FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Broward County is No. 1 in a category nobody wants to win, topping the state in the number of reported child abuse cases. With more than 15,000 cases a year, serious allegations are being made against the agency that handles those abuse complaints -- the Broward Sheriff's Office Child Protective Investigations Section, or CPIS, which many past and present investigators said is in a state of crisis.
"Absolutely children's safety is at risk," said one veteran investigator who recently left CPIS.
Christina Bullins, an agent for the International Union of Police Associations, which represents CPIS employees, said the union has heard complaints from about 50 investigators in the unit, starting with what she said are their staggering workloads. National standards for child protection investigators call for 12 cases at a time, but BSO records supplied to the union show that many of the BSO investigators are working double and triple that number, with three investigators working more than 40 cases each.
Both Bullins and investigators told Local 10 News that many of the investigators are working 50- to 60-hour weeks, often without getting overtime pay on a timely basis or at all. Many have worked while on vacation to keep up, they claim.
"You're protecting children, and they're giving you a task that's impossible," Bullins said. "They're just so overworked."
Bullins called the state of the office "a ticking time bomb."
The former investigator, who spoke to Local 10 on condition his name wouldn't be mentioned, said he routinely worked between 30 and 40 cases before he finally couldn't take it anymore and left the agency he loved after several years on the job. He said that, like most in the office, he was working 50- to 60-hour weeks, often without proper compensation. He said supervisors instructed investigators to hang on to their overtime slips in order to delay the payment until it finally became impossible to get paid for the work done.
"Eventually, I stopped putting in my time either for comp time or overtime," he said. "I just didn't want to deal with the hassle anymore. I had more important things to worry about."
More important, he said, were the children he was charged with protecting.
"These are some of the most vulnerable members of our community," he said. "My passion was to go out there and make sure the kids were safe and do what I could to make their lives a little better."
He said his caseload was so high that he was constantly afraid a child would fall through the cracks.
"I could not put the appropriate attention to each family that needed to have these services provided," he said. "When you have that high of a caseload, you just hope and pray that nothing bad happens."
He said that, in the last year, the job he loved became unbearable, prompting him to resign, and he's not alone. Bullins supplied a list of 25 investigators, many with several years of experience, who had left the agency since May 2015. Another former investigator who spoke with Local 10 said he left because it was affecting his health, so much so that he had to be hospitalized for a stress-related illness. The exodus of investigators has created a staff shortfall that is adding to the unit's problems, she said.
The agency has been racked with problems since an overhaul by Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel after he took office in 2013, said the investigator, beginning with the promotion of Lisa Baker to commander. Under her watch, the agency misspent more than $300,000 in money from the state, including $35,000 on gym equipment that the investigator said was mostly used by top officers at CPIS.
"We were understandably shocked that money that was meant for training purposes was used for a gym," he said.
But he said the latest CPIS commander, Maj. Audrey Jones, is to blame for the massive problems facing the agency today. He said Jones, whom Israel promoted to major and moved over from the civil division to lead CPIS, has little experience in child protection and manages in a dictatorial fashion that has driven the entire operation into the ground.
"She never fully understood the job," he said. "She had an idea of what CPIS was like, but she never understood it. She's definitely unqualified to do the work she is doing. ... That was incredibly frustrating, and it's definitely a shared experience across the board with all the investigators that are there."
When questioned about her reign at CPIS, Jones refused to comment. Bullins said that Jones was considered untouchable as a commander because of her close relationship with Israel. She said Jones appeared to be a "political hire" and that an investigator complained to her that Jones calls herself "the talking black girl for the sheriff" and "feels confident in her job security because she brings in the black vote for the sheriff."
Israel refused to be interviewed for this story. Adding to the frustration in the office is the fact that CPIS, under Jones' command, has been financially questionable in its planned expenditures. The unit is moving from its current offices on State Road 7 in Plantation to a location on Cypress Creek Road in Fort Lauderdale this summer. The unit requested furniture costing $600,000 for the offices, but BSO records show that administrative staff found $265,000 in savings on the request, bringing the cost down to about $335,000.
BSO records also show that Jones requested that BSO grant writer Carla Taylor-Bennett be given a take-home car paid for by state funds. The BSO, however, determined that was an improper expense and denied it.
Floor plans obtained by Local 10 also found that an executive bathroom, complete with a shower, was planned for Jones' office. That request was nixed by BSO earlier this month -- and the space is being converted to a closet.
"Her focus is not on the mission," Bullins said. "Her focus is on making sure she gets a bathroom."
The investigator said Jones' requests for relatively lavish spending while the office is understaffed, overworked and underfunded sends the wrong message.
"If you see a struggling front line work force and you're plan is to build an executive bathroom, you have to question that there's something wrong there," he said. "It's a waste of taxpayer money."
The BSO told Local 10 that the agency has made a "concerted effort" to increase staff at CPIS, including the hiring and transfer of 41 people into CPIS since 2014. It also pointed to the fact that the unit has the highest compliance rate in the state in terms of closing investigation within 60 days as mandated by the state.
"CPIS command staff and supervisors make decisions in the best interest of the children," wrote sheriff's spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright. "The safety of the children is paramount."
But many close to the office said children are now at higher risk for not receiving needed services from the unit than ever.
"It breaks my heart. It makes me sad that the once great organization that was the leader in the entire state of Florida … had turned into such a shamble," the investigator said.