TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Monday named a new interim secretary who will take over the state's embattled child welfare agency amid intense scrutiny following hundreds of child abuse-related deaths.
Mike Carroll's appointment to the Department of Children and Families comes on the heels of a scathing series from The Miami Herald highlighting the deaths of 477 children in the past five years.
Carroll will replace interim secretary Esther Jacobo, who has been at the helm since last July's abrupt resignation of David Wilkins. Jacobo, whose last day is Friday, had previously said she would only stay on until the end of session. Carroll, a 20-year veteran with the department, has been the regional managing director for southwest Florida and the Tampa Bay area.
"It's a challenging time and I think that everybody in the department feels that and feels a sense of urgency," Carroll told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "Our whole mission is to protect vulnerable kids and families and if we have an issue with that then we have to get it right."
He said some of the needed changes have been made and others are already in process, including adding more child investigators and real-time assessments of higher-risk cases.
The agency's troubled history dates back to the 2000 disappearance of foster child Rilya Wilson. Her caseworker lied about visiting her for more than a year, while filing false reports and telling judges the girl was fine. Rilya is presumed dead.
In the following years, DCF has since formed multiple blue-ribbon panels to investigate other high-profile child deaths. The panels have consistently reached the same conclusions: Glaring red flags were ignored, child welfare officials weren't communicating with attorneys, judges, teachers and others involved in the children's lives, and basic critical thinking skills were often lacking during investigations.
Carroll wants investigators to evolve from merely examining isolated incidents, and to instead make decisions based on the entire picture, including past abuse allegations and other risk factors.
"That's a big cultural change for us," he said.
Recently, DCF has come under fire again after hundreds of children have died despite warnings to the agency. According to a report released last fall reviewing 40 child deaths, welfare authorities overlooked danger signs such as parental drug abuse or domestic violence. Most children who died were younger than 5 and many of the deaths involved substance abuse.
Wilkins was in the process of overhauling the role of child protective investigators when he resigned last year. He had hired about 100 new investigators and was trying to change the way cases are investigated, but critics, including the agency's private contractors, said the transformation was ill conceived.
State lawmakers privatized foster care more than a decade ago in hopes of reforming the system, but the private contractors and the agency are often at odds with one another and have struggled to solve systemic problems.
In recent years, DCF has placed a premium on putting fewer children in foster care and, instead, offering family services while the child remains at home. But experts warn there are gaps in those services and lax enforcement, usually nothing more than a verbal agreement from a parent to stay away from an abusive spouse, attend parenting classes or to quit drugs.
"It is indisputable that the concept of keeping families together has led to a lot of these issues," Rep. Erik Fresen said at a Miami town hall earlier this month.
The deaths have been a wake-up call for lawmakers. House and Senate leaders recently agreed to give more than $47 million to fund child-welfare services, including hiring nearly 200 child investigators.
But child advocates warn that simply hiring more investigators won't solve the problem and have pleaded for money to fund prevention-services funding, including mental health and substance abuse issues that may be key to changing parents' behavior and ultimately reducing abuse.
The proposal carves out $5 million for at-risk families with young children who need substance-abuse treatment.
Kennedy reported from Miami.
(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)