NEW PORT RICHEY — This is the busy season for a group of Pasco County investigators.
When the school year begins in Pasco County, the Sheriff’s Office’s Child Protective Investigations unit, which investigates cases of child neglect, abuse or abandonment, finds that its already heavy workload increases.
Ken Kilian, the unit’s director, cited about a 30 percent spike in cases when school is in session.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco understands why the CPI unit’s job gets tougher during the school year.
“There are kids during the summer time that may not be protected the way we would protect our own children,” Nocco said. “But when they come to school, this is a safe haven for them. This is a place where they are safe and they know that if something bad happens, that teacher is going to be looking out for them.”
Kilian said there is a trend in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties that indicates a rise in neglect cases.
Last year, CPI investigated more than 7,000 cases of child abuse, abandonment and neglect. Investigators typically receive between four to seven new cases each week. About 300 children live in foster homes in the county.
The increasing numbers of cases in Pasco County have been caused, in part, by the prescription drug abuse epidemic, Kilian said.
Those cases test the resolve of the CPI unit’s members, which includes 52 investigators, 10 supervisors and support staff.
“I think it’s really easy for people to have a perception of what we do,” Kilian said. “They think we’re going in and removing kids from their homes, but that’s not the case.”
He said a child is taken from their home in only 5 percent of the cases.
Kilian speaks with a certain tone that welcomes conversation. It’s that approach members of CPI use when they enter a home to investigate a case.
CPI investigators try to have conversations with family members to detect any underlying problems. Investigators don’t want their meeting with family members to seem like an interrogation. They hope that allows family members to reveal any problems so they can be connected to needed resources.
If circumstances allow, investigators prefer an in-home approach.
“We’re partners in this; we all want the same thing,” Kilian said. “We want our future in Pasco County, our children, to grow up healthy. We want our children to grow up in a nurturing environment. It’s nothing more than that.
“We engage families. We’re walking into their homes… To me, that tells me that they’re ready for help.”
Kristine Fletcher, a program manager for CPI who helps train investigators, described the job as 24/7. An investigator can get a call at any time on any day involving a child neglect case.
They also respond to crime scenes if a child is left without anyone to supervise them.
In addition to ensuring a child’s safety, the unit’s camaraderie and a support system helps each CPI member deal with the demanding job.
Each investigator has seven to 12 weeks of classroom training, followed by a minimum of six weeks of field training. Each trainee is assigned a mentor.
An investigator starts with two cases. Each month, they receive one additional case.
It takes at least a year for a person to become fully certified, Fletcher said.
Shawna Thomas, a CPI trainer, said she won’t soon forget a recent case in her office dealing with human trafficking and a 16-year-old girl. She said it was the conversational interview methods that helped get the teen to open up.
“After a great job with interviewing her and making her feel comfortable and not like she was being interrogated ... this young girl felt comfortable enough to disclose all that information of how she was being mistreated,” Thomas said.
The unit placed her in a safe environment with family members.
“In general, it’s the greatest job; it’s the hardest job,” Thomas said. “It also can be the most rewarding. We have people who do great work every day.”