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    DCF chief proposes new goals, massive changes

    Jerry Regier wants to move responsibilities to local nonprofit and law enforcement agencies.

    Compiled from Times wires
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 5, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- Department of Children and Families Secretary Jerry Regier announced a plan Tuesday to speed up the move toward community-based care and to reduce case loads for child welfare workers and the number of children in state custody.

    Regier's proposal also calls for helping Gov. Jeb Bush achieve his goal of strengthening families by reducing the divorce rate and the number of children born out of wedlock and having local law enforcement agencies gradually take over abuse investigations.

    "The overall goal . . . is a department that is responsive, a department that is credible, a department that has thought through the details and linkages and utilizes the money that we have effectively," Regier said.

    A key goal will be transferring child welfare services to locally run nonprofit agencies in each of the 67 counties by the end of June 2004. Just 12 counties are now being served by private agencies.

    Regier set a goal of reducing the average number of cases per social worker to 15 by December. In some parts of the state, workers now juggle as many as 70 open cases.

    He also proposes to reduce the number of children receiving out-of-home care by 25 percent by June 30, 2004, and increase adoption rates by 36 percent during the fiscal year that begins in July.

    The report suggests "nonmarital births" can be reduced by 10 percent by Dec. 31, 2006.

    While praising the plan for its ambitions, child welfare advocate Jack Levine questioned whether Regier is being realistic.

    "Neither community-based care agencies nor county government are going to be in the mood to do somebody else's job unless they are given the dollars to be assured they can do it right," Levine said.

    He questioned whether sheriffs' offices would be willing to take on abuse investigations.

    "What if they say 'I don't want to' or what if they say 'Sorry, that's not my job?' " Levine said. "He does not have a receptive ear in 67 counties."

    Tucked in Regier's 25-page vision statement is an announcement that DCF will give police and sheriffs the sensitive responsibility for adult protective investigations, which involves looking into complaints of abuse and neglect in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

    "This is all about money," said Alachua County Sheriff Steve Oelrich, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association. "We do not have the funding."

    Regier also proposes to transfer some of DCF's responsibilities to other state agencies. He suggests the Agency for Workforce Innovation take over regulation of child care facilities and that the state explore transferring in-home support programs for vulnerable adults to the Department of Elder Affairs or another agency.

    Many of the policy changes -- including a proposal to dismiss the department's child welfare lawyers who serve as advocates for youths in crisis -- will likely require approval from the Legislature.

    Regier was appointed in August, replacing Kathleen Kearney following months of controversy over the Rilya Wilson case. Rilya disappeared from her caregiver's Miami home 15 months before the DCF caseworker charged with monitoring her care noticed. The girl, who would now be 6, has not been seen since January 2001.

    Regier said he wants to emphasize prevention programs and family preservation services as a way to reduce the number of children in state care. He has previously talked about limiting the types of calls accepted by the state's abuse hotline.

    Also, the department can do a better job of speeding up adoptions, he said.

    The department also needs to concentrate on training and retaining employees, Regier said.

    "Train them better, pay them better, but I think the most important thing is supervise them better -- give them more leadership," Regier said.

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