BRANDON -- Saying that one child injured or killed because of abuse in the home is one child too many, Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday rolled out a budget proposal that includes an additional $5 million for child protective services in the Tampa Bay area, including $1.8 million that will go into the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office’s Child Protective Investigations Division.
The money is part of a statewide bump of $31 million that could hire as many as 400 additional investigators who do nothing but look into child abuse, neglect and abandonment allegations across the state.
The $5 million local allotment will be split among Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee counties, all of which use sheriff’s personnel to supervise civilian investigators.
Last year, nearly 15,000 such calls were logged in Hillsborough County alone, split among about 100 investigators.
Scott said, “We have to take care of vulnerable children. If one child is injured by or dies of abuse, that’s one child too many.”
The additional funding came at the advice of a consultant who suggested putting two investigators on each case where a child is in a particularly high-risk situation.
“Protecting vulnerable children is paramount,” said the governor, who was flanked by about 40 deputies and investigators and office workers within the Hillsborough sheriff’s child protection unit.
Natalie Harrell, communications director for the regional office of the Florida Department of Children and Families, said the funding is part of Scott’s budget proposal and still needs the approval of the Legislature.
“It would be a great benefit to the Tampa Bay area,” she said. “This proposed allocation will result in better services for children and families. With these funds we can add positions to the child protection investigations division and allow for more thorough investigations.”
Department of Children and Families interim Director Esther Jacobo said the governor’s infusion of money “makes sure we are evolving as an agency.”
She said the $31 million bump across the state will result in the hiring of 400 additional investigators.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said.
Mike Carroll, director of the Department of Children and Families district that includes West Central Florida counties from Pasco to Collier, said 29,000 reports of child abuse were logged last year in the Tampa Bay area alone. He welcomed the infusion of state money.
“This will allow investigators to spend more time in the homes,” he said, “and ask more questions.”
The child protective investigations division in Hillsborough County, commanded by Maj. Robert Bullara, investigates allegations of child abuse, child neglect and child abandonment. It operates under an annual budget of $14.2 million.
Civilian investigators are supervised by law enforcement officers and are divided into two bureaus. Bullara said there are 100 investigator positions and 163 in the entire unit.
The nature of the work is difficult and there is a large turnover, Bullara said. The state money will go toward keeping good investigators as well as adding to the number.
“This is probably the hardest profession in the country,” he said. “It’s constant. It becomes a way of life, not just a profession. I could always use more investigators and supervisors.”
Hillsborough child protection investigator Arturo Auza has been doing this for 25 years.
“Being in child protection investigations, for me, is not only a challenge,” he said, “but it’s an opportunity to serve the most vulnerable people in our state, the children.
“Whenever I see a child’s life turn for the better,” he said,”I feel great. I feel rewarded and I’m encouraged to go on.”