Two supervisors at the epicenter of criticism that the Department of Children and Families in Fort Myers has become a hostile work environment have been demoted.
At the same time, the position of Cookie Coleman, who leads DCF in five Southwest Florida counties, is up in the air.
The post may be axed due to budget constraints — a decision that would not relate to her performance, DCF leaders said.
The child protection unit has faced turbulence in recent times. Half of Southwest Florida’s child abuse investigators left last year and 13 have left since January. Many complained of being overworked, stressed and subject to harsh managers.
In March, The News-Press published details of complaints describing an office where investigators were in tears and bullied by some managers.
Michael Witak, who earned $56,630 as a program administrator, started as a child protective investigator at $51,490 in Sarasota last week.
Laura Marshall, who made $46,802 as a supervisor, became an investigator in March earning $44,462 in Sarasota. The demotions were voluntary.
“We encouraged them that it would probably be in their best interest,” said Mike Carroll, Tampa-based DCF director of the region, which includes Southwest Florida.
“People have to have a level of trust in the work environment and, fairly or not, there were some trust issues between workers and some management.”
Carroll declined to talk about specifics with Marshall and Witak, but said he wanted to break down barriers to improving working conditions locally. Both had worked in the child protection unit and were two of the three managers who were the focus of complaints brought by a dozen DCF employees in the past two years. A few of those involved Coleman.
Most of the complaints pointed to harsh management tactics by Marshall. Some mentioned inappropriate comments allegedly made by Witak toward women.
Marshall and Witak did not respond to requests for comment. Both previously have denied the accusations.
Terry Weiss, a DCF investigator for five years, asked for a transfer after coming under Marshall’s supervision in 2009.
“It’s a start,” Weiss said of the demotions. “It’s a shame that it had to come from Tampa. I’m glad that somebody noticed.”
Weiss, an Alva resident who left DCF last year, said Marshall often yelled and was unprofessional.
A decision about the circuit administrator post held by Coleman, who earns $105,000, will be made in a few weeks, Carroll said. Other circuits in the region do not have circuit administrators.
The department is still figuring out how budget cuts will impact administration, Carroll said. DCF officials did not have an estimate of the overall reduction the agency faces in the state budget.
Its current budget is $2.95 billion; the governor had proposed to slash $179 million from it.
Carroll said he has made improving working conditions in the child protection unit locally a priority.
“Certainly some of the issues in Circuit 20 are more acute, so our sense of urgency in addressing them has been greater,” Carroll said.
Top DCF leaders met with investigators and supervisors in March after The News-Press articles appeared, though Carroll said they had been working on solutions for months.
There are also pushes statewide to improve what’s been called the toughest job in child welfare system.
Following those meetings, in April, a corrective action plan was developed with a laundry list of tasks including retaining staff, and properly compensating them for hours worked.
The plan slated to be complete in June was presented to all staff last week, said Aaron Stitt, a local program administrator.
“The immediate reaction was one of excitement, people listening to their needs, and providing a platform for change,” Stitt said. Coleman said she welcomes the improvements for investigators. She’d like to stay, but it’s likely her post will be cut, Coleman said, noting that she understands the tough budget climate.
“The department has been very fair and good to me, but there are difficult decisions,” Coleman said.
Judge James Seals, who presides over Lee County’s court for abused children, questioned the impact of cutting the position.
“I’m always concerned when they’re talking about eliminating positions in an area that is already stretched pretty thin,” Seals said. “It’s going to save money, but what’s it going to do for the kids?”
An operations manager would be the top local leader, officials said.