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A Times Editorial

Sheriff's daunting mission: Do the right thing for kids

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003

Later this year, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office will do something extraordinary. At a time when so many government entities flee in fear from challenging tasks, the Sheriff's Office will take over a mission that is thankless at best, damning at worst.

Without being forced to do so, the Sheriff's Office will take over child protective investigations from the state Department of Children and Families. These are the cases of children who have been victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment. They are also the cases that have generated so many screaming headlines in recent years when children under state supervision have been lost, maimed or killed.

The obvious question to ask Sheriff Jeff Dawsy is: Why?

Why subject yourself and your staff to the kind of agony that overwhelmed state workers have battled for years as they tried to keep so many helpless youngsters safe? Why take on a job that only gets the public's attention when something goes wrong? Why add another layer of responsibility to an agency that has its hands full already keeping the peace in a growing and evolving county?

Dawsy's answer is quite simple: It's the right thing to do. His officers know Citrus County and its people and thus can provide a better level of service.

The Sheriff's Office already is involved in these cases. A deputy must accompany a DCF worker to investigate allegations, and this experience has shown sheriff's officials the depth of the problems these workers face. From daunting case loads to inadequate training and an unyielding state bureaucracy, the DCF workers often were in no-win situations.

Dawsy and his staff decided that they could do better.

It's worth noting that only a handful of sheriffs have stepped forward to assume this important role, and Dawsy is one of them. Since five other sheriff's offices have blazed this trail, Citrus will be able to use their experiences to structure its investigative team.

Dawsy envisions creating a top-of-the-line department that will have 12 investigators as well as crime analysts, managers and clerical workers. Using the latest methods such as portable computers, computer databases and transcribers, the investigators will be able to spend more time in the field and less in an office. They also will have seamless access to the other resources within the sheriff's office.

Training will also be improved with the investigators being, essentially, detectives without guns. That should lead to more thorough looks at these often complex situations.

Perhaps the best part about the deal is that the public should receive noticeably better service without additional costs. All of the funding for the new branch of the office will come from the state through a $2.5-million grant.

The state has tentatively agreed to the changeover, which should begin in July. The sheriff's office, however, is hoping to get an advance on the funds, around $500,000, so it can begin setting up the system early. That includes finding a base (one option is leasing the former and now-vacant Browns School site in Lecanto).

So, what happens if the Sheriff's Office determines it needs more caseworkers or more money for equipment or training? Will the taxpayers of Citrus be asked to finance a huge budget increase for the Sheriff's Office out of their property taxes?

No. The funds will come exclusively through the state contract. If more is needed, the sheriff will ask for it when the contract is up for its annual renewal. If some shuffling is needed during the year, the department will have the authority to make changes in-house, such as turning a supervisor into a caseworker. Such changes will not need DCF approval, and eliminating this level of bureaucracy should mean better efficiency.

If there is any concern about this initiative it is the question of whether it is always wise to have law-enforcement personnel handle these sensitive cases. Are there cases in which a lighter touch would be better?

Deputies are part of the process now, so there already is a strong law enforcement component. Besides, it's hard to imagine a situation in which a trained law officer would not be an asset.

Others might grouse that this is another example of empire building by an ambitious sheriff who always seems to be adding some new tool or division to the agency. However, taking on a difficult task like child protection is hardly an easy or politically expedient step.

The Sheriff's Office is to be commended for embarking on this daunting mission to better protect our most vulnerable citizens. For everyone's sake, let's hope they succeed.

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