Rescue Mission

Florida's chaotic social service agency may be ungovernable. But Bob Butterworth is giving it a shot.
by | February 2007

If any Florida politician can be said to have an impeccable reputation, it's Bob Butterworth. He spent 16 years as the state's hard-charging attorney general, and when he left the job in 2002, it was with a degree of popularity and across-the-board respect unusual for so visible a political figure.

And if there's any job in Florida state government that can be said to chew up its holders and spit them out bedraggled and tarnished, it's being secretary of the Department of Children and Families. The catch-all social service agency that runs child welfare, foster care, adoptions, mental health services, food stamps and welfare has gone through three different directors in eight years, all of whom left under a cloud: one because of the disappearance and probable murder of a young girl under the agency's protection; the next for ethical improprieties; and the most recent, Lucy Hadi, after a county judge charged her with contempt as a result of the failure of her agency to move mentally ill jail inmates to treatment facilities as required by law.

So what happens when a man of Butterworth's reputation meets a department as messed up as DCF? Florida is about to find out. At the age of 64, Butterworth, a Democrat, has been asked by newly installed Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican, to take over the troubled agency and set it aright. "I thought the governor liked me," Butterworth says jokingly. "Now I'm not so sure."

A former circuit judge and sheriff, Butterworth made his mark as attorney general by taking an expansive view of his post's responsibilities. He pushed Florida's strict used-car "lemon law," fought the legislature when it tried to change the boundaries of publicly owned land to benefit private property owners, went after telemarketing scammers and pushed discriminatory private clubs to change their membership policies. Butterworth says he took his new job, giving up a position as a law school dean, to work on familiar legal issues from a different angle.

"I really believe the best approach to law enforcement," he says, "is dealing with children at a young age and providing what they need to be the best they can be: the reassurances, the education, the health care, a stable life. If we can do that, we can at some point in time stop building as many jails and prisons."

Getting DCF turned around will not be easy. Butterworth is a believer, for example, in keeping children and families together, but he inherits a department that has been putting children in foster care at an unusually high rate. And before he can even focus on child- welfare policies, Butterworth will have to deal with an emergency: the chronic underfunding of mental health care for prison inmates that got his predecessor in legal trouble. That may be where his reputation will be put to its sternest test.

"It's obvious that the people Children and Families serves are people without constituencies," he says. "I don't think any of them go out there and hire lobbyists to advocate their positions. So that's my job--to put a face on the problems we confront."

Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent

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