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Lawmakers' Focus On Child Protection Gains Momentum

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - A Florida House panel approved a potentially groundbreaking child-protection measure Tuesday, designed to upgrade the effectiveness, professionalism and transparency of a state agency under fire after a series of children's deaths.

The House Healthy Families Subcommittee unanimously passed the measure it had worked on since September, sparked by media reports about the abuse and neglect deaths of children --- who, in many cases, had earlier drawn the attention of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

The bill (PCB HFS 14-03) would add tens of millions of dollars to the state's child-protection services, said panel Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart.

"It's got a big fiscal (impact)," Harrell said. "It's probably $30 (million) or $40 million."

Ryan Duffy, a spokesman for House Speaker Will Weatherford, said the House is proposing $1,071.5 million for child protection services during the upcoming budget year, with $791,168,438 going to privatized community-based care lead agencies.

The complex legislation would create an assistant secretary for child welfare at the Department of Children and Families. It would establish education requirements for child-protective investigators, case managers and their supervisors, along with tuition-exemption and loan-forgiveness programs for them.

It would keep siblings together and medically fragile children in their communities whenever possible. It would establish the Florida Institute for Child Welfare to conduct research and review policy results.

The bill would also create critical-incident response teams to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths, disappearances and other serious episodes of child abuse and neglect. It would require the Department of Children and Families to publish the basic facts of all deaths of children reported to the state abuse hotline.

And it would require greater transparency from the community-based care lead agencies about their budgets and administrators' salaries.

"We want to have the very best child-protection system in the entire country," Harrell said.

Gov. Rick Scott has recommended spending nearly $40 million to hire 400 new child protective investigators during the upcoming fiscal year.

But as the House and Senate studied the Florida child welfare system, it became apparent that other aspects were under-funded as well. Last fall the Department of Children and Families began conducting a "gap analysis" to identify the availability of services such as mental health and substance-abuse treatment programs.

This month, a Miami Herald investigative series, "Innocents Lost," analyzed the deaths of 477 children whose families had a history with DCF over a six-year period. The Herald reported that the children died despite warnings that they or their siblings could be in danger. It also found 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 – even as the state budget grew from $64.5 billion to $74.1 billion.

The report galvanized lawmakers in both chambers. The Senate had already passed three measures (SB 1666, 1668 and 1670) along the lines of the House bill. But Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, is rewriting her measure (SB 1666) to add the requirement of comprehensive services for children and families. Gaetz spokeswoman Katie Betta said the Senate could release an estimated cost for the bill as early as next week.

"I'm very hopeful," said DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo. "Nothing is guaranteed in life, I guess, but every legislator I've talked to, the governor's office, everyone is so committed to --- at the end of the session --- having some comprehensive solutions to the child welfare system. Starting from resources, because you can do as many tweaks to the law as you want, but if you don't have the time to do the things you need to do, you're not going to do a good job."

Sobel said that the community-based care lead agencies, which oversee adoption, foster care and case management services, "are doing a decent job. However, we need to provide more services with accountability measures."

Harrell said if the committee process had permitted it, she would have kept the bill for another week to refine it further.

"Money is extremely important," Harrell said. "You can't do this without additional resources, whether it's for (child protective investigators) or additional money into services --- you've got to have both."

She also pointed to troubled homes plagued by domestic violence. She said she'd continue trying to find legislative language to deal with boyfriends in the homes who can't be put under court order, and to protect battered spouses as well.

"If there's domestic violence in the home and you're holding the victim responsible for the acts of the perpetrator …you don't want to do that," Harrell said. "So we've got to find the right language to make sure that we can help parents make the right decisions and take care of their children, keep their children safe."

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

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