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Adoption Bill Passes Amid Home-Schooling Questions

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) --   The Florida House approved a plan that sets incentives for state employees who adopt foster care children.

All this amid arguments about whether a home-schooling provision could place some children at risk.

The measure (HB 7013) in part would offer $10,000 payments to state employees who adopt special-needs children from the foster-care system and $5,000 payments to state employees who adopt other foster children.

The proposal, a priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, passed the House by a vote of 68-50, while the Senate version (SB 320) has received unanimous approval in three committees and awaits a hearing on the Senate floor.

Lawmakers praised parts of the House bill that would boost adoptions, but the measure included other controversial provisions that drew opposition from a mixture of Republicans and Democrats. The bill included repealing part of state law that in the past banned same-sex couples from adopting and also sparked a debate about home-schooling.

An amendment added to the bill Tuesday declared that Floridians cannot be denied the opportunity to adopt if they plan to home-school their adopted children. The provision has worried people who point to child-abuse cases in which crimes were committed by home-schooling foster and adoptive parents.

"I really feel that we're leaving some children at risk," said Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura.

But bill sponsor Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, called boosting adoptions "one of the most loving and kind things we can do."

Also, Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said he had asked the Department of Children and Families whether home-schooling families "are more inclined to abuse or neglect children than anybody else. And of course, there was absolutely no evidence … that would support discriminating against home-schooling families."

Gaetz said there are 900 children in the state foster-care system who are legally available for adoption, with many being older children or having special needs. "They're typically hard to place," he said.

But some children's advocates say the question is not whether home-schooling families are more likely to abuse children, but that home-schooling removes the possibility that teachers or school personnel will notice a child in jeopardy.

"Children who are home-schooled are isolated, not socializing with other children, and are not a part of the greater community," said Cindy Lederman, a dependency court judge in Miami-Dade County's 11th Judicial Circuit with 20 years experience. "In virtually every case in my courtroom where the parents claimed the children were being home-schooled, the children were not receiving education, they were not being taught by qualified people and they were not learning. It was just a clever way to hide the abuse and neglect."

A 2011 report on the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona recommended that the Department of Children and Families "should take the necessary legislative and/or administrative steps to ensure that foster children who have been adopted and are being home-schooled are seen on a regular basis by case management personnel."

The report was compiled by David Lawrence, chairman of the Children's Movement of Florida, Roberto Martínez, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and Jim Sewell, retired assistant commissioner of the Department of Law Enforcement. They noted that school personnel had repeatedly voiced concerns about Nubia Barahona and her twin brother, Victor.

"The school system served as an independent barometer of issues occurring in the lives of Nubia and Victor, and both kindergarten and elementary-school personnel were willing to be involved in raising the issues in an appropriate forum, including testifying in court hearings," the report said. "After the end of the 2009-2010 school year, the Barahonas chose to home-school the children, taking away most of their visibility to outside eyes and increasing the danger that abuse and neglect would go unrecognized."

Some children's advocates also point to a 2004 case, in which a 10-year old girl was deprived of food by her foster parents, who were home-schooling her. The girl weighed 29 pounds when the abuse was discovered and a settlement was later reached with the Department of Children and Families for nearly $4 million.

But Gaetz said the alternative of leaving children in group homes or with foster families was less than ideal. Group homes cost $30,000 a child per year, he said, while conventional foster homes cost more than $6,000 per year.

"I'm going to choose a loving family every time," he said. "And when you consider the fact that the president of the Senate, Andy Gardiner, and his wife Camille home-school their three children, how can public policy in our state say that Andy Gardiner and Camille Gardiner couldn't adopt a child?"

Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican known for sponsoring legislation aimed at improving conditions in foster care, said she "wholeheartedly supports" the bill's goal of finding permanent homes for the children.

As to the home-schooling provision, she said, "That's a more complex issue. If you are a foster parent, we don't allow you to home-school because schools have to report abuse. And so the more eyes we have on a child, the safer the child is. (But) once you adopt, it's a different story, because that child is now yours."

The House bill also included an amendment that removed a statutory ban against adoption by gay Floridians, prompting outrage by John Stemberger, head of the Florida Family Policy Council, and Mat Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel. Florida banned gay adoption until five years ago, when an appeals court ruled that the ban was unconstitutional.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican and former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, observed that gay adoption is now legal because of the court ruling --- much as he might disagree. Baxley, who praised other parts of the bill that would help foster children get permanent homes, voted for the measure.

(The News Service of Florida's Margie Menzel contributed to this report.)

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