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As Outrage Grows Over Child Deaths, Lawmakers Talk Money

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Legislative leaders are responding to public outrage over a series of child deaths in Florida last year --- and not just in the policy arena. They're also talking about spending more money on the state's troubled child-welfare system.

Committees have been studying the deaths since September and have come up with complex legislation touching a dozen different concerns, from improved safety planning to expanded death reviews to keeping siblings together and medically fragile children in their communities.

But on Tuesday, as The Miami Herald continued a detailed investigation into the children's deaths, legislative leaders were also talking about money.

"We need comprehensive services, not adequate services," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. "In our statute, it says 'adequate services.' Adequate's not good enough."

And that means money. The Herald analyzed the deaths of 477 children whose families had a history with the state Department of Children and Families, finding that the agency's budget had been reduced from $2.88 billion in fiscal year 2005-06 to $2.80 billion in fiscal year 2013-14.

During that time, the overall state budget grew from $64.5 billion to $74.1 billion. The 477 deaths occurred over a six-year period.

While Gov. Rick Scott has recommended spending nearly $40 million to hire 400 new child protective investigators during the upcoming fiscal year, he hasn't recommended more money to serve children and families once they're in the system.

The Herald, for instance, found that two-thirds of the 477 child deaths were related to substance abuse. Advocates have long called for the state to fund more substance-abuse and mental-health treatment programs.

"Now that we're in economic good times, an investment on the substance-abuse side would be an important step," said former Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon, who is running for attorney general this year.

Senate President Don Gaetz said Sobel's committee, which passed three child-welfare reform bills last week, hadn't yet arrived at a recommended amount, "but I'm committed to doing what we need to do."

"It's been the Senate's intention right along that we will invest more money on a recurring basis in developing a child-welfare system that is more professional, that's more effective and less porous --- and hopefully, will be a system we can be proud of instead of one we can be horrified at," said Gaetz, a Niceville Republican.

The House Healthy Families Subcommittee, which had planned to take action Tuesday on a far-reaching child welfare reform bill, put off the vote for a week to fine-tune the proposal.

"We're going to change the system," Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said. "We're going to make it better. … We are going to do everything in our power to stop children dying at the hands of an abuser."

Department of Children and Families Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo said an extensive analysis of gaps in Florida's child-welfare services system would be released in the near future, with preliminary findings out as early as next week.

"As soon as we get that, we can target the different areas of the state that have issues in terms of resources needed or programs needed for safety," Jacobo said.

Harrell, too, said her chamber is talking about finding more money for child welfare services. The committee's original bill would have created a tuition reimbursement program for child protective investigators who take social-work classes. The revised bill would extend that benefit to case managers, who work for the privatized community-based care lead agencies, not the state, providing adoption and foster care services.

"There's going to be some money out there," Harrell said. "The (community-based care lead agencies) are going to get some more money, is our plan."

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.

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