As the state Department of Children and Families convened its annual child-protection summit Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order aimed at better coordinating mental health services --- something DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said will help his agency provide improved care for children.
The directive issued Wednesday adds to a partnership Scott established in July --- also by executive order --- creating a pilot program in Broward County to conduct a countywide inventory of all state programs that address mental health needs.
The July order included DCF, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice. Wednesday's order expands the pilot program to Alachua and Pinellas counties and adds the Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration to the collaboration.
"The way mental health care is state funded in Florida today is too fragmented," Scott said in a prepared statement. "When you look at our state budget, mental health care funding comes from multiple state agencies, local organizations and non-governmental entities, including $1 billion through DCF alone. ... (W)e have to better coordinate these organizations to ensure our entire taxpayer-funded system is working together to help these patients get the care they need in their own communities, instead of institutions."
Scott said the pilot programs would help the state track its mental health services across various agencies and funding sources that address those needs.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that while he's not familiar with the details of the pilot program, he thinks the review will be beneficial. He oversees the Pinellas County Jail, where he says many of the inmates have behavioral and mental health issues.
"We need to make sure that we're doing everything possible one, to keep them out of the criminal justice system, because these people don't belong in the criminal justice system," Gualtieri said in an interview with WUSF News. "They belong in a mental, behavior health system or drug abuse, alcohol abuse treatment programs. And we need to make sure those programs are effective, because otherwise all it is is a revolving door."
The move came as DCF Secretary Mike Carroll addressed the child-protection summit's opening session in Orlando, exhorting child-welfare professionals and advocates to focus on delivering "the right services at the right time" to keep children safely with their families and out of the state system.
Carroll said providing better mental health and substance-abuse services could allow the state to reduce the risk to children's safety without taking them from their homes.
"We have too many kids coming into out-of-home care," Carroll said to applause. "But I don't think we have too many kids in care, or who are being served through the system --- because I think that's the new norm."
He noted that many of the families served by his agency have dozens of prior calls to the state abuse hotline, arrests or other episodes that point to addiction and mental illness going back generations. The department recently adopted a process for assessing danger to a child that involves looking at all the prior incidents, not just the most recent call to the hotline.
"It seems to me that if we did a better job of assessing what was driving those family issues and putting interventions in place further upstream, we wouldn't get to the point where we have to remove so many children," Carroll said.
Scott's executive order, he added, would "streamline the funding" of those systems and enhance the department's ability to serve children and families in their homes.
"We cannot continue to spend money on services that don't work," Carroll said. "We're always going to be resource-challenged."
In an interview, Carroll told The News Service of Florida that Scott's executive order would help DCF in both the short term and the long term. Short-term, he said, it would help identify the dollars available for mental health and the gaps in those services statewide.
In the long term, he continued, Scott's order would help DCF decide its strategy for coordinating services --- including the state's aging mental hospitals. That could mean outsourcing, Carroll said, or a new way of working with the counties where the facilities are located to get the best use from them.