Florida’s first responders to child abuse overwhelmed, inexperienced
The first people the state dispatches to the homes of potentially abused and neglected children in Palm Beach County are overworked and in some cases cutting corners, data show.
A dozen former and current Florida Department of Children and Families child-protective investigators in Palm Beach County tell The Post and its news partner WPTV NewsChannel 5 that an inundation of paperwork, an ever-expanding job description and a ballooning number of cases have led to what some are calling a “mass exodus” of investigators statewide.
The employees The Post and Contact 5 investigators spoke with asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs or facing retaliation.
At one time or another in 2016, nearly every investigator in Palm Beach County juggled more cases than state policy recommends they should, an analysis of data provided by the state shows. In fact, some investigators handled more than double the recommended caseload — 15 — at one point in 2016, data shows.
Those who have done the job told The Post and WPTV the lengthy job description can feel impossible.
“When you have a caseload of 20-25-30-35, you are bound to not just fail, but the families you are charged with overseeing and helping are going to fail,” said a former investigator. “Something has to change.”
‘A 24/7 job’
High caseloads lead to resignations. It’s a fact cited in DCF’s annual report and studied by the Child Welfare League of America.
The state’s department considers 15 open cases the maximum any one investigator should be assigned. For each allegation of abuse or neglect, an investigator is required to look into the claims by interviewing numerous people — all within 60 days of receiving the case. Cases are assigned — when possible — based on proximity to an investigator’s home or specialty.
An analysis of state data shows it was common for an investigator in Palm Beach County to manage between 15 and 20 cases a day last year.
Some handled significantly more.
In fact, a fifth of the county’s investigators carried more than double the state’s caseload limit at one time last year. Two investigators were assigned as many as 38.
A review of data provided by the state indicates high caseloads aren’t due to a particularly busy day or two. During nearly half of last year’s workdays, the county’s caseload average exceeded the recommended 15 cases per investigator.
Employees interviewed pointed to the Abuse Hotline’s reluctance to throw out a complaint for the constant stream of new cases. The hotline takes calls, faxes and online submissions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
“We can’t shut off the hotline. It is what it is,” Carroll said. “And as people call, we are mandated to get out there.”
A former employee argued that investigators are assigned cases that have “absolutely 100 percent nothing to do at all with child safety.” Some blame a “knee-jerk reaction” and a fear of having a child fall through the cracks for leading to the inundation of cases.
The department’s 2016 annual review states that the total number of reports of abuse and neglect have decreased less than a percent since the last fiscal year. The number of cases deemed worthy of an investigation, though, increased more than 3 percent.
Even when investigators question whether a case involves a child’s welfare, they are required to investigate — and fill out paperwork — as they would any other case.
“When you get two or three cases a day, you literally cannot do what you need to do to make sure that you’re doing a good job. You can’t do it,” a former investigator said.
Employees call in sick just to finish reports. One investigator took a week’s vacation to close cases, sources told The Post and WPTV.
A 2013 review of the department’s investigations protocols cautioned the department to assess how much time is needed to properly complete reports. Those reports were designed to be completed by investigator with a maximum of 15 cases, not for those with nearly double.
Employees say a significant effort is placed on training investigators on using the methodology properly — partly because, statewide, three-quarters of investigators have fewer than two years of experience with the department, but also because of what some call a reactive system that changes when a child under the state’s eye dies.