Child abuse prevention: Florida Gov. Rick Scott wants to boost spending

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Reeling from a string of child abuse-related deaths in the last year, Gov. Rick Scott wants to spend millions in order to hire more than 400 additional investigators in the coming year.

Scott on Tuesday will outline a proposal to boost the budget of the Department of Children and Families by nearly $32 million. He also wants an $8 million increase for sheriff's departments handling abuse cases.

"While DCF has made significant changes to protect children, we still have much to do to protect the most vulnerable among us," Scott said in a statement. "Even one child's death is a death too many."

If approved by state legislators during the annual session that starts in March, the funding would reduce the caseloads of child abuse investigators to 10 cases each.

Scott's proposal also calls for extra funding to allow for two-person teams to handle cases involving children the most at risk of abuse. DCF has already launched a pilot program with two-person teams in Miami-Dade and Polk counties.

The governor's budget proposal also calls for hiring additional state workers to do reviews of ongoing child abuse investigations, as well as reclassifying 50 current positions to higher-paid positions.

The move comes after the state's child welfare system has come under increased criticism and scrutiny due to a series of deaths in the past year.

A report released in November said Florida was failing in its efforts to prevent child abuse deaths because welfare authorities aren't picking up warning signs in families at risk.

The report reviewed the deaths of 40 children and concluded that welfare authorities who were involved with the families had overlooked danger signs like drug abuse or domestic violence. Most of the children who died were less than 5 years old.

The causes of death include suffocation, drowning and physical abuse. The most common cause was suffocation or asphyxia where most of the parents or caregivers had histories of drug abuse or tested positive for drugs following the child's death.

The budget recommendations endorsed by Scott mirror ones already suggested by Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo.

"Armed with input from national experts and data to back up our proposals, we are prepared to ensure that these funds will be laser-focused on protecting children who are most at-risk," Jacobo said in a statement. "With Governor Scott's steadfast support of DCF initiatives to improve child safety, I am confident that these strategic investments will be made to keep Florida's children safe."

In the wake of recent deaths, Democrats last month called on Scott to shield DCF from any more budget cuts. Scott said last fall he planned to cut spending by $100 million in state agencies in 2014.

The Scott administration said Monday that the governor also plans to recommend that funding for state subsidized substance abuse and mental health programs remain at current levels because they also help prevent child abuse.

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