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DCF leaders vow a new day

The state chief and new regional director tout transparency.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published March 27, 2007


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TAMPA - Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth came to town Monday to introduce the agency's new regional director for Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee counties.

But Butterworth and his colleagues also used the occasion to herald "a new day" of openness for the beleaguered child welfare department.

"We will no longer use this agency to hide behind the concept of confidentiality," George Sheldon, Butterworth's assistant secretary for operations, told law enforcement officials, DCF employees and reporters.

Nick Cox, the newly hired SunCoast regional director who worked for Butterworth when he was state attorney general, echoed his bosses.

"It was the mantra at the Attorney General's Office and it will be the mantra here: transparency," Cox said.

If the mantra sticks, it will certainly mean a climate change for DCF officials who traditionally have been tight-lipped about missteps in child welfare cases. Butterworth said confidentiality laws should be used to protect the identities of children but not to hide department mistakes.

The secretary and Cox both promised that the days of "no comment" from agency officials were over. During his first 10 weeks in office, Butterworth joined with a newspaper to ask a judge to release records in a southwest Florida abuse case in which the secretary admits mistakes were made.

Cox vowed to give reporters his cell phone number - as soon as he learned it.

Many of the law enforcement representatives on hand for Cox's introduction, including Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats and Pasco Sheriff Bob White, didn't need an introduction to the man with deep roots in local criminal justice circles. Cox, 43, prosecuted homicides for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office for 10 years before moving over to the Attorney General's Office.

There, he helped institute a division that handled termination of parental rights cases and a program that worked with other agencies to crack down on elder abuse at nursing homes.

He had been working for a private law firm and as an adjunct professor at Stetson College of Law when Butterworth beckoned him back to public service.

On Monday, he was optimistic but not overly idealistic about his new role.

"I'd like to say that the system will be fixed," he said. But if it's not, he said, he at least wants to bring about positive changes.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 813 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 27, 2007, 00:42:05]


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