Florida’s child welfare chief handed in his resignation letter Friday, weeks after the official acknowledged that the agency had done a “bad job” protecting multiple children from sexual abuse at the hands of foster parents.
The cases came to light late last year in a two-part investigative series by USA Today. In 2014, the state had made it easier for child welfare workers to take children away from their parents but then failed to ensure all the kids were safe in their new placements, the news organization reported.
In his letter to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, Chad Poppell made no direct reference to the scandal, calling his two years in the post as secretary of the Department of Children and Families “the most fulfilling time of my professional life,” although “the challenges were great.”
Poppell and the governor had spoken before the secretary sent his letter of resignation, and on Friday, DeSantis immediately named Shevaun Harris, who had been serving as the acting secretary for the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration since October, as Poppell’s successor.
On Jan. 12, Poppell confirmed USA Today’s findings, telling a Florida legislative committee that he was appointing specialized teams to investigate child abuse allegations against foster parents and to review decisions made in such cases.
“The quality of the work was poor. We did a bad job,” Poppell said at the time, adding that in each instance, about half the decisions made along the way were “the wrong ones.”
If Poppell’s forthright admission to lawmakers and his pledge to fix the problems were intended to help him keep his job, it didn’t work. That attitude stood in stark contrast to earlier comments in which he seemed to question some of the children’s allegations.
“Sometimes children make false claims,” he said, drawing intense heat from lawmakers.
Poppell told USA Today that many of his agency’s biggest problems could be traced back to the decision to privatize Florida child welfare in the early 2000s, putting decision-making in the hands of 17 nonprofits across the state. When that happened, he said, DCF “faded into the background and became too distant from the front lines of child welfare.”
“This has led to a fractured system that is not appropriately resourced, lacks bandwidth for increases in children in care and is not performance-driven,” Poppell said. “This is not how I would design a system around my own children, and especially not our children in foster care.”
Poppell promised to fight for greater accountability and more “resources to drive performance and positive outcomes for families.”
In his letter, Poppell said he will “always remember” the dedication of the staff and pointed to “many wins” during his tenure, including “landmark legislation” to strengthen child welfare and health and “fully embracing the state’s faith-based community to meet the needs of the foster care system.”
Poppell’s resignation takes effect on Feb. 19.