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Child Welfare Bill Draws Calls For 'Moral Outrage' & More Funding

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - A Florida Senate panel on Wednesday approved a sweeping child-welfare reform bill amid calls from foster parents to help more children and pleas from providers to fund the changes properly.

The Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee voted 12-1 to approve a measure (SB 1666) that collapses three bills (SB 1666, 1668 and 1670) into one. It would make a series of changes to the Florida Department of Children and Families and the community-based care agencies that provide adoption and foster care services to children in the state system.

The legislation got its start last fall, after media reports about a wave of child deaths from abuse and neglect --- and gained momentum as it became clear that many of the victims were already known to the Florida Department of Children and Families, which had failed to protect them.

Last year the Casey Family Programs reviewed 40 of the deaths and issued a scathing report on the department's performance. Then last month, The Miami Herald published an investigation into the deaths of 477 children whose families had histories with DCF over a six-year period, and who died despite warnings that they or their siblings could be in danger.

"After 477 deaths, where is the moral outrage at this problem?" demanded Pat McCabe, a Miami foster parent. "This is the one area where you guys --- men and women --- need to step up and fund this bill."

But it's still unclear how much lawmakers will allocate for services that could stabilize troubled families and keep children safely in their homes, such as substance-abuse and mental-health treatment, anger-management and parenting classes and domestic-violence programs.

The complex legislation would establish social-work education requirements for child-protective investigators, along with tuition-exemption and loan-forgiveness programs for them. It would create critical-incident response teams to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths and require DCF to publish the basic facts of all deaths of children reported to the state abuse hotline.

It would establish the Florida Institute for Child Welfare to conduct policy research and an assistant secretary for child welfare at DCF. It would keep siblings together and medically fragile children in their communities whenever possible. It would require greater transparency from the community-based care agencies. It would make abandoning a child a criminal offense.

But Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, said he was troubled that the bill does little to affect one of the key findings of the Casey review and the Herald series --- that 68 percent of the children's deaths were related to substance abuse.

"You have an opportunity to help people find recovery, and when you do, their children are safe, and when you don't, their children are at risk," Fontaine told the panel.

Former lawmaker Kurt Kelly, who represents the community-based care agencies, reiterated his request for an additional $25.4 million for the agencies.

"From a policy perspective, we're getting darn close to having a substantive piece of legislation," Kelly said. "My concern today …we will definitely need the resources to be able to provide those services."

He said there had been a decline in funding for services.

The Herald investigation found that DCF's budget had been reduced from $2.88 billion in fiscal year 2005-06 to $2.80 billion in fiscal year 2013-14 --- even as the state budget grew from $64.5 billion to $74.1 billion.

And although Gov. Rick Scott has recommended spending nearly $40 million to hire 400 new child protective investigators, Kelly said the community-based care agencies would need enough case managers and family services to meet the need the new hires would generate.

Sen. Denise Grimsley, the Sebring Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, was the sole vote against the measure. She said she would like to find more funding for substance-abuse and mental-health services within the child welfare system.

The bill currently estimates the cost of the critical response team, public-disclosure hotline, 18 restored quality-assurance positions and a few other provisions at $15.562 million in general revenue. It estimates the assistant secretary's office at $260,000 and the loan forgiveness program for child-protective investigators at $1,095,000. But a larger figure that includes more for family services is also expected.

The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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

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