Despite calls for reform after the recent deaths of children known to the Florida Department of Children and Families, experts warn the state to avoid a knee-jerk response.
"I would not rush to do this," said Major Connie Shingledecker, head of the investigative services unit of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. "After these horrific child deaths, we make changes — not always for the better."
John Mattingly, a senior fellow at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and an authority on child welfare and juvenile justice systems, said there is no quick fix. When a public child-welfare system is in crisis, he said, officials typically react by blaming someone, issuing a shocked report, and adding more layers of monitoring for caseworkers.
"The latitude for independent judgment by the only staff with knowledge of the family will be decreased yet again," Mattingly warned.
Florida's child welfare system is, arguably, in crisis — after a string of deaths and the abrupt resignation last month of former department secretary David Wilkins. Six children, most of them toddlers, have died since mid-May, after earlier coming to department's attention because
of concerns about neglect or abuse.
Lawmakers are poised to rewrite the state law that created community-based care organizations, which deliver local child-welfare services.
And the crucial role of child-protective investigations is being re-examined, while at least some of the six sheriffs who oversee child-protective investigations in their counties are planning to tell lawmakers they can't do it much longer without more money.
"The state has to be willing to adequately fund the sheriffs or anybody that they contract with to perform the function," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, whose office has conducted child-protective investigations for 12 years. "Otherwise, you're set up for a lot of frustration and, ultimately, failure."
Shingledecker already was at the Manatee County Sheriff's Office in 1997, when it became the first sheriff's office in Florida to take over the child-protective investigation function from the department. Sheriff's officials didn't really know how to anticipate costs, she said.
"And later we ended up paying the price for that, because we didn't think about every additional resource we would provide," Shingledecker said.
The department budget for child-protective investigations for this fiscal year is $111,777,077. The department also contracts with sheriffs' offices to perform that function in six counties — Broward, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Seminole — at a total cost of $49,975,592.
But Mattingly said the biggest commitment is yet to come: reducing caseloads and paperwork for the frontline caseworkers charged with assessing the risk to the children they are hired to protect.