Sheriff's Maj. Connie Shingledecker oversees all the child abuse and neglect investigations in Manatee County, where investigators remove children from their homes more frequently than most anywhere else in Florida, a recent study shows.
After a decade of work where she has emerged as a state leader in child safety, Shingledecker says the agency and investigators there are liable if they leave a child in a home and something bad ultimately happens.
"We come under the gun for, 'Why didn't we remove the child,'" Shingledecker said. "We really don't have a choice, because we could be leaving a child at risk."
The Department of Children and Families now is pushing to change that approach in Manatee County, asking the Sheriff's Office to rely instead on intensive in-home social services to keep children safe -- and out of the foster care system altogether.
"It's a huge change," said Nick Cox, the DCF regional administrator overseeing Manatee, Sarasota and five other counties in the Tampa Bay region.
Former Attorney General Bob Butterworth took over the troubled DCF last year and embraced the approach, since studies show children do better in the long run when they stay with their families, Cox said.
The state significantly reduced the number of children taken from their families last year for the first time in a decade, according to a recent study from the Virginia-based National Coalition on Child Protection Reform.
The state previously had a "take the child and run" strategy, said Richard Wexler, the national coalition director, who has monitored the results of Florida privatizing its foster care system for more than a decade.
Wexler says Butterworth and other leaders have realized foster care is an "extremely toxic intervention that must be used sparingly and in small doses."
Children in Manatee County were about 50 percent more likely to removed from their homes last year than in Sarasota County, the study found. Only one three-county area around Jacksonville removed children at a higher rate than Manatee County did.
Wexler said Shingledecker's comments about liability show she equates child safety with child removal, and her investigators would be more willing to keep a family together if they knew bosses would support that decision.
"If the person in charge of the investigators keeps saying, 'Take the child, take the child,' then investigators are going to take the child," Wexler said.
Shingledecker, a 30-year veteran officer, was instrumental in making the Manatee County Sheriff's Office the first law enforcement agency in the state to take over child protection investigations.
She says she is willing to leave more children in their homes -- as long as the social service interventions can "guarantee" the safety of the child to investigators.
"I'm certain some of these situations, if we had a form of service in place, we wouldn't have to remove these children," Shingledecker said.
Meetings between Shingledecker and foster care workers resulted in a Manatee Glens mental health counselor relocating to the same office as child protection investigators about a month ago.
The study compares the number of children removed from a house in an area to the estimated number of children living in poverty living there.
The resulting rate then reflects investigator actions independent of socioeconomics and population and can spot outliers -- districts doing particular well or poorly, the study states.
The Safe Children's Coalition says removals have already gone down. Shingledecker wants to see six months' worth of data before she will say if it has made a difference.
A closer working relationship is how Hillsborough County cut in half the number of children its Sheriff's Office investigators removed from families in the past two years, Cox said.
The percentage of children returning to foster care has also dropped, a key safety measure, he said.
Cox said he is also encouraging the strategy in Sarasota County, and Wexler's study showed last year was the first major reduction in children taken into the foster care system in more than a decade.
The approach is also more cost effective because fewer children in the foster care system means fewer associated costs, Cox said.
"I think in the long run we're going to see savings," Cox said.
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