With the 2018 legislative session around the corner, Florida lawmakers as well as child welfare stakeholders are starting to dive into how to address the huge turnover of the state’s child protective investigators. Their job is to look into cases called into the state’s child abuse hotline.
“There are definitely some stressful days,…and there are still some cases that still bother you,” said Jennifer Renfro, a senior Child Protective investigator for the Florida Department of Children and Families.
As she heads to her next case, she recalls one involving an eight-year-old child from years ago.
“We received a report, and this child—straight-A student, sweet child—she disclosed a lot of, I would call it torture as far as they would make her drink hot sauce, and hold her nose and dump water on her head and make her go to bed wet,” Renfro added. “They told her they hated her. We ended up moving her and her brother.”
Renfro says what she found most shocking was the abused girl still loved her parents and wanted to see them.
Renfro’s testimony is one of the videos featured on DCF’s YouTube channel about the day in the life of a child protective investigator.
Over the years, that position has seen high turnover—in part Jessica Pryce says because some who leave say they never really understood what they were getting into.
Pryce heads the Florida Institute for Child Welfare, created by the Florida legislature in 2014 to conduct research and analyze Florida’s child protection and child welfare services.
To help address the turnover within DCF, Pryce suggests what she calls “realistic job previews.”
“They generally are videos shown to applicants that are interested in going into child welfare work,” she said, during a recent hearing of the House Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee. “On these previews, you have caseworkers that are discussing their jobs in a very candid way, in a very real way. The realistic job previews that I have seen sometimes show caseworkers going into certain neighborhoods. Sometimes the previews show their job starts in the middle of the night.”
Florida lawmakers have begun discussing some ideas of their own. Rep. Cyndi Stevenson (R-St. Johns) recommends shadowing.
“Shadowing is really one of the best things,” she said, at the time. “I shadowed…I wanted to be a veterinarian. I found out I really didn’t like the smell of blood. You know, it saved me a lot of money. So, in addition to that realistic video, if you can get a shadowing experience, that seems like it would really help because it’s a big investment of time.”
At least one lawmaker suggested higher pay for child protective investigators, but DCF Secretary Mike Carroll says that’s not really the main issue.
“Pay is somewhat a factor, and we think about pay,” he said. “But, I can tell you most of the folks that I talk to don’t mention pay. They mention workload, and they mention their perceived lack of support because they lose control…their ability to control their life, and they can’t control their work life.”
So, what does the head of DCF himself suggest to address the issue? Carroll says he’s looking at the long term, rather than the short term.
He says first he wants to make sure those they train stay past the two-year mark. Most new hires are in their 20s and 30s, and Carroll says this is often their first job.
He says after doing a survey, many spoke to a lack of mentorship. So, under a new policy, senior child protective investigators will now be mentoring lower level investigators.
“We also created child protective investigative services field supervisors,” he added. “We understand that one of the things that is going to be crucial going forward in keeping folks in these jobs is not the classroom training because we’re pretty successful with the classroom training, it’s the support we give folks when they go out in the field.”
And, he says his ultimate goal is for the investigators to have a manageable caseload, while maintaining a personal life as well.
“I do believe that any recommendation that we have for keeping folks in the workforce is to provide work life-balance and to restructure this work in a way where folks have time off that’s theirs,” Carroll stated. “You know, you should have a weekend where you actually have a weekend, not where you’re tethered to a telephone, and you thought you had a weekend. But, now on Saturday afternoon, you’re out in the middle of an investigation and your family is out someplace else. We have to find a way to restructure the way we do this work in a way that would provide that work life balance because that’s what folks in the field are asking us about.”
The House committee that looks into children issues has made addressing the turnover one of its legislative priorities.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Governor Rick Scott announced his support for spending 10-million dollars to hire 130 additional CPIs and Florida abuse hotline counselors. In a statement, DCF Chief Carroll says hiring additional investigators will allow DCF to keep the caseloads low so that it will provide that work life balance.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.