“When we first receive a case sometimes we don’t know where the children are,” said child protective investigator Kristi Machin.
From Broward County to the Florida Keys, there are 215 child protective investigators looking into cases of alleged abuse and neglect for the Department of Children and Families.
Machin, 26, works out of the south hub, which covers the area from Bird Road south to Florida City. Team 6 Investigators were embedded with this unit for four days in April.
“Right now we have a child who is with a parent that the child is not supposed to be with because of a court order,” Machin said as she was driving to Miami.
The safety seat in the back won't be empty for long.
Machin had to remove the child from her mother, who had lost custody. The little girl will now spend the night in a foster home.
“It makes me nervous because I can only imagine what mom feels like, but she didn’t follow the rules. She didn’t follow the law,” Machin said.
In court the next day, NBC 6 learned more about the mother in this case, who is in residential drug treatment at The Village.
“She has a history of running away and leaving the child alone,” said Carly Weiss, a DCF attorney.
Judge Jerri Cohen, presiding over drug court, warned: “This is exactly how tragedies happen.”
The grandmother, who had legal custody, let her daughter have the child back without court approval.
The judge asked the grandmother: “Can you take care of the baby yes or no tell me the truth. I don’t think you can.”
The tearful grandmother responded: “At this moment I don’t think so.”
“This is something that is a big falling out with our system. We expect grandmothers to take babies OK. We just expect it,” said Cohen, adding, “We really need to allow these family members to say ‘I can’t do it.’”
Then she heard from a supervisor at The Village and the mother, who begged for another chance.
“The only thing I ask is to have sympathy over my little girl. She’s been placed from home to home. All I want is her there, and I’m not going to walk out of that Village,” the mother said.
The judge warned her if she falls off, the baby will have to go into adoptive foster care.
Two days earlier in a different case, different courtroom, different judge, a mother who is a victim of domestic violence sought to protect her two young children from their father facing several charges.
Machin read the charges aloud: “Aggravated child abuse with great bodily harm torture, domestic battery with strangling, three counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.”
At the office, Machin has to carefully document everything she's been doing. When asked how many open cases she has, Machin answered, “Right now including the one I received today with the child, I have 24 open cases. I think that's the most I've ever had.”
That's double the number DCF Regional Managing Director Ester Jacobo told NBC 6 she should have.
“We make sure that our protective investigators have a manageable caseload of no more than 12, 13 at the most,” Jacobo said.
Fewer cases and more money are two of the changes prompted by a state investigation of DCF after the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona in 2011. Jacobo has been at DCF for four years.
“When I came on board here we had protective investigators with over 80 cases, which is impossible,” she said.
Starting salary for an investigator is now $39,000 a year, up from $34,000.
They drive their personal cars and are reimbursed for mileage, but only a portion of their car insurance, even though they often have to transport children.
“It's hard. It's hard work, we're underpaid, we're understaffed,” investigator Jaime Igelko said.
Tunnel vision was another problem identified because of the Barahona case. Investigators were trained to look only at specific allegations called into the hotline, missing other major red flags.
Now they're transitioning into a new way of handling cases by taking a broader look at the family and home. That will start this summer.
While children's safety is the priority, it can be risky for the investigators.
“There are times you feel they're going to hit you, attack you,” Igelko said.
Lovern Alleyne-Babb is a former protective investigator, who now works as a supervisor.
“I got hurt because I was punched in the face by a mom, you know, in the middle of an investigation,” Alleyne-Babb said.
Investigators complain false reports overload the system.
“There are so many cases that are people calling in to use us, retaliation for someone getting mad at another person and that upsets us sometimes because there are kids that really need out help,” said Mara Salinas, a child protective investigator.
What happened to the little girl removed by DCF?
Judge Cohen decided to give her mother another chance under the watchful eye of counselors at The Village.