SEBRING - Both Legislative chambers took up child-welfare reform Tuesday, hearing about staff turnover and caseloads from a range of experts.
But one number stood out: 432, the number of Florida children who died of abuse and neglect in 2012.
Child neglect is a problem Highlands County knows well. Last year, two sets of Highlands County parents were arrested after their children died. In June 2013, an 18-month-old girl sweltered in a hot car while her married mother, Adriana Espinosa, 23, is alleged to have been with her boyfriend, Christopher Eiland, 22, of Fort Meade.
And in February 2013, Kyle Lee Marsh Rupert and Sandra Jackson, 25, were charged after their infant, Milo Rupert, died from malnutrition and neglect in a trashy, roach-infested house. Officers found food on the floors and doctors determined the 10-month-old was bitten by insects. The father pled guilty in July and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Pam Graham, Florida State University social work professor, told the House Healthy Families Subcommittee that the Department of Children and Families Services was already involved with 40 percent of 432 children before they died.
DCF employees had also investigated complaints at Rupert's home, but that was before the final six months, when conditions deteriorated. Rupert's parents controlled the cockroach problem and DCF investigators closed their investigation.
"It pains me that if the right people had been helping those families, a lot of the deaths could have been prevented," Graham, a member of the State Child Abuse Death Review Committee, told lawmakers.
"The Senate is focusing a lot of attention on the way DCF approaches abuse reports," said Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring.
"The public is crying out to us to have revolutionary reform," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. "We don't want to keep reading about children's deaths. . However, we're going to do it in a pragmatic way, step by step."
Her panel and the House Healthy Families Subcommittee examined requiring all new child-protective investigators to have social-work degrees and helping the current investigators get such degrees.
Not everyone who spoke to the lawmakers agreed on how to fix the workplace culture at DCF, but virtually all said it had to be done.
"The thing that we keep coming back to is a lack of fraternity," Mike Watkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care, told the Senate panel.
To the House panel, Mary Alice Nye, of the Legislature's Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability, said child-protective investigators report feeling pressured to close cases within a 30-day window and to get all of their work done without filing for overtime pay.
The investigators "felt that they were less and less able to use their knowledge and expertise in decision-making," Nye said.
They also reported spending 50 to 80 percent amount of their time on administrative tasks and expressed concern about going into homes where there had been violence, difficulty in getting law enforcement officers to meet them there and using their own cars for work, which could identify them in small communities.
"They generally indicated they felt support from their immediate (supervisor) but not from DCF or the lead (community-based care) agencies," Nye said.
DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo said a program to pair child-protective investigators was being piloted in cases where a child is 3 years old or younger, has a prior DCF history and other family risk factors such as domestic violence, mental illness or substance abuse.
Jacobo said the pilot has been so successful that it will go statewide. Gov. Rick Scott has recommended hiring 400 additional child protective investigators, bringing their caseloads down to 10 apiece.
"More investigators will help, and I think you will see us budget in that direction. But we're also bringing stakeholders together to make sure the whole system ensures that children aren't being short changed," Grimsley said.
Sobel said it's important for state agencies to be more consistent.
"Stop the turnover and create a workforce that likes where they're working and enjoys what they do and accomplishes a lot," she said. "For the sake of the kids, we have to do this."
According to OPPAGA, the turnover for child-protective investigators in Florida is 20 percent. For the case managers who provide services at the local level, it's 30 percent.
"While these are infrequent cases, a single case is too many," said State Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park. "The Department of Children and Families, in consultation with other specialists in the field, have developed a process to identify families that are at high risk for abuse or neglect. This is based on evaluating several risk factors. When these families are so identified, the case workers can then focus greater efforts on preventing bad outcomes. We would hope to intervene long before the child presents to the ER as a victim of neglect or abuse."
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story