Editor’s note: Concurrent with researching and writing this opinion piece, a strike-all amendment was filed to this bill that addresses many of the underlying concerns. Essentially the bill now allows DCF to grade local Community Based Organizations for the purpose of transparency, not control. Also it makes DCF prove that it can do a better job with oversight in two pilot areas. There is no doubt that Circuits 6 and 13 have serious problems. DCF will get to prove itself by piloting its idea to shift to performance based contracting. The strike all also includes a lot of the House’s ideas on improving training and support for our beleaguered child welfare workforce. All in all, it is a more thoughtful, approach to changing the system. Test. Measure. Proceed. There is no doubt we need change, but as we have learned, it needs to come with lots of accountability and checks on the powerful agencies and associations that serve our most vulnerable Floridians.
As the legislative and executive branches of Florida government scramble to respond to the embarrassing revelations that the Department of Children and Families was asleep at the switch while shelters for battered women were left wanting and the head of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence enriched herself, it’s hard to see how a bigger bureaucracy at DCF is the answer to anything.
But that’s the inexplicable irony happening in these waning days of the Legislative Session. Sometimes the wild 180-degree swings in Florida public policy that come from trying to fix an endemic problem start to resemble a square dance. Eventually, they bring everyone back to the place where they started.
That’s especially true when it comes to DCF, whose reorganizations have historically been compared to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
It’s kind of misguided for a legislative body controlled by Republicans, who hate big government and central bureaucracy, to be moving toward passing SB 1326, which would recentralize oversight of human service providers, including substance abuse and behavioral health, at the state level.
The bill has the motherhood and apple pie-sounding name the “DCF Accountability Act,” and it has won the public praise of First Lady Casey DeSantis, who is to be applauded for her tireless advocacy on behalf of Florida’s mental health system. But the idea that the solution is to turn to an agency that provided so-called oversight over the Florida Council Against Domestic Violence while its executive director cashed in at the public trough to the tune of $7.5 million is laughable — and even tragic.
In fact, the reason Florida has the community-based system it has now is because DCF proved incapable of managing hundreds of contracts for mental health and substance abuse services the last time it was centralized.
In its place, Florida smartly instituted a system of oversights at the community level in 2008, with local “managing entities” scrutinizing outcomes and holding providers accountable. It is a system that has worked efficiently and effectively because the managing entities are shepherded by boards that include all the most important local stakeholders — people like sheriffs and school superintendents. So, the leading citizens who most need the system to work at the local level have a vested interest in keeping an eye on the metrics and making sure it does.
A bigger Tallahassee bureaucracy hasn’t proven to be the “A” answer to solve most problems, certainly not at DCF. And while I have the greatest regard for DCF Secretary Chad Poppell, he won’t be there forever, and this intended reform is actually a giant backslide to a deeply flawed and failed prior system.
As Senate Appropriations convenes to take up SB 1326 today, senators may want to remember both the history of DCF and its most recent, dramatic failure before taking oversight of mental health and substance abuse programs out of local hands.
And if they want to get an earful of why not to do this, perhaps they should visit their House peers’ Public Integrity and Ethics Committee 10 a.m. meeting across the Capitol complex, when staff of the FCADV will be grilled about how much they knew about the criminal-like compensation scandal as it was happening the past few years.