Child Deaths in Florida: Require Degrees At DCF (Editorial)

Our children, the most vulnerable among us, deserve to be looked after by educated, qualified Florida Department of Children and Families’ investigators who understand the complexities of family dynamics and can take action quickly when needed.

That’s why a proposed law that would require the DCF to ensure its new investigators and their supervisors have a college degree in social work is worth pursuing.

Originally, Senate Bill 1666 required 80 percent of such workers hired to have such a degree. But as the Senate and House (HB 7169) move closer to an agreement, the Senate bill now says at least half of new investigators and supervisors will have at least a four-year degree in social work by July 1, 2019.


Although a college degree is unlikely to make people smarter in every way, it often gives people analytical and problem-solving skills they use throughout their lives. That can benefit children in abusive and deadly situations.

Both bills are moving along in their respective chambers and are close to a floor vote. They also have other measures, including to “require more transparency from [the DCF] about child deaths,” reports The News Service of Florida.

In addition, Gov. Rick Scott has proposed spending $32 million more in state funds to hire about 400 more child-protective investigators. That would reduce caseloads from 13.3 to an average of 10, The Ledger’s Eric Pera wrote in an article April 6. Scott is seeking another $8 million so law-enforcement agencies contracted to provide child-protective investigative teams can hire additional workers also.

Right now, only 6 percent of investigators have college degrees in social work, which could help explain why 58 percent of the 257 children whose deaths were attributable to abuse or neglect in 2011 and 2012 had prior contact with the DCF. Under the proposed legislation, existing employees would be grandfathered-in. Those who want to earn their degree would receive tuition assistance.

At this point, case managers — those who follow up on investigators’ work — are not included in the proposed legislation requiring degrees in social work. And Gov. Scott does not have any money in the budget to hire additional managers, which Teri Saunders, CEO of Heartland for Children, the agency contracted by the DCF to oversee child welfare in Polk, said could be troublesome.

She told Pera that any reform proposals must “address the interplay between investigator and case manager.”

In Polk, 60 child-protective investigators did the initial review of 7,605 calls to an abuse hotline last year — 126 cases each. (Statewide, the DCF received 179,479 calls for help last year.)

After investigators complete their review, they hand information to case managers, who ensure case plans for 1,427 children and young adults up to age 23 under DCF supervision in Polk County are followed to the letter.


In 2012, nine of 52 children who died in Polk County had been abused or neglected. Only one had a prior history with the DCF, the agency reported.

But isn’t one too many? What if that one was your son or daughter, and you knew that had the right person appeared at your door to help you or a family member, your child might be alive today? When you think of the DCF, its investigators and its managers in such a light, you might realize why reforming the system is a good idea.

As Florida State University Professor Pamela Graham said it in an email response to Pera, “While it won’t stop all child deaths, our professional skills and broad educational background would be a vast improvement on the current workforce situation with 30 percent annual turnover.” Graham is a professor of social work and sits on a state committee to review deaths of children connected to abuse and neglect.

Scott cut $179 million and 500 jobs from the DCF in 2011. He’s now decided it’s time to give some of it back.

Not everyone agrees with the way he would allocate the money, but most everyone agrees that more needs to be done to protect our children. Hiring more investigators and requiring them to be prepared to step into high-pressure jobs and tense situations is a good start. The Legislature should approve such measures.

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Alexia Nechayev

FYS Events & Meeting Chair
(Palm Beach)

Hello, My name is Alexia Nechayev. I am 25 years old and I am an alumna of Florida International University where I received my B.A. in Psychology. My future career goal is to be a Lawyer. I was in care for about one year from age 17 to 18. Prior to entering care, I only knew about the negative stigma regarding foster care and while in care that narrative was unfortunately my experience.

In school I felt like I was on display because my status in care was broadcast to other students and in my placement behavior was leveraged for “privileges” that should be a natural right of all children. Because I did not know my rights I did not know that what I was experiencing was wrong. Today this is exactly why I advocate, because I don’t want this to be the same for other youth who are experiencing foster care.

This is my second year on the FYS Statewide Board and I’m happy to be the Events and Meetings Chair this year because my main goal through advocacy is to reach as many people as possible. My favorite thing as a board member is to see how comfortable members become while working together. The community needs to know that youth in foster care are real people, going through some of the hardest moments of their life and youth need to know that their voice is powerful. I believe that we have to speak up and bring these issues to people’s attention so that they do not forget us. Advocacy, education and consistency is the only way.

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