TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Rick Scott was planning Monday to name a new secretary who will take over the state's embattled child welfare agency amid intense scrutiny following hundreds of child abuse related deaths.
Scott was to announce during a visit with child protective investigators in Jacksonville that Mike Carroll is taking over the Department of Children and Families. Carroll's appointment 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. Her last day is Friday. Carroll, a 20-year veteran with the department, has been the regional managing director for southwest Florida and the Tampa Bay area.
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.
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 like 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.