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As Lawmakers Consider Fixes To DCF, Some Differ On Child Investigator Qualifications

Florida Channel
Senator Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood)(left) and Florida Department of Children and Families Assistant Secretary Stephen Pennypacker (right) at a meeting Tuesday looking at proposed changes to the child welfare agency.

As lawmakers looks to craft legislation to curb the recent spate of child deaths within Florida’s child welfare system, they received an update Tuesday about what the Florida Department of Children and Families has been doing to improve its child abuse investigations during a committee that looks at child issues.

At least 20 children connected to Florida’s foster care system have died in 2013, leading the DCF to re-evaluate its child abuse investigations.

For example, in the past, child protective investigators would put together a safety plan if they determined the home was unsafe. But, DCF Assistant Secretary Stephen Pennypacker says they now realize that’s not working.

“…meaning there was no follow up to that safety plan. That doesn’t work. That did result in some deaths. That safety plan, while it may have been sufficient, no one followed up,” said Pennypacker.

Other improvements include a pilot program started in some areas of the state called “paired-CPIs,” where two child protective investigators work together on house calls that require heightened scrutiny.

But legislators still disagree about qualifications for child protective investigators. Hollywood Democratic Senator Eleanor Sobel wants those with a degree in social work. Pennypacker, though, says other backgrounds are valuable too.

“We’ve got about over 400 that are criminal justice or criminology majors. That’s not social work, but is that something that would be relevant to a job as an investigator? Probably! So, if you limit it to social work, you could be cutting out what could be potentially a good workforce for us. So, again I don’t think you want to exclude any particular person,” added Pennypacker.

Venice Republican Senator Nancy Detert agreed.

“Whether you’re going to take somebody’s child or not is a serious decision. It calls for extreme people skills, problem solving…Just getting a degree in social work doesn’t’ necessarily offer all those things,” said Detert.

Still, following the meeting, Sobel, who chairs the committee, maintained her stance.

“I would like to see social workers get preference so we can cut down on the cost of training because they come trained and ready to go. And, I think that will help from the get to go. I think a lot of the initial problems were because of the CPIs, the Child Protective Investigators," said Sobel.

The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee is expected to have a bill proposing fixes for the DCF before the start of the legislative session in March.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.