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As Florida Social Workers Hail New DCF Overhaul Proposal, Others Urge Caution

Florida Channel
Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo (left) and Pam Graham (right) with FSU's College of Social Work speaking before a Senate hearing Tuesday regarding a DCF Overhaul proposal.

As Florida lawmakers get closer to overhauling the state’s child welfare agency in an effort to avoid more child deaths, some worry proposed changes could harm the Florida Department of Children and Families. Whether new child protective investigators should be required to have a social work degree became a matter of contention during a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Hollywood Democratic Senator Eleanor Sobel says she believes the proposal her committee will soon put forth will be what she calls “landmark legislation” that will protect the state’s most vulnerable youth:

“This first part of child welfare reform focuses on recruiting and retaining a highly qualified professional workforce with an increase in employment of social workers. Included in the draft is a schedule for implementing these changes,” said Sobel.

The proposal by the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee would require all child abuse investigators and supervisors to hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work. And, starting July 1st, it mandates all new DCF hires have a degree in social work as well. DCF would also be given four years to transition to all social workers.

Pam Graham, who directs the Bachelor of Social Work Program at Florida State University’s College of Social Work applauded the move. She’s also a member of the statewide Child Death Review Committee for about five years, and says she’s seen some child death cases that could have been prevented if investigators held a social work degree.

“If people went in having good professional social work assessment skills to have done a whole assessment, I think as you referred to Senator Detert, looking at what the drug abuse situations, looking at what’s family violence, looking at the entire family system and what they’re supports are, not just looking at is the family safe,” said Graham.

But John Cooper, the CEO of the Ocala children’s advocacy group Kids Central, disagrees, saying some of the best investigators he knows don’t have a social work background. He agrees having a degree in social work is preferred, but says he sees the proposal as a bit ambitious for Florida, citing New Mexico as an example.

“New Mexico instituted this several years ago, requiting an MSW. They had a very limited applicant pool, modified the law the following year, to require a BSW or an MSW, and the following year, had to modify the law again because of a lack of applicants,” said Cooper.

“And, I will point to—and I’ll be happy to send it to you—the work of Dr. Perry at FAMU, who has written several papers about the fact there is no empirical data that social work is any better at outcomes in child protection. Now, that being said, I think it’s important to have social workers that want to come to the department that we can have as part of the workforce,” agreed Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo.

Jacobo says she’s also worried it could encroach on some of the work her department is already doing, like implementing a new program called “paired-CPIs,” where two child protective investigators work together on house calls that require more attention.

“I think some of the mistakes of the past for the department have been to take on too much at once and not get anything done. And, so I would just like to make sure, as we’re looking to improve things, we’re not putting a burden that’s undoable unto our workforce so that nothing gets accomplished as opposed to doing it better,” she added.

Still, the panel’s Chair, Senator Sobel, maintained it’s time for a unique change in the state’s child welfare system.

“I believe this committee here is tired of reading about child deaths, the turnover, new methodology, so we’re looking for some new solution, a change in direction that we haven’t done before. This safety program, this matrix, they come with each Secretary and they go with each Secretary, so we’re looking for something more permanent and more stable,” said Sobel.

About six-percent of DCF’s current employees are social workers.

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.