State plans to take over child protective duties in Tampa Bay counties

The Florida Department of Children and Families will take over child protective investigative duties from seven local sheriff’s offices, including those in Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas counties, according to a letter dated Friday.

The letter from Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris is directed to agency partners and cites an evolving child welfare system as necessitating the change.

“Over the coming months, the Department will be working with the Florida Legislature to formulate a plan that ensures as smooth of a transition as possible,” Harris wrote. “This includes providing ample opportunities for (child protective investigators and supervisors) and support staff to transition to the Department to ensure a continuity of services.”

While the department oversees child welfare matters statewide, state law delegates investigative duties to local sheriffs in seven counties, including Broward, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Seminole and Walton counties.

Each of the seven sheriff’s offices maintains its own child protective division, staffed with civilian investigators, to probe cases of child abuse, neglect or abandonment. The Department of Children and Families contracted out social services to nonprofits.

It’s been that way since the late 1990s. The idea at first was that the local sheriff model would eventually expand to the rest of Florida’s counties. But more recent discussions have seen a prevailing belief that the state should handle child welfare investigations.

“What was the right thing and a good thing 25 years ago … is not the best model for effective child welfare in the state of Florida in 2023,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “It really is a state responsibility. It’s not a local-level responsibility. It just makes good sense.”

The sheriff noted that having one entity in charge of all child welfare investigations can help with the sharing of resources and personnel across Florida. If there is a shortage of investigators in one county, personnel can be moved there from another part of the state.

“I think it’s a very positive thing,” Gualtieri said.

A Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson referred questions about the change to the Department of Children and Families. A spokesperson for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office provided a statement that said the office “will continue to monitor the legislation as it moves through the legislative process and stands ready to assist DCF in any way.”

Harris’ letter mentions a renewed focus on prevention-focused programs and the need to combine them with existing crisis-oriented systems. She also cited unspecified changes to state and federal laws as a factor in the move.

Critics have long questioned whether investigators in the seven counties are more prone to remove children from their parents in cases where they could remain home with additional monitoring and social services.

“The Department values its partnership with law enforcement and the relationship that has been formed over the years,” Harris wrote. “We will continue to work hand-in-hand with our law enforcement partners to keep children and families safe.”

Times staff writer Christopher O’Donnell contributed to this report.