DCF investigators: 'Children are at risk because we can't do our jobs'

Large caseloads, low pay, high turnover cited

 

 

They are the Department of Children and Families’ "front-line" in keeping children safe, the first people sent into the homes of potentially abused and neglected children. They are Child Protective Investigators, what the DCF secretary calls "the most critical function that we have within the child welfare arena."

 

But those same investigators tell Contact 5 and our news partners at The Palm Beach Post, the department is "putting children at risk," because investigators "are set up to fail every case."

 

Related: Read more from our news partners at The Palm Beach Post here and here.

 

What's going to happen, my fear is, that a child is going to die unfortunately and someone is going to scratch their head and say how could this have happened? It's inevitable, it's inevitable," said one former investigator, who left the department after more than 5 years.

'We don't have time to be investigators'

We interviewed a dozen current and former investigators for this story. They say the problem is that investigators are handling too many cases at one time.

“You cannot feasibly care for all these many families and children. There's no way."

All investigators we interviewed asked not to be identified out of fear of losing their jobs, or for fear of retaliation.

“You cannot feasibly care for all these many families and children. There's no way."

"I've cried. I love my job, but how can I make sure these kids are safe, and get these things done?," said a current investigator who’s been with the department for more than 2 years. "Out all night, up all day, you aren't getting any sleep, how can you make a sound decision about a child's safety? You aren't in the right frame of mind to make the right decisions."

The Child Welfare League of America is the nation's top child welfare agency. Their “Standard of Excellence” as they call it, recommends investigators handle no more than 12 open cases (families) per month, in order to do their job efficiently. Florida policy recommends no more than 15.

 

Contact 5 and The Palm Beach Post's review of DCF's 2016 records shows caseloads ranging from 1 to 36 on the Treasure Coast. Each case represents a family, but that case could require an investigator to be responsible for 1, 2, maybe even 5 children or more.

 

Caseloads ranged from 1 to 38 in Palm Beach County. Our joint investigation found investigators regularly have caseloads that exceeded 15. In 2016, 45 percent of the time daily caseloads in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast topped 15.

 

 

“When you have a caseload of 20-25-30-35, you are bound to not just fail, but the families you are charged with overseeing and helping are going to fail.”

 

"You rely on what family tells you, you don't have time to talk to other people who know the kids, go visit their schools. You can't spend enough time with the family, get them to trust you."

“I've had so many families call me, crying on the phone, begging for help and there are times when my supervisor would say, ‘well they can deal with it on their own,’" says a former Treasure Coast CPI, who worked with the agency for two years.

 

"System failures": Nakia Venant (from left), Phoebe Jonchuck, Chance Walsh and Janiya Thomas all died.

'Every day, someone is quitting'

Sources tell us what is happening now inside DCF is "not normal” and the "worst they have ever seen," calling the department "a sinking ship."

“It's so bad at this point that there are investigators resigning left and right,” said one former investigator.

"When you have people that are really good people and want to do a good job and are set up to fail in a sense, they are going to leave."

At least 55 DCF investigators working in the Palm Beach and Treasure Coast circuits, as DCF calls them, have quit since May 2016.

In Palm Beach County, 111 people were at some point employed as a CPI during 2016. On the Treasure Coast, it was 52.

"When you have people that are really good people and want to do a good job and are set up to fail in a sense, they are going to leave."

DCF’s 2016 annual performance report even states that high caseloads lead to resignations.

Thirty-two people started as a CPI in Palm Beach County in 2016. Seven, or 22 percent didn’t make it through the first year.

Twenty-two people started as a CPI in the Treasure Coast (Circuit 19) in 2016. Nine, or 40 percent didn’t make it through the first year.

"We hire investigators and then they quit. Sometimes they quit because they get burned out fast. They're overwhelmed,” says a former employee.  “A ‘seasoned investigator’ could be only 4 months into the job.”

“Then the higher ups from there put more pressure to get cases closed. That throws us back into that whole cycle again where things are getting closed without being properly investigated.”

"I don't think we are ever going to stop the turnover (with an entry level job)," says DCF Secretary Mike Carroll.

When those investigators leave, their cases get put on someone else.

"I don't think we are ever going to stop the turnover (with an entry level job)," says DCF Secretary Mike Carroll. "I think we can reduce the turnover. Again, you are talking about an entry level job with a high level of stress with very high expectations, little thanks. Little public recognition for a job well done."

According to a department spokesman, the starting salary for a CPI is $35,640.07. After 12 weeks, if training is successful, that amount is bumped up to $37,620.08. If they pass a one year probationary period, they make $39,600.08. To become a CPI, you need a bachelor’s degree, and completed criminal background check.  

 

'You have to cut corners'

"To do a good job is impossible," says one current investigator, who has spent nearly a decade working with the department.

"One investigator took a week vacation to close cases," says a former Palm Beach County investigator. “Other employees call in sick just to finish reports."

"On any given day, on paper, you have enough workers. But if you actually look at the numbers of people who call off, you don't have enough workers, because people are calling off because of the problems."

"On any given day, on paper, you have enough workers. But if you actually look at the numbers of people who call off, you don't have enough workers, because people are calling off because of the problems."

Some current investigators tell Contact 5 and The Post they "absolutely cut corners," which can include falsifying records, because "it's the only way to get the job done."

“A lot of the times people wouldn't get interviewed. It's a big deal to lie about those things. So when a kid is not seen and it's documented that they're seen, nobody really knows what's going on with this kid," says a former Treasure Coast investigator. “Sometimes my supervisor would say, oh just say you couldn't get in touch with them or nobody was home.”

“When you have two or three new cases a day, you cannot do what you need to do, to make sure you're doing a good job, you can't do it," says another former investigator.

Many admit to writing, "whatever sounds good" in a report, or copying and pasting from previous reports. "I write something up, and just submit it, it's not good," confesses one current investigator.

Secretary Carroll did not mince words, when responding to these claims. "Is workload an issue? Yes, but we have workers every day who bust their tail and do it the right way. We are an agency that everything we do hinges on our personal credibility ... If you give up your credibility, and I don't care why you give it up, there's no room for you in this agency. I'm sorry."

'It's a system designed to fail'

But investigators say, the system is to blame, and they have no support from management.

"When people are stressed, and they're tired, that's when mistakes happen," says one former investigator.

Within DCF, mistakes are called "missed opportunities.” That’s according to several investigators, both former and current.

"Even the recent case of Tayla Aleman, who basically starved to death. That child, the department released a new statement stating there were missed opportunities. But again, that's the go-to phrase."

 

Kristen Meyer and Alejandro Aleman, parents of Tayla Aleman. The 13-month-old died weighing only 13 pounds.

Thirteen-month-old Tayla Aleman weighed only 7 pounds when she died in April 2016. Her parents sit in jail, accused of starving her to death. Those same parents were investigated four times before Tayla's death. DCF admits they "missed opportunities" when they investigated.

A current investigator with more than 10 years’ experience, and intimate knowledge of the Aleman case told us, "Some of the problems with that family were glaringly obvious. If more time was spent on the case, things could have been different. Instead an investigator is worried about documenting 15 other cases," adding, "Investigators need more time to investigate. Most just take a quick look around the home, if allowed, do a quick interview."

 

'The Hotline accepts everything'

Several investigators say the problems start with DCF's Abuse Hotline. The hotline, according to the state's website, "accepts reports 24 hours a day and 7 days a week of known or suspected child abuse, neglect, or abandonment and reports of known or suspected abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a vulnerable adult."

Investigators we interviewed say, "the hotline accepts everything," and is purely reactive, afraid to downgrade any calls.

"We're given calls that have absolutely 100 percent nothing to do at all with child safety,” says one former investigator. “The hotline does not screen out cases like it should, to sniff out true abuse and neglect.

"We're given calls that have absolutely 100 percent nothing to do at all with child safety.”

 

The department’s 2016 annual review, according to The Post, states that the total number of reports of abuse and neglect have decreased less than one percent since the last fiscal year. The number of cases deemed worthy of an investigation, though, increased more than three percent.

“We can't shut off the hotline, it is what it is,” Secretary Carroll said. “And as people call, we are mandated to get out there.”

But investigators say even for those cases they don't believe involve a child's welfare, they are required to fill out "an insane amount" of paperwork, the same as they would for a legitimate case.

"When you have to write very long and exhaustive assessments, what we call Family Functioning Assessments, that range anywhere from six to 13 pages long, and you have to do that for each family you're involved with, if you have 30 families, that's a lot of paperwork. Which also means there's not enough time in the days to accomplish all of that. Therefore it leads to investigators doing shoddy jobs if you will, by no fault of their own."

For each allegation of abuse or neglect, an investigator is required to look into the claims by interviewing numerous people -- all within 60 days of receiving the case. But a case involving one child could have 100 people, called collaterals, that need to be interviewed, for example. Paperwork is required for each person.

For each allegation of abuse or neglect, an investigator is required to look into the claims by interviewing numerous people -- all within 60 days. But a case involving one child could have 100 people that need to be interviewed. Paperwork is required for each person.

"It's not an excuse by any means but it begs the question of why? Why did that investigator not have the time to make follow up visits."

Investigators point to the state's methodology, a system that determines how investigators handle cases, as a reason for the inundation of paperwork.

“The methodology is basically a book that walks you through the investigation process. It is supposed to allow you to work with families better, but now there is no time to sit and talk to families, you are just in and out,” claims one current investigator.

Nubia Barahona

The methodology changed after Nubia Barahona died in 2010. Barahona was found dead in her father's truck on I-95 in West Palm Beach, her body decayed by acid. A state issued report, released months after the death, found "systemic issues" within DCF, that ultimately led to her death. Those issues included “overwhelming caseloads,” among other things.

"It (the methodology) has definitely increased the amount of time it takes to close out an investigation because we are asking CPIs to gather a lot more information and the documentation requirements get blown," says Secretary Carroll.

A 2013 review of the department’s methodology, completed by national child welfare consultant, The Casey Family Programs, cautioned the department to assess how much time is needed to properly complete reports. The report states that "... manageable caseloads and workloads … are also essential to effective child protection work.”

 

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll on CPI efficiencies/reducing caseloads

 

Secretary Carroll did not want to speak to Contact 5 and The Post face to face, but offered a phone interview. Carroll says he's currently working to make workloads more manageable for CPIs. "When I say make workload manageable, it's not going to be easy, it's not going to be light, it's just not the nature of the work. But make it manageable and give them some semblance of a work life balance.” 

 

Carroll says "he can't control the volume of work" that comes in, but "can try and control how they do the work."

He sent out a memo to all staff in February, detailing what he calls a plan for "CPI efficiencies." In the memo, Carroll wrote "starting March 1, the agency will eliminate some of the documentation required for home visits, in an effort to close cases faster.”

Carroll said he believes the changes should reduce workload by 30 percent.

"Are we sure we should be treating every case equally? .... Is there a way to look at those cases that are relatively minor cases, or turn out to be a case related to a custody dispute, or somebody reported something happened and we can rule out something happened really quick," said Carroll in the phone interview.

 

“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 (starting March 1st),” Carroll went on to say in the same memo mentioned above. “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.”

But our sources worry that any push to reduce caseloads on a set schedule, will force investigators to close cases before they're properly investigated, something they claim already happens.

Even before the new mandate, a former investigator said, "The main focus, aside from keeping children safe, is making sure you are hitting all your targets, or performance measures as they're called. There's such an emphasis on hitting these performance measures that some individuals are willing to do whatever it is they need to do to make sure they hit that deadline."

"It becomes more about numbers and statistics than ensuring a child is safe."

 

Phoebe Jonchuck, whose father threw her off a St. Petersburg bridge.

'It’s only a matter of time before another death'

The Department’s website says 459 fatalities were reported to their hotline in 2016. Of those cases, DCF had prior involvement with the family involved in 164 cases. In 101 of those deaths, DCF had contact with the child before they died.

Many of the investigators interviewed say it’s only a matter of time before another child dies, as a result of “missed opportunities.”

The issues highlighted in this investigation -  large caseloads, high turnover, low pay, voluminous paperwork, and pressure to meet performance goals -- make the job impossible, investigators say, and put children in a dangerous position.

So what can be done? Investigators say it all falls on the state.

“The problem is, is that we hear a lot of talk. And that's exactly what it is, talk talk talk and more talk. Usually the answer is well, we are going to put in more training. We are going to hire more investigators. That doesn't solve the problem. There's a systemic issue at this point and it's something that needs to be addressed because it's not going away.”

“I believe it would take and should take an act of the legislature to reexamine this safety methodology the state has been put in place.”

DCF responds to report

Following our report, DCF contacted WPTV and The Palm Beach Post.

A spokesperson asked us to include information in our articles regarding average caseloads as of June 2017.

They provided the following table, which shows average caseloads for all investigators across the state, and broken down by region. 

The information does not address the number of cases each investigator is handling individually and it does not show how often caseloads exceed 15. 

DCF did not provide us the underlying data that was used to calculate these averages, nor the time span that these averages represent.

 

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll provided the following statement after this article was published:

The statewide average CPI caseload is currently less than 12 and in line with recommended standards. We remain committed to keeping workloads manageable throughout the state to support those doing this important work and the families we serve.

OUR FINDINGS:

The work of a Child Protective Investigator (CPI)

"There's a lot of pressure we put on ourselves when we go into a family's home and into their life.  I need to make sure that when I walk out of this home, this child is safe."

Compensation

As of April 17th, starting salary is $35,640.07. After 12 weeks, if training is successful, it is bumped up to $37,620.08.

"You're putting your life on the line, literally, at times for $36-$37,000."  

Workload often exceeds national and Florida guidelines

The Child Welfare League of America recommends no more than 12 open cases. Florida policy recommends no more than 15.

In Palm Beach County CPIs’ daily caseloads ranged from 1 to 38.

Daily caseloads exceed the state prescribed maximum of 15 on 45 percent of the days in Palm Beach County.

"When you have a caseload of 20-25-30-35, you are bound to not just fail, but the families you are charged with overseeing and helping are going to fail."

Turnover*

In Palm Beach County (Circuit 15), of the 111 people who at some point were employed as a CPI during 2016, thirty-seven or 1 out of 3 left the job at some point during the year.

On the Treasure Coast (Circuit 19), of the 52 people who at some point were employed as a CPI, during 2016, 18 or 1 out of 3 left the job at some point during the year.

Thirty-two people started as a CPI in Palm Beach County in 2016. Seven, or 22 percent didn’t make it through the first year.

Twenty-two people started as a CPI in the Treasure Coast (Circuit 19) in 2016. Nine, or 40 percent didn’t make it through the first year

"People are quitting left and right."  

*This includes the following categories: retirements, dismissals, failed probationary period, people who voluntarily left and other

Experience

Among CPIs employed in January 2017, 60 percent on the Treasure Coast and 55 percent in Palm Beach County have less than 2 years of experience

"We hire investigators and then they quit. And sometimes they quit because they get burned out fast. They're overwhelmed."

Tired, stressed out and overworked employees more prone to make mistakes

"When people are stressed and they're tired, that's when mistakes happen."