david_wilkins.jpgFORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) _ The Department of Children and Families is cutting nearly 500 positions to save the state $48 million as Gov. Rick Scott tries to balance the state budget and slash spending by nearly $4 billion, the agency said Monday.

Secretary David Wilkins said critical services will not be affected. About half the positions will come from three state hospitals: Florida State Hospital, Northeast Florida State Hospital and North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center. Northeast Florida State Hospital is the largest employer in Baker County.

State law requires inmates found to be mentally incompetent to be transferred within 15 days to a state psychiatric hospital instead of keeping them in jail. Advocates say about 70,000 mentally ill people are arrested annually in Florida

Former DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi was found in contempt of court by a Pinellas County judge in 2006 for keeping inmates in jail for months because the state didn't have enough money for more hospital beds.

But DCF officials said the positions eliminated from the hospitals will target non-critical services that will likely be outsourced.

Other cuts around the state will come as the agency streamlines departments including human resources, information technology and budgeting.

“We will not balance our budget on the backs of front-line workers who are acting as first responders for children, adults and families in need,'' Wilkins said in a statement to employees Monday.

DCF has about 13,000 employees and spends about $3 billion a year to care for about 19,000 kids in foster care. Nearly a decade ago the agency privatized the bulk of its foster care program, including case workers.