ORLANDO, Fla. — 9 Investigates uncovered a troubling problem within the Florida Department of Children and Families. Hundreds of child protective investigators, statewide, were caught falsifying investigation records, claiming they checked out allegations of abuse or neglect, but didn't. Investigative reporter Daralene Jones talked to more than a dozen former and current investigators and agencies that work directly with DCF. Only one of them would agree to speak with 9 Investigates on the record, out of fear for their jobs or retaliation.
The former child protective investigator, who agreed to speak with 9 Investigates on the condition his identity be protected, told 9 Investigates at one point he had 34 cases in one month. The day the former investigator was arrested for falsifying state records, the investigator had 24 open cases, involving 36 children.
"(I) was told to do things to close cases knowing I couldn't have done it. I did it anyway, made that choice to do it to close the case," the former investigator said.
The former investigator told 9 Investigates he was supposed to ensure the safety of children in Brevard County. Instead, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found evidence that he lied about visiting families, even though case notes described details of those visits.
"(I) Kept having dreams about a long dark hallway, and a baby down the hallway and some nights in my dreams I could make it to that baby and save that baby and some nights I couldn't and the baby would be dead," he said.
Investigators are required to close cases within 60 days. This former investigator told 9 Investigates that the stress from the job, where child protective investigators earn less than $40,000 a year, made him sick. He said he now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jones asked how often he thought investigators were falsifying paperwork. "Probably on a daily basis. And it may just be little things, but it was just to get the work done."
WFTV data findings
9 Investigates read through more than 250 investigative reports, where child protective investigators were accused of falsifying records. About 60 percent of cases over the last five years were verified. And while some led to termination and cases were turned over to law enforcement, 9 Investigates found prosecution is rare.
DCF provided 9 Investigates with records showing 59 employees have been fired since 2014, because they were caught falsifying documentation related to cases. However, the number only includes DCF employees, not those contracted to do work for DCF through other agencies, or even sheriff's offices.
Law enforcement typically pursued charges in instances where a child protective investigator put a child in danger, claiming to visit a child to check on allegations of abuse, and never did. Our review of the records revealed caseloads ranging from four to more than 40, often with multiple children involved. In one case, one child protective investigator had 32 cases involving 77 children.
The agency provided records that show there are currently 267 child protective investigators in Central Florida, with active caseloads. The average case load, based on the numbers provided to 9 Investigates, is between 18 and 21. There are currently 60 new investigators in training, and a majority of them have a case load between 20 to 30 families, involving multiple children.
DCF secretary calls for smaller caseloads
DCF Secretary, Mike Carroll repeatedly denied our request for an interview. Instead, the agency shared a video earlier this month from a budget presentation in front of state legislators in which Carroll pleaded for lawmakers to restore non-recurring funding, in part, to manage turnover of child protective investigators, which he said contributes to high caseloads.
"The governor recommended a couple of years ago, and you folks funded an increase. And I think we got 271 more investigations and we wanted to bring the total number of investigations to about 10 on intake,” Carroll said. “And if you look at our investigations now, the number of incoming investigations per investigator, we're at about that number. What causes us more issues is turnover, because we're not always able to keep those positions filled,” Carroll said. “We're asking for more because we think that feet on the ground would get us to a number somewhere around 15. Would we like to see that lower, sure,” Carroll said during his remarks to state lawmakers.
DCF caseload memo
The agency sent 9 Investigates on Tuesday a copy of a memo sent from Carroll, which reads, "I have directed operations and the regional managing directors to make sure that CPI caseloads average no more than 15 open cases per CPI and that no CPI has a caseload of more than 30 within the next two weeks," Carroll said. "Moving forward, we will work to ensure that the maximum caseload is no more than 25 open investigations for a CPI at any given time. And starting March 1, the agency will eliminate some of the documentation required for home visits, in an effort to close cases faster, recommendations which came out of an efficiencies study performed by DCF."
Carroll said he believes the changes should reduce workload by 30 percent.
If the reduced caseload guidelines were in place sooner, the child protective investigator who 9 Investigates spoke with might still have a career.
"They've got myself and they've got other people for basically saying something that's not true in a note, or somewhere. But I can't tell you how many times DCF has lied to us as investigators and been untruthful to us. They haven't taken ownership. You continue to have investigators who are over-stressed overburdened with cases," the former investigator told Jones.
DCF statement to WFTV
In a statement, DCF told 9 Investigates: "As an agency trusted with helping to rebuild families, our integrity is everything. Dishonesty in any form, including the falsification of records, is absolutely not tolerated. Any DCF employee found to have compromised their integrity is subject to immediate termination. We will also report any illegal activity to the appropriate law enforcement agency for prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. Jeopardizing a child's safety or the trust of the legal system by falsifying documents is an unacceptable action that is not supported by or allowed at DCF.
“If any investigator is having trouble managing a case, an entire caseload, or meeting deadlines, they need to have a conversation with their manager, regional director, or even myself, and we can find solutions. Dishonesty is never the answer and it will never be tolerated.
“Over the past few months, I met directly with front line staff in every region of the state, including many CPIs. These meetings have made clear the personal toll and professional strain our investigators, case managers, and their supervisors face daily. As a result, I tasked our state's experts to find ways to reduce caseloads while improving services and making sure that all front line staff have the support necessary to successfully do their job while serving the best interest of vulnerable children.
“The Governor and Legislature have been exceptionally supportive of the child welfare system and DCF is committed to ensuring that all of our resources are directed to be as efficient and effective as possible in serving vulnerable families."
© 2020 Cox Media Group