SEBRING — During the four years that Destin Bailey has worked as a child protection investigator in Highlands County, she has typically juggled 20 or more cases at a time, she said Monday.
But it won’t be long before Bailey gets more time to deal with cases. Highlands and Hardee counties are expected to get six more investigators as a result of increased funding from the Florida legislature.
Besides the extra funding for investigators, the Highlands County office of the Florida Department of Children and Family Services is adapting to new laws, at least partly in response to several deaths of children in the Miami area.
Jeffrey Roth, director of the Child Advocacy Center, which deals with issues relating to child abuse, said he believes laws that require additional documentation and assessments of families “can’t be anything but helpful for child protection.”
Early intervention can help solve problems, but families must be willing to make changes for those solutions to be successful, he said.
DCF investigators handled 1,598 cases of reported child abuse or neglect in the 2012-13 fiscal year and 1,610 during the 2013-14 fiscal year. The top three reported situations contributing to the abuse or neglect were substance abuse, family violence and inadequate supervision.
In regards to the reduction of case loads aimed at helping interventions, David Stoops, operations manager for DCF Circuit 10, which includes Highlands, Polk and Hardee counties, said the ideal case load is 15 per investigators.
“At times in the past it’s been much more than that,” he said.
Besides that, when investigators respond to situations where children are not being removed because of immediate threats to their lives, safety plans, which increase accountability, must be completed.
“Everybody gets a copy of that written safety plan that identifies roles and responsibilities,” Stoops said.
Bailey said if the family is required to make changes, they are held accountable and she or another investigator is responsible for making sure that happens. She said in the past, for example, a mother of a neglected child may have been told to stop smoking marijuana, but there may have been no drug testing or other follow-up.
In cases of neglect where parents have failed to maintain the living conditions in the home to the point where there’s a threat to the children, Bailey said investigators would likely do more follow-up than previously.
Stoops said the investigators won’t just respond to the situation, but they will look at the bigger picture.
Bailey said investigators also make more of an effort to understand the family by talking with neighbors and family members.
“They see the family more than we do,” she said.
If that investigation finds an underlying cause for the neglect, Bailey said, the emphasis will be more on obtaining services for the parents to address the issues. If the parents don’t resolve the issues or use those services, the law allows DCF to ask a judge to mandate that the parents get the services.
The new legislation also is aimed at making sure that children are getting proper medical treatment, Stoops said. Investigators are receiving special training to accomplish that.
The Florida legislature also approved legislation setting up Critical Incident Response Teams that will respond within two days of a report to DCF of a child death or a serious injury. The law also requires the DCF to provide more information publicly about cases involving child deaths.
Stoops said that while some may think the new laws will result in more children being moved from families — and it’s too early to assess that — he believes the ultimate result will be the opposite.
Stoops said he believes safety plans will enable more children to remain at home. And in cases of children being removed, some who might have gone into foster care will now be cared for by people they know. Non-relatives of children in some cases will be able to receive assistance under the new law, he said.
But in some cases that dragged on before, the new law sets up specific guidelines that allow for sooner termination of parental rights if parents don’t comply with what they’re required to do, he said.