ORLANDO, Fla. — Officials with the Florida Department of Children and Families say they are working to reinstate a federally funded program that, up until 2015, helped train the state's child welfare workers.

The Title IV-E program helps participating state agencies pay for eligible training costs for current or future child welfare employees — including long-term education expenses, for agencies that partner with universities. Generally, the federal government will reimburse an agency like DCF for 75%  of those educational costs.

What You Need To Know

  • The Department of Children and Families says it is struggling with a high turnover rate and lack of qualified individuals

  • Back in 2015, a federally funded educational stipend program that helped train students for careers in child welfare ended

  • DCF officials say they are working with the U.S. Administration for Children and Families to try and get a new educational stipend plan for the state approved

Under Title IV-E, agencies can receive funding to pay social work students educational stipends, which can help incentivize students to work towards a career in child welfare. And up until late 2015 when the program in the state became inactive, that’s exactly what DCF did, according to a copy of a pamphlet about Florida’s “Title IV-E Stipend Program,” obtained by Spectrum News. 

Some say the program could help stem the rising turnover rate for child welfare workers in Florida.

According to a goal set by state statute, at least half of all Florida’s child protective investigators, or CPIs, should have a social work degree.

But today, fewer than 9% of Florida’s CPIs actually do, according to the most recent workforce report published by DCF.

Meanwhile, the agency continues struggling with high staff turnover rates across the state. Last fiscal year, CPI turnover surpassed 100% in the Suncoast region, which includes Hillsborough County.

DCF is trying different strategies to attract potential employees, including through a “Continue the Mission” recruitment program, which targets military veterans, former law enforcement officers and their spouses to work as child protective investigators. 

But given DCF’s high turnover rates and low percentage of CPIs with the qualifications laid out in the state statute, some are concerned CPIs in Florida may be entering the challenging field of child welfare without becoming entirely prepared.

“I think people don’t really know, when they apply for this position, how the work is,” said Maxine McGregor, an associate instructor in the University of Central Florida’s School of Social Work. “I think that people are going into the job not really knowing what to expect.”

The federally-funded educational Title IV-E program McGregor used to coordinate at UCF was once highly effective at training future child welfare workers, she told Spectrum News. But the program hasn’t been active in Florida since 2015, according to DCF.

As of September 2015 when the program was still operating in the state, DCF partnered with at least 14 different Florida universities, including UCF, to provide annual stipends for eligible social work students as they prepared for careers in child welfare. According to an informational pamphlet, the Title IV-E Stipend Program was created to “educate well-qualified professional social workers to focus on the much needed area of child abuse and neglect in the state of Florida.”

“Students were really getting the education that they needed to be able to apply it in the field," McGregor said. "And they were able to see what the work entailed before they actually started working in the field."

The program, available to undergraduate and graduate students alike, required students to complete a hands-on internship and specific social work courses. They also learned most of the material covered in DCF’s required pre-service training curriculum, putting them ahead of the game before they even graduated.

“Getting that kind of training in the school of social work, as well as the DCF material that they need, I think it was a win-win situation,” McGregor said.

McGregor said she’d also bring her Title IV-E students out into the community, introducing them to places she knew they’d eventually become familiar with, once they were out working in the field: places like the Child Advocacy Center, homeless shelters, and even community events held to raise awareness about things like domestic violence. 

Often, McGregor said she’d have her Title IV-E students shadow working CPIs, to see how the social work skills they were learning could apply to real-world situations. 

“It was eye opening for them. A lot of the students were like, ‘I never knew this was going on out in the world,’” McGregor said. “So just preparing them for what the job entails … I think that really helped a lot. They became excited about doing the job.”

Benefits of social work training

Although Florida statute requires DCF to “make every effort” to recruit and hire people who are educated in social work, the agency doesn’t require CPI candidates to hold any specific degree.

“We are always looking for social workers, and those with a passion. I think having a passion for the work is really what matters most,” Florida DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris told Spectrum News in August. “Individuals who stay are those that really have that heart for this work, regardless of the degree that you hold.”

McGregor agrees that it is important to have passion for the job, but she also thinks it would be less challenging for many CPIs if they could develop social work skillsets before starting to work with vulnerable children and families. 

“When you are in the social work program, there’s certain things you learn," she said. "You learn effective communication — how do we speak with our clients? We give them the respect that we would want if we were in their shoes. We don’t come in like law enforcement; we come in more as a helping profession.”

McGregor says Title IV-E students learned how to use compassion and empathy to build therapeutic, trusting relationships with the families they were investigating. 

She says she taught through an intervention model, encouraging students to show up as allies who genuinely want to help — not authority figures.

“I’m coming in here to help you, I’m coming in here to advocate for you,” McGregor said. “Maybe you’re in a situation — everyone gets in a situation. You’re in a situation right now where you need help.”

McGregor says the Title IV-E curriculum emphasized critical thinking, self-awareness and trauma-informed methods for working with diverse populations. 

“Our students learned the importance of parent-child development, and healthy development in children," she said. "They learned about how trauma affects children, all the way into adulthood if they don’t get the help they need early on."

Today, McGregor still teaches her social work students at UCF from a trauma-informed perspective. Every semester, she requires her students to play SPENT, a free online game that puts players in the shoes of somebody experiencing poverty and/or homelessness. Players have to make difficult decisions: like whether to pay for a necessary root canal or the electric bill.

“Sometimes, you go out and (the families) don’t have lights, they don’t have the essentials that are needed,” McGregor said. “That’s called poverty. And poverty is not abuse.”

McGregor said these kinds of lessons helped Title IV-E students understand the many layers of complex socioeconomic factors that often contribute to reports of child abuse, neglect or abandonment — before encountering them with real families out in the field.

“I really felt that we had people that were ready and able to go in the field to work with clients,” she said.

Spectrum News spoke with several current and former CPIs (who did not wish to be identified publicly) who went through the Title IV-E program. They echoed McGregor’s perspective, saying the program was valuable and provided students with “the inside scope” of what child welfare is really like.

Why Florida’s program went away

The federal agency responsible for overseeing Title IV-E programs deferred to DCF when Spectrum News asked why Florida’s educational program became inactive.

“It is a state decision whether to implement a program for educational stipends and whether to claim title IV-E reimbursement for the allowable portion of these costs,” according to a written statement from a spokesperson for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families (ACF). “Therefore, ACF cannot speak to the reasons that Florida may have discontinued its title IV-E educational stipend program.”

But DCF had a different take: Officials say that in 2015, the ACF denied Florida’s plan for claiming education stipends.

“At the time of establishing the education stipend program in Florida, the Federal interpretation of the law was that university operated stipend programs must be for state agency or local governmental agency employees only; therefore, Florida’s partially privatized system was deemed ineligible,” a DCF spokesperson wrote in an email to Spectrum News. 

ACF disputed the statement from DCF, calling it “not accurate.”

Back in the early 2000s, Florida privatized most of its child welfare system — with the exception of child protective investigations, which are still largely overseen by the state. In seven counties, sheriff’s offices oversee investigations — but that’s expected to change soon.

Today, private nonprofit companies are responsible for overseeing Florida’s foster care, adoption and ongoing case management services. DCF contracts those companies under its community-based care (CBC) model

But because the employees of those CBC agencies are not public state employees, their educational expenses aren't covered at the same 75% reimbursement rate provided by Title IV-E. Therefore, “Florida has a limited number of individuals preparing for or employed by the state title IV-E agency itself,” according to ACF.

However, DCF could still request the federal government to reimburse educational expenses for employees hired by private CBC agencies — only at a lower rate of 50%, instead of the 75% rate available for employees hired directly by the state, according to ACF

For its part, DCF says it wants to try and bring the Title IV-E educational stipend program back to Florida. 

Right now, the agency says it’s collaborating with university partners to “modernize” the pre-service training required of all new CPI employees. That revamped training curriculum is set to launch this summer. 

The next step, DCF officials say, is to work with ACF to try and get Florida’s educational stipend plan approved.

“It is our hope the federal government will not penalize Florida for its innovative approach to our child welfare system,” a DCF spokesperson wrote to Spectrum News. 

Although privatization is often perceived as a cost-saving measure, Florida more than doubled its child welfare budget in the first 10 years, according to a 2018 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Florida and Kansas are the only two U.S. states with "system-wide privatization" of child welfare services, according to that report.

McGregor said she is hopeful that if Title IV-E were to return, it would help the state recruit and retain qualified frontline workers who are better prepared to serve Florida’s vulnerable children and families.

“There are a lot of people that work in child welfare that feel the same way,” McGregor said. “They want this program back.”