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Florida’s DCF to Take Over Child Protective Services

The Department of Children and Families has suffered from high turnover and vacancy rates for years but will soon take on the child protection investigations in the seven remaining counties the agency doesn’t already oversee.

(TNS) — Investigations into child abuse, abandonment and neglect in some Florida counties may soon be handled by the state’s Department of Children and Families, an agency that’s been suffering surging turnover and vacancy rates for years.

DCF leads child protection investigations in 60 of Florida’s 67 counties. The local sheriff’s offices in the other counties – Seminole, Walton, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Broward – have managed their own such investigations for the last 20 years.

But, according to a February letter from DCF, the state agency is looking to assume command of child protection investigations in these seven counties with the support of their respective sheriffs.

A statement from DCF spokesperson Laura Walthall said the two parties agreed “it would be best to have CPI functions handled by one entity across the state to facilitate uniformity and continuity as we continue to enhance prevention focused programming and integrating this function within other crisis-oriented models.”

DCF and the Legislature will “formulate a plan that ensures as smooth of a transition as possible,” Walthall said, adding that they seek to ensure every “employee from the sheriff’s office who wishes to continue performing CPI work, has the opportunity to do so.”

Word of the proposal comes as the agency reports “unacceptably high vacancy rates” and surging numbers of investigators leaving the job, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget recommendation for the upcoming 2023-24 fiscal year. The same request said the current system relies on overburdened investigators to connect families to “services and resources that are often not coordinated, accessible or meaningful.”

Child protective investigators (CPIs) work to determine “whether there is any indication that any child in the family or household has been abused, abandoned, or neglected,” according to an annual workforce report by DCF that’s sent to the governor and other high-ranking state officials.

If there is evidence of maltreatment, investigators then “identify the individual responsible,” the report said. In the severe cases, they remove children from homes and place them with another parent or in relative or substitute care.

Both vacancy and turnover rates for CPIs have been steadily increasing over the last four years. Between June 2019 and June 2022, the vacancy rate jumped from 6.6 percent to 21 percent, according to the agency. In the same time period, the turnover rate for CPIs swelled to 71 percent from 45 percent. And at the end of the 2022 fiscal year, more than half of CPI workers had less than two years of experience.

“The high vacancy rate has a negative impact on staff morale and overall well-being due to increased overtime and excessive work hours,” read a section of the budget recommendation. “This can be seen in exit survey results where the top reasons for dissatisfaction among these critical classes are work/life balance, volume of work, scheduling, and salary.”

As of July, the base pay for investigators was $39,600.

And while the seven sheriff’s offices that handle their own investigations are not required to keep retention data, they are “similarly challenged by high turnover for their CPI positions,” the status report said, adding: “The challenging nature of the work responsibilities transcends the individual entities responsible for child protection across the state.”

However, the turnover rate for CPIs working for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office over the last two fiscal years was 38 percent – which is well below the average for CPI working under DCF. SCSO spokesperson Karla Mendoza declined to comment on the potential effects of the transition of its workers to the state.

Mendoza did however confirm that Sheriff Dennis Lemma is in favor of the transition, as DCF has suggested.

“The formula that the state is looking at essentially consolidates all 67 counties into one operation under DCF, and Sheriff Lemma believes it simply makes sense considering the transient society Florida has shifted into over the years,” Mendoza said. “This will help to ensure that services provided and received across the state are consistent.”

Other sheriffs whose offices will be affected by the proposal view it favorably, too.

“I support the change and we are working in collaboration with DCF to ensure the continuity of child welfare services across Florida,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office will monitor legislation and “stands ready to assist DCF in any way,” spokesperson Amanda Hunter told the Sentinel. She added, however, that PCSO has not submitted any proposal and that any “would come directly from DCF,” which does not completely align with the agency’s label of the “joint proposal.”

“I will continue to support our current BSO [Child Protective Investigations Section] employees in the hopes that they will continue the important work of safeguarding vulnerable children in our community as employees of DCF,” said Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony in a statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

CPIs working in one of the seven counties handling their own cases are provided with agency vehicles and company gas cards. Those employed by the state are not.

Instead, DCF provides only mileage reimbursement of 45 cents per mile and an annual vehicle insurance allowance of $871.55.

The IRS’ latest standard mileage rate for transportation or travel expenses is 65.5 cents per mile. And for this year, the average cost of minimum coverage car insurance in Florida is $1,286, according to Bankrate.

It seems, however, that the disparity between CPIs working for the state and counties is being addressed. The next fiscal year’s budget recommendation includes money for vehicles, hiring incentives and a raise in investigators’ base pay.

The agency requested $2.1 million to fund a fleet of lease vehicles for CPIs who drive more than 5,000 miles a year for work. Those who drive less will be able to access a shared vehicle pool.

The vehicle lease initiative was tested in a pilot program of 72 workers, who overwhelmingly reported an increase in their productivity. Nearly half of them “considered leaving the department in the past year and out of this total, 71 percent stated that pilot participation influenced them to stay with the department,” according to the state.

DCF also asked for $5.5 million to better recruit and retain workers. The request includes a $3,000 hiring bonus for CPIs, and their starting pay would be increased to $50,000.

“If the request is not approved, the department will continue to experience high turnover rates, increased training costs, and continued challenges with competitive workforce opportunities,” the budget recommendation said.

It continued: “The funds requested will allow the Department to incentivize additional candidates to apply for these positions. Having adequate staffing levels reduces caseloads and overtime leading to less burnout and lower turnover.”

©2023 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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