Published: Mar 14, 2011 8:50 PM EDT
Updated: Mar 14, 2011 5:56 PM EDT

MIAMI - The death of a 10-year-old girl whose beaten and chemically burned body was found in her adoptive father's bug extermination truck has spurred a statewide debate over whether social workers are qualified to investigate abuse cases where a child's life may be at risk or whether those should be handled by law enforcement.

The Department of Children and Families investigator who responded to a hotline call that alleged that Nubia Docter and her twin brother Victor were being bound and locked in their parents' Miami-Dade County bathroom for days failed to get law enforcement involved, even though she could not locate the children. Instead, officials say, she filled out a safety questionnaire indicating that the children were not in danger. One day after the Feb. 10 call, police say, Nubia's father beat the girl to death as her brother listened to her screams.

That has some questioning whether it would be better for the state to contract with local sheriff's offices to investigate child abuse allegations, which is already done in seven counties: Pasco, Pinellas, Citrus, Manatee, Broward, Seminole and Hillsborough. Palm Beach County sends out a social worker and police investigator together. The rest of the state solely employs investigators trained by DCF. Applicants are required to have a four-year degree, but it could be in art history, as one child advocate recently pointed out.

DCF Secretary David Wilkins doesn't plan to contract with law enforcement statewide but said investigators must forge a relationship with local law enforcement when a child is in danger. Most sheriff's agencies don't want the responsibility because they can't do it as cheaply as DCF, he said.

The investigator in the twins' case never called police during a futile four-day search for the children. Nubia's body was found on Valentine's Day stuffed in the back of her father's truck. Her brother was alive, but suffering from severe burns from a toxic chemical - he is recovering. Their parents have been charged with first-degree murder in Nubia's death.

In the wake of Nubia's death, Wilkins said current investigators are often poorly trained and DCF must recruit more qualified applicants with an emphasis on critical thinking skills. He also wants to increase supervisory oversight because about 56 percent of DCF investigators been on the job less than two years - low pay and large caseloads cause high turnover.

"Inexperienced people need coaching and support," he told The Associated Press.

DCF child investigators also foundered as caseloads "skyrocketed in the past few years," but staff levels remained the same, Wilkins said .

Ideally, experts recommend law enforcement officers and social workers investigate together, though shrinking budgets make that difficult. Palm Beach County adopted that practice five years ago after the local state attorney, Barry Krischer, lobbied for it.

Tana Ebbole, CEO of Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County, said police have different interviewing techniques and skills than social workers.

"What are the indications to tell you that someone may not be being truthful or lying? There's different eye movements or responses that people make. That's years of training, that's not a six-week course. When we're talking about investigating child abuse we should be as serious about that as any other investigation," Ebbole said.

Child welfare administrator Gordon Johnson said he hired former law enforcement agents when he ran Illinois' program from 1983 to 1990.

"It takes a certain skill. Sometimes you have to be hard-hearted about it. You're coming into a certain situation and have to be really tough and you have to keep people accountable," said Johnson, who now runs Neighbor to Family, which provides child welfare services in Daytona Beach.

His organization sends a staff member along with a state-trained child investigator when abuse calls come into the hotline. Neither are law enforcement, but Johnson says the team approach is effective.

But Bill Meezan, director of policy and research for New York-based advocacy group Children's Rights, says law enforcement's presence can sometimes hinder an investigation as it immediately increases the tension in a situation where parents are already defensive.

"Do you always use the hammer or do you use someone with authority who is trained to understand family dynamics, the difference between severe punishment and maltreatment?" Meezan said. "You need someone with skills who is not going to just grab the kids and run."

But keeping experienced child abuse investigators is difficult - some parts of the state have a 64 percent annual turnover rate. The starting salary in Miami is about $34,000 annually.

The Child Welfare League of America recommends investigators have no more than 12 active cases a month. In South Florida, Wilkins said the average is nearly 50 percent higher, or about 18 cases.

Hillsborough County, which contracts with the sheriff's office, has a 20 percent turnover rate, said Maj. Rob Bullara.Their investigators also tend to close cases more quickly, receive more help from clerical staff and drive patrol cars.

Their investigators also receive more extensive law enforcement training than DCF investigators, including interviewing and interrogating techniques, Bullara said. The average salary of its investigators or the size of their caseloads wasn't immediately available.

Child abuse investigators under sheriff's agencies also have a built-in relationship with law enforcement, making it easier to get help in serious cases. Investigators in other counties have complained it takes hours for officers to meet them at a house when they do call for help.

Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee lobbied to take over the investigations in 2006, saying it was the right thing to do for kids in the community. Since then, there's been a 25 percent increase in hotline calls and the cases tend to involve more violent crimes. It's a change from the days when families called the hotline themselves asking for help. That rarely happens now, Bullara said.

"A lot of our meetings are adversarial in the beginning and (the investigators) have to be on their toes to get them to cooperate," he said.

The social worker vs. law enforcement debate is also the crux of a transformation in child welfare practices in recent years as states have worked to remove fewer children from their homes and instead provide services to the family. Experts say family preservation is best if the child is safe.

But critics questioned whether DCF investigators, trained from a social work perspective, are too reluctant to refer children for removal, leaving them in potentially dangerous situations like in the twins' case.

"The current statue indicates (child protective investigators) are supposed to engage families in the most unintrusive way possible. Do you want them to be investigators, which is hard core cop-like, or do you want them to be social workers and go in and go, `Oh my gosh this is awful, you need help. Let me work with you'?" said Hans Soder, a child location specialist for DCF. "I think sometimes that's a very hard line for people to walk."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)