AVON PARK - Following several cases involving deaths of children, the Florida Department of Children and Family Services is preparing to begin investigating allegations of child neglect and abuse in a different way, DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo said this week.
The new system will begin Dec. 2 in Highlands County, about the same time as two or three other counties, she said. Jacobo announced that Wednesday during a meeting with community leaders and representatives from various social services agencies at South Florida State College.
One of the reasons for starting the program in Highlands County earlier than most other counties is that Highlands County has a successful system where deputies from the Highlands County Sheriff's Office detectives and Department of Children and Family Services investigators work together well, Jacobo said.
Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton said the communications between the detectives and investigators "is light years ahead of what it is in other counties."
Jacobo said that just responding to reports of abuse and neglect isn't enough. The reaction may prevent future abuse, but with the abuse, "there is damage - and sometimes irreversible damage - to children who are abused."
The aim is that when the Department of Children and Family Services gets information that something may not be right in a household, investigators will look more closely at the situation to see if there's potential for neglect or abuse that would endanger the child, she said.
State Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, who attended the meeting, said he believes the new method that will be used as of Dec. 2 is solid. He said that even if it results in taking more children out of the home he would err on that side than the other side where the child remaining in the home might die.
Jacobo said that to prevent children from dying, DCF investigators will look more deeply into a situation.
For example, she said, if they enter a home and find that its dirty, they'll do more than just getting parents to clean up the home.
"What in the past we haven't usually done is find out why the house was dirty," she said. DCF investigators "were treating the symptoms without treating the disease," Jacobo added.
The new program also involves looking at the whole family situation, she said.
As one safeguard, she said, investigators won't be able to close a case without conferring with supervisors.
Benton urged Jacobo to include truancy as one of those factors. She said she believes that is a leading indicator that something is wrong in the family, since the parents aren't making their children attend school.
Jacobo agreed and said that educating parents is another key component.
Some of the deaths of children in Florida occurred not because of a beating, but because the child was sleeping with his/her parents, Jacobo said.
The parent would roll over on the child, causing the child to die, she said.
Jacobo also emphasized that community partnerships are important in preventing child deaths.
"We cannot do this alone," she said.