TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators approved a major overhaul of the state's child protection laws Friday and sent the governor a bill that requires the troubled Department of Children and Families to take greater care when handling abuse and neglect cases and abide by more disclosure and oversight.
The legislation requires the agency that serves as the watchdog for vulnerable children in Florida to keep the safety of children "as the paramount concern.''
The goal is to end the tragedies that led to 477 child deaths in the past six years, as chronicled by the Miami Herald, said Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, sponsor of the House version of the bill.
"This is unconscionable,'' Harrell told lawmakers on the final day of the session. "We have got to change our system in Florida."
The House passed the bill, SB 1666, on a 117-0 vote and Harrell promised that it represents just the first step.
"We have made major strides in this bill, but it is the beginning,'' she said. "We are not done yet and we're going to continue until every child in this state is as safe as they can possibly be.''
Gov. Rick Scott has been non-committal about whether he would sign it.
Under the bill's provisions, DCF must report on its website the deaths of children under age 5 who die from abuse or neglect, immediately review all reported child deaths from abuse or neglect and contract with a university-based think tank to oversee death reviews.
DCF has insisted that it is open to scrutiny, but its record is one of consistently resisting disclosure of details on child deaths. Though the agency provided hundreds of documents relating to child deaths, the Herald sued three times to gain greater access to information. After the series was published, the agency changed the way it redacted incident reports, removing virtually every detail of a child's death.
The bill also attempts to strengthen the agency's workforce, by improving the expertise of the investigators who respond to calls from the state's abuse hotline. It attempts to encourage people with social work and other advanced degrees to join its ranks as investigators by providing tuition reimbursement.
Other provisions require that the agency's review of child deaths be more thorough and that they undergo a level of oversight to help the child protection system better find the root causes to prevent disaster.
The bill also imposes new requirements and additional resources for families that care for medically complex children, creates a new assistant secretary for child welfare, requires DCF to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths and emphasizes the importance of keeping siblings together.
The legislation requires DCF to improve investigations involving disabled children or other kids who may have suffered medical neglect. It also requires DCF to identify children with developmental disabilities and provide services to mitigate the risk such children face if left with troubled parents.
Among the most significant changes: reversing a decade-long policy that had the effect of giving priority to the rights of parents — not the health and safety of children.
The Herald series showed that the deaths of children whose families were known to DCF, particularly infants and toddlers, spiked after agency administrators implemented a rigorous policy that left children in sometimes profoundly violent homes to promote "family preservation." Administrators acknowledged the policy's implementation may have been misguided, given that the state lacked the services and oversight to protect such children.
"One of the positive things this bill includes is it ascribes our legislative intent into statute,'' said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. "Children are, first and foremost, protected from abuse and neglect."
Legislators rejected an attempt last week by DCF to rewrite key provisions of the bill, including transparency requirements, and the broad, bipartisan support was a signal that legislative leaders have lost confidence in the agency.
The legislation will dramatically change DCF's policy regarding the use of "safety plans," which are signed agreements from troubled parents to alter their behavior for the sake of their children. In most states, safety plans have teeth: provisions ensuring parents keep their promises. The Herald found that more than 80 children died after such a plan was signed.
The bill requires that safety plans be "specific, sufficient, feasible, and sustainable." In particular, the bill requires that investigators not sign such agreements without adequate services to treat the causes of parents' problems, such as drug abuse or mental illness.
The package comes with new money — legislators say more than $56 million — but it falls short of what service providers say is the need to provide at-risk families with needed services.
Florida's privately-run community-based care providers, were disappointed that legislators failed to provide a significant hike in funding for the programs they oversee, such as case management, drug treatment and mental health counseling.
But Kurt Kelly, who heads the Florida Coalition for Children, the providers' association, applauded the legislation as "a great first step.''
The budget includes $18.6 million sought by the governor for additional DCF child protective investigators, another $8.1 million for investigators that do similar work for sheriff's departments that contract with the agency and $2.5 million for investigators to work in teams for the highest risk children.
"We were pleased to work with the Legislature on Governor Scott's proposed historic funding for child protective investigators,'' said Alexis Lambert, spokeswoman for DCF in a statement. "This significant funding will help decrease caseloads and provide staffing to laser focus on children most at risk."
The budget includes $10 million for the community-based care providers, $10 million in additional substance abuse money and $2.5 million to expand child welfare and domestic violence services.
"We are putting our money where our mouth is,'' Harrell said.
Andrea Moore, a long-time child advocate and Fort Lauderdale lawyer, commended the focus on hiring investigators who have "critical thinking, communication and problem solving skills."
But she noted, "the bill sends a subtle message to DCF that the Legislature does not trust them, and rightly so.'' She said that recent reports that the agency continues to withhold information from the public on child deaths should prompt lawmakers "to get DCF's attention that it is time to stop covering up and blaming others, and just do the work to fix the problems."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas