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DCF Secretary Poppell: Agency Turnaround A 'Multi-Year Thing'

A park featuring slides and swings
Lydell Rawls
WFSU Public Media
A park featuring slides and swings

For nearly two decades the Florida Department of Children and Families has been plagued by high-profile failures that resulted in children being severely harmed or killed. It’s also struggled with high employee turnover and ongoing criticism. This year, the results of a USA Today project are prompting new legislation aimed at how the agency deals with foster parents. WFSU recently spoke with DCF Secretary Chad Poppell about how the agency is trying to move forward.

Poppell has worked in several state agencies, landing at DCF in 2019 when he was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Poppell says he came to the­ agency aware of its history, but wanted to look at it with “fresh eyes.”

“One of the things that jumped out to you is what is DCF's role? I mean, it jumped out to me, right off the bat," he said. "On the child welfare side, we do the investigations for most of the state, but in some areas of the state, we don’t, we have the sheriffs do them. On the children’s legal side, we do the work in most areas of the state but in some places we don’t. And then the middle piece, the case work…all of that is outsourced.”

Nearly 20 years ago the state broke up DCF's duties, handing off its mental health and substance abuse responsibilities to semi-private agencies. The foster care and child welfare responsibilities went to community based care lead agencies. Substance abuse and mental health services are overseen by what are called managing entities. The decentralization resulted in DCF losing, or even abdicating much of its power to these CBCs and managing entities, who deploy lobbyists to ward off any legislation they deem a threat. When the CBCs and managing entities mess up, DCF gets the blame. Poppell says as agency leader, he is responsible for failures.

“These children are in our care. We are the ones who sign the contracts with those providers," said Poppell. "So we are responsible, and so you won’t hear me say anything other than that. We are responsible.”

DCF Deputy Director Patricia Babcock says child welfare has historically been reactive—geared toward examining cases after they’re closed. That doesn't give the agency any time to catch issues before they become full-scale problems. To address that, Babcock says the agency is trying to become more involved in case management and conducting reviews in real time.

“This is groundbreaking," she said. "We will be trailblazers. We are reviewing more cases than any other state and as far as I know, we are the only state doing a ‘life of the case’ review.”

Poppell is also touting a scorecard that rates CBC and managing entity performance. But still, the agency's contracted partners have a wide berth. What DCF can’t do is fire the leaders of these agencies, though DCF is making moves to shore up its oversight work.

“A lot of those leadership decisions are made by the lead agency, but I can foresee a time when the department may have to step in and take that kind of action and put a contract back out for bid or take a contract back," said Poppell.

He says DCF doesn't have an “adversarial relationship” with its partners and that, "for the most part, if they mess up, they fess up and we’re able to dig into the issues.”

Even as DCF tries to get its house in order, its to-do list remains long. There was a 43% turnover rate in child abuse investigators. There’s an ongoing need for more family foster homes, not group homes. At one point, the agency estimated it was underfunded by $90 million. Some CBC’s and managing entities have budgets larger than state estimates show they need, while others don’t have enough. Poppell admits fixes can’t be done in a year. Or even two. The state is trying to address problems that have built up over decades.

“It’s a big ship. And these cases that the children are in…these are multi-year thing. This isn’t a quick turn. You have to have a plan and stick to the plan.”

DCF is steadily trying to get its power back. Efforts began last legislative session and are expected to continue this year. Democratic Senator Lauren Book is vested in the issue, and Senate President Wilton Simpson named her to head the chamber’s Children and Families Committee.

"[There are] a lot of moving parts, a lot of different things that haven't been looked at yet," said Book. "I'm mindful that I'm a Democrat in the process, but for him [Simpson] to put that faith in me, I'm eternally grateful for it. And know that we're going to do everything we can do do what he's asked us to do."

Longtime child welfare advocates and observers say they’re tired of watching the same problems come back again and again. But they believe if anyone can stop the cycle, it’s Book—a powerful Democrat in a Republican-led chamber, with a background steeped in youth advocacy.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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