TALLAHASSEE, (CBSMiami/NSF) -- A new bill meant to increase adoptions of foster kids in Florida unanimously passed its first panel on Thursday.
The bill would re-create a popular program that began in 2000 but was repealed in 2010, due to declining state revenues during the recession. It would provide a one-time cash payment of $5,000 per child to state employees who adopt children from the foster-care system and $10,000 per child for those who adopt children with special needs.
"If we're going to spend money, and we ought to, on children who have lost their families through one form of tragedy, cruelty or another, let's spend the money to try to incent adoptions," Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who is sponsoring the bill (SB 320), told The News Service of Florida this week.
Additionally, the bill would award incentive payments to community-based care organizations that are responsible for placing children in foster and adoptive homes. Also, it would require the governor to recognize people and programs that make major contributions to the adoption of children from foster care.
The measure was hailed by Karen Burns, who has two biological children and, along with her husband, adopted a sibling group of four in 2009. Although the state program had not yet been repealed, Burns said her family couldn't get into it because the money had run out.
"But the immediate needs when you adopt a child …we had to retrofit our house. We had to get a larger vehicle," Burns told the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, which approved the bill Thursday. "We needed beds. They needed clothes."
Burns, who lives in Tallahassee, said her family had been able to adopt the four children anyway, but added that "financial security could really help a family that's unsure. I know so many people who don't have more kids because it costs so much money."
But another speaker took issue with the bill.
"I don't think Florida's kids are for sale," said Brian Pitts, who represents the advocacy group Justice 2 Jesus and often comments on bills. "Is the state that desperate? The whole point of adoption is that you find families that can afford it, and in their own love … don't want anything from government."
That riled Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican who has long been involved in foster-care issues. She asked Pitts how many children in the state system were waiting to be adopted.
He didn't know, but the answer, according to Senate staff, is more than 800 children.
"I'm very comfortable with proceeding with this excellent bill," Detert said.
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, also was angered by Pitts' comments. "To imply for any instance that this committee or that this legislature, Republican or Democrat, is in the business of trying to sell kids --- it's insulting to the point that it's blasphemous," he said. "Incentives are not only used in Florida, they're used across the spectrum, across this country, to help parents with their children."
Currently, adoptive families receive a maintenance adoption subsidy provided by the federal government under a 1997 law.
While part of Gaetz's bill would provide additional payments to state workers who adopt, another part would give incentives to the community-based care organizations to increase the number of children successfully placed with adoptive families.
In determining the payments to the organizations, the Department of Children and Families would establish a baseline assessment of each local agency's performance in successfully placing children in adoptive homes over a five-year period. The department would have to identify such criteria as the number of families trying to adopt from foster care; the number of children eligible for adoption; the amount of time that eligible children wait to be adopted; and the time it takes to complete each phase of the adoption process.
Until that data is compiled, the fiscal impact of the bill is unclear.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, hailed the bill's progress as part of a series of reforms aimed at improving the lives of children in the state foster-care system.
"Over the last several years we passed legislation to help children in foster care have a greater sense of normalcy and permanence in their lives, whether that means getting a driver's license, being able to participate in after-school activities, spending the night at a friend's house, or even just getting a haircut," Gardiner said in a statement. "Senator Gaetz's legislation represents the next steps towards helping children in foster care who are eligible for adoption find the loving, forever families they deserve."
(The News Service of Florida's Margie Menzel contributed to this report.)
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