TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Florida Department of Children and Families told the legislature they have a staffing problem. As previously reported, Florida DCF is moving to take full control over all child protection investigations in the state.

Staff vacancies for child protective investigators are at 23.9%, according to a budget request from the department to the Florida Legislature.

In a letter sent by Secretary Shevaun Harris in February, the DCF head detailed how child protection investigations were transitioned to the responsibility of sheriffs’ offices in 1998. Saying that the child welfare system had evolved since then, DCF would be proposing to transition all CPI functions back to the agency.

However, more than half of DCF staff have less than two years experience on the job.

In their own words, “the Department is experiencing unacceptably high vacancy rates, which is especially evident within the critical classes who provide direct services to Florida’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Turnover rates for DCF’s child protective investigators, CPIs, was a reported 71% in the 2021-2022 fiscal year. The agency reported in their request to lawmakers that it was a more than 26% increase from the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

As of September 2022, DCF reported there was a 23% vacancy for CPIs, with 237 vacant full-time positions out of a needed 1,020. The lack of staff has contributed to a high caseload per employee, and according to DCF, increased turnover levels. The “high vacancy and turnover rates have a direct impact on caseload ratios and the ability to effectively manage the workload,” DCF said.

“During Fiscal Year 2021-2022, the Department conducted a total of 114,995 child protective investigations (Sheriff’s Office investigations excluded),” DCF reported. “The average number of new cases assigned per month per allocated CPI full-time equivalent (FTE) was eight.”

The agency noted, however, that due to high vacancy among staff and high turnover, the number of new cases assigned was actually 10, or 20 new investigations in a 60-day period. The Child Welfare League of America recommends 12, according to DCF.

While not quite as high of a turnover level, Adult Protective Investigators, who investigate domestic abuse for DCF, have a 56.4% turnover rate, a 23.27% increase of the year before.

The turnover rate for mental health treatment facilities’ direct care staff is even higher.

“The turnover rate for critical class staff at the MHTF remains extremely high. Over the past two fiscal years the turnover rate has been at 85% which includes a rate of over 100% for the Human Services worker positions,” DCF reported. “To maintain minimum coverage employees are often required to work 16-hour shifts or must work on their scheduled or approved day off. This has caused employee burnout and has led to an increase in the use of sick leave.”

The levels of turnover and high burnout are the current agency status, before the transition of CPI work back to the agency from the sheriffs of Florida.

According to DCF’s explanation of staffing needs in the budget request, the state’s current CPI workforce has 60% of staff with less than two years experience. On top of a staff shortage, qualified potential employees are also in short supply.

DCF reported the vacancy rate has grown from 6.69% in June 2019 to 21.11% in June 2022, a more than 14% increase. The agency said the loss of staff, and loss of resources from having to train new employees, means costs to the department are only increasing.

“The candidate pool for these positions has dropped significantly. Between Fiscal Year 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 the candidate pool dropped by 31.59 percent, and over this past year the candidate pool has dropped by another 13.67 percent,” DCF said in its budget request. “Continued high vacancy rates contribute to the increased turnover seen within the API, CPI, and MHTF direct care classes.”

The agency said the ongoing loss of workforce and a smaller pool of potential employees is making recruitment of qualified candidates difficult, in addition to competition with the private sector for personnel. The agency said “other employers have increased their use of hiring incentives, including hiring bonuses, which has made it even harder to attract candidates.”

From June 2019 to 2021, turnover for CPIs has gone from 44.9% to 71.1%, a 26% increase.

As an effort to increase potential hiring and reduce turnover rates, DCF is asking for additional funding to create hiring bonuses for new staff, as well as other tools for training and retention needs.

Put bluntly by the department, increased vacancy and turnover rates’ increases over the past three fiscal years leave CPI programs increase the “risk of providing insufficient oversight to families and children in need.”

Lack of staff or consistent staff has also led to what DCF calls an “inability to continue care navigation efforts,” and gaps in access to service for families and individuals who interact with it. This issue presents a challenge to public awareness of what resources or support systems are available, which DCF says results in “preventable crises that escalate families into our child welfare system” and hinders family reunification and resilience.

Lack of access also leads to an a potential increase in child removals, as well as “increased trauma” and “longer lengths of stay in deep-end crisis services,” according to DCF.

Should DCF receive the funding it’s requesting for the coming fiscal year, the agency says it will use the funds to improve system employee retention, with an aim of improving outcomes for Florida families and children.