TALLAHASSEE — Children's advocates on Monday showed the first sign that they may not be backing the House's sweeping rewrite of the state's child welfare laws, saying the proposal may produce only superficial reforms and may not result in substantial changes that protect children.
"It's going to do a job of better documenting societal issues and I don't think it's going to change a thing,'' said Mike Watkins, chief executive of the Big Bend Community Based Care organization after the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved HB 7169.
The bill attempts to increase the professional requirements of investigators in charge of responding to complaints from the state's child abuse hotline by requiring most staff to have social work and other professional degrees, and it requires more transparency from the state Department of Children and Families about child deaths.
The House and Senate have allocated up to about $45 million in new money to address the issue, much of it devoted to increasing the number of child protective investigators at DCF. Those families are then referred to local community service organizations where they are assigned to a case worker for follow-up care.
Watkins said that while child protective investigators are fact-finders, and case managers are "score keepers on how parents and their kids are doing," it is the treatment programs — from mental health to substance abuse — that results in meaningful behavioral change for the troubled families. The legislative reforms are silent about those services and no additional money is being allocated, he said.
"It's not better score keeping,'' that will fix the problem, he said. "It's a matter of changing behavior for children of Florida.''
Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, the sponsor of the bill, acknowledged the bill was not perfect.
"This is a step in the right direction,'' she said. "Is it the be-all, end-all? No. But we are making huge progress with this bill."
The Senate Appropriations Committee will take up its version of the social services reform bill, (SB 1666), on Tuesday.
Both bills attempt to tighten the so-called safety plans used by investigators who decide to leave at-risk children in the care of their parents. The bills also create rapid-response teams to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths and both establish the Florida Institute for Child Welfare to conduct policy research.
Both bills create an assistant secretary for child welfare, a new position with the authority to oversee all child protection efforts; the Senate also creates a secretary and a director of substance abuse and mental health.
The Senate's proposed rewrite says "the health and safety of the children served shall be of paramount concern" and removes the language to "take the most parsimonious path to remedy a family's problems."
Watkins noted that of the 477 child deaths reviewed by the Miami Herald over the last six years in its Innocents Lost series, more than 80 percent had substance abuse and mental health issues.
But, he said, the House's proposed reforms are "largely administrative" and "does not change the policies to try to get at the root problems of child abuse and neglect.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate began negotiations on how to finalize the state's $75 billion budget and legislative leaders defended the amount they are spending on child welfare.
The budget includes money to "fix the child welfare system . . . and fully fund the maximum expansion of the guardian ad litem program and advocacy centers,'' said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who bristled at a story in the Herald that noted that they have put millions of dollars into discretionary hometown projects over at-risk children.
"I think that the good work that the House and the Senate have both done ought to be recognized based on the results that we finally achieve,'' he said. "We've both made substantial commitments not only in funding but also in policy, and I hope that our results can be judged based on what they are at the end of session."