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Sheriff pursues child protective functions

The agency will resubmit a proposal to handle child protective inquiries, perhaps starting next year.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published August 13, 2003

The Legislature didn't come through with funding this year for the Citrus County Sheriff's Office to take over child protective investigations from the Department of Children and Families, but local officials still are working to keep the proposal afloat.

At a meeting of Citrus foster parents Monday night, Sheriff's Sgt. David Wyllie, lead officer for the project's transition team, said his agency will resubmit a contract to DCF with hopes of making the switch next year.

No timeline has been set for the latest effort, but Wyllie said Sheriff Jeff Dawsy remained committed to improving how child abuse and neglect investigations are handled in the county.

"If the sheriff takes over, he realizes that every dead baby has his name on it," Wyllie said. "And he's willing to take that risk as long as it (the program) is funded."

Funding proved to be the initiative's fatal glitch during last spring's legislative session. The Sheriff's Office had prepared a $1.3-million operating budget and even signed a contract for nearly $300,000 in startup grant funding.

But in June, about three weeks before the transition was set to begin, the deal failed.

The announcement took local sheriffs and some DCF officials by surprise. At the time, DCF spokesman Gary Gershowitz said the department would try again next year to get the project through in Citrus, Hillsborough and Sarasota counties, where sheriffs' offices were in various stages of transition.

The department stands by that position, said Jim Clark, acting district administrator for DCF District 13, which includes Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Lake and Sumter counties.

"We would like the sheriffs to take over the function," he said Tuesday. "We think it's a positive thing."

Sheriffs' offices in five other counties - Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee, Broward and Seminole - have assumed the lead role in child investigations since lawmakers recommended the idea in 1999 as a way to shrink the DCF bureaucracy.

A study conducted last year by the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work found the changes in these counties were producing positive results. Law enforcement officers had an improved understanding of the social services available for children and there was no increase in emergency placements. However, there wasn't any reduction in the number of abuse cases either.

Researchers said this desired outcome likely would come with time.

The study bolsters what DCF already believes true: allowing sheriffs' offices to take over child investigations is another step toward the statewide push for community-based care.

DCF has offered the Citrus County Sheriff's Office the choice of taking over child protective investigations with the same budget under which the department workers currently operate, Wyllie said. But the money isn't enough to do the job right in the eyes of law enforcement, he said.

DCF investigators use their own vehicles and may not have proper insurance to avoid liability problems, said Wyllie, also chief of the sheriff's special victims unit. The Sheriff's Office wants to provide 11 investigators with department cars, detective-level training and lighter case loads. The investigators would not be sworn officers.

"We're going to submit what we feel it takes to run this operation effectively," he said, noting the proposal would include essentially the same material submitted this year.

Clark understands the sheriff's request for additional resources because of the expenses the agency will incur but said the governor would make the final call on DCF's budget.

By giving the Sheriff's Office jurisdiction over dependency investigations as well as criminal cases, officials would have a better shot at adequately addressing all aspects of a child abuse complaint, Wyllie said.

As it stands now, jailing an abuser often is only a temporary fix, he said.

"The criminal part of the investigation can't fix everything," he said at Monday's meeting. "In fact, it doesn't fix anything."

- Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303 or cjenkins@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 13, 2003, 01:32:38]

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