in this state.”
Carroll was the third head of the department in three years to welcome child-welfare professionals, foster and adoptive parents, advocates, judges and law enforcement officers to their annual gathering.
The first, former Secretary David Wilkins, resigned in July 2013 following a wave of media reports about children known to the department who had died from abuse or neglect.
The second, former interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, led the department through the 2014 legislative session, when lawmakers passed a sweeping child-welfare reform measure and approved the funding to hire hundreds of new child-protective investigators. She stepped down in May.
Now Carroll, a plain-spoken man with a Boston accent who rose through the department’s ranks over 21 years, is charged with putting the new law and new money to work.
“I think the governor and Legislature sent a pretty strong message that we in Florida can do better, we must do better, for the children and families we serve,” he said. “And I think they’ve also put their money down on the table and said, ‘We’re willing to support that.’ ”
Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature approved $47 million in new funding for child protection in this year’s state budget, although critics pointed out that much of it simply went to replace earlier cuts.
Major items included roughly $13.1 million for 191 new child-protective investigators at the department and $8.1 million for the six county sheriffs’ offices that provide such investigative services.
Thanks to the new money, Carroll said, the average caseload for child protective investigators will drop to 10 early next year, when the new hires are trained.
“You can’t do this work with high caseloads,” he said.
Carroll also pointed to the statewide rollout of a safety methodology to help child-welfare workers make better judgments about particular children or families. He praised the use of data to better identify the children most at risk. He said the implementation of a “Rapid Safety Feedback” process “allows us to interject some of our best, some of our most seasoned and experienced folks, into cases where critical decisions are being made around child safety.”
Carroll also said the department’s “perceived lack of transparency” would be corrected by a new website to track child deaths and make them public.
He vowed to recruit “an army of the best foster parents in the world. …They do more to love and heal our kids than any service we can provide.”
And he said the state must step up its focus on substance-abuse and mental-health issues in order to better protect children.
“If we can’t effectively treat folks who have chronic substance-abuse issues, we can’t protect kids who live in those homes,” he said.
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