TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Florida Senate President Don Gaetz on Monday took the next step toward reforming the state Department of Children and Families by asking the author of a white paper to address a Senate panel on how to improve the agency’s approach to child safety.
Former Department of Children and Families special counsel Neil Skene — who wrote a newly-released white paper called “Dependency Disorder: An Rx for What Ails DCF” — will speak to the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
His appearance comes as lawmakers review a series of child deaths earlier this year and consider remedies in the wake of the latest departure of a DCF secretary, David Wilkins, who resigned under fire in July.
“I believe that we ought to include, in our DCF reform legislation, the points that Neil Skene has made,” Gaetz said.
Skene, who sent the white paper to Gaetz and other state leaders last week, wrote that “[i]f DCF is going to change outcomes, it needs to change its entire culture.”
“DCF is bogged down in dysfunctional rules and organizational silos,” he opened. “[It] demoralizes employees by focusing on compliance more than quality and is dependent on outdated, clunky technology and work processes. Yes, money for adequate family services is urgently needed, but it’s not enough.”
Tough, decisive, inspiring leadership is the answer, Skene argued.
“You don’t change an organization with rules and organization charts and sending people off to ‘training,’ ” he wrote. “You change it by changing its culture, and you change culture by starting with dynamic, knowledgeable leadership that can identify patterns, assess a situation properly, and turn ideas and information into results with a sense of urgency.”
Skene also sent the white paper to Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, and to Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who chairs the House Healthy Families Subcommittee. Both panels oversee DCF, and both chairwomen have been asked by their chamber’s leaders to get to the bottom of the children’s deaths.
Since last September, the committees have heard from national, state and local experts on child safety — and Skene will offer ideas about how to manage for child safety.
“They’re trying to solve the problem in Tallahassee instead of at each investigator’s desk, which is what supervisors do,” Skene said of DCF. “But they don’t have time because they’re too busy filling out forms.”
Among Skene’s recommendations:
— “Management at all levels will provide coaching, support, and a reinforcement of goals and priorities rather than countermanding and directing. The (child protective investigator) is responsible for protecting children; management is responsible (for) developing CPI’s who do high-quality work.”
— “Technology serves the front line, not the other way around.”
He also suggested that DCF “hire well, be clear about expected outcomes, and equip the staff with technology and approaches that truly improve their success and productivity.”
Among those who support Skene’s approach is Bob Butterworth, the former four-term Florida attorney general who served as DCF secretary in 2007 and 2008. He brought Skene to DCF as special counsel at another period of agency turmoil.
“We had to instill a pride in people who work at DCF,” Butterworth recalled. “I had known them over the years for having represented the agency for 16 (as attorney general). Virtually all of them really were there for the right reasons. We had some who made mistakes, some who shouldn’t be there — but that’s what happens when you have 13,000 employees.”
Butterworth also agreed with Skene’s advice to instill common sense and a sense of urgency among agency employees.
But while Gaetz agreed with Skene’s conclusions, he also noted that not all the changes needed at DCF are functions of the Legislature.
“Consistent management is a function of the executive,” Gaetz said. “And I’m not the governor. Rick Scott is the governor, and he really needs to speak to the problems of consistency in management and his plan for making sure that the agency doesn’t continue to swim in three or four different directions at once.”
DCF has had seven secretaries in the past 14 years. Scott announced last month that Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo will stay on through the legislative session.
Jacobo, who worked with Skene at DCF, said she agreed with his leadership prescription for the agency but that the technology had improved since his departure.
Skene is vice chairman and a major shareholder of MedAffinity Corporation. He served as special counsel to Butterworth and former DCF George Sheldon over a 30-month period from 2008 to 2010. He is a former St. Petersburg Times Tallahassee bureau chief and president of Congressional Quarterly Inc. in Washington.
“This is the kind of advice that government tends to pay people six figures to get,” Gaetz said. “We got this advice and guidance for free. And I think we ought to pay attention to it.”
“The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.”