TALLAHASSEE — A key Senate committee approved a sweeping overhaul of Florida's child welfare law Wednesday, the first step toward passage of a series of reforms designed to stanch the deaths of children at the hands of their parents or other caregivers.
The proposal, an amendment to SB 1666 approved by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, is the most significant revamp of the state's child welfare system in at least a decade. It aims to increase the quality and quantity of child protection investigators and strengthen the ability of the state to remove a vulnerable child from an unsafe home after the parents have demonstrated a pattern of neglect or abuse.
The 142-page bill merges several different Senate bills and adopts language from a companion measure passed out of a House committee last week. It contains several recommendations from a Miami Herald series that detailed the deaths of 477 Florida children whose families had prior contact with the Florida Department of Children & Families.
"We have had some of the best and brightest minds working on this and we are troubled by the 477 innocent lives lost, as written by the Miami Herald,'' said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who chairs the Senate Families and Elder Affairs Committee. "This is a tremendous movement from the past."
At Sobel's urging, the legislation states that the welfare of Florida's children is "the paramount concern" of the state's child welfare system. But it also leaves intact a provision that requires investigators, supervisors and caseworkers to "take the most parsimonious path to remedy a family's problems." (According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, parsimonious means "frugal to the point of stinginess.")
The bill also says that these families must be given services, but only if the services are "available and effective" and so Sobel reminded her colleagues that the reform bill is not enough.
"This great work product depends on resources,'' she said. That includes additional money for services to treat the parents of at-risk children who need mental health and substance abuse treatment, and for foster care and placement care for children removed from dangerous homes, she said.
Patrick McCabe of Miami, a foster parent to 70 children over seven years, urged the committee to display a level of "moral outrage" about the deaths exposed by the Herald and "fund this bill" at the levels recommended by the experts.
"This is how you are going to be measured, in my opinion,'' he said. "Not whether you're going to give another tax break to another sports owner, or not whether you're going to give some money back on license plates — that's all I'm reading about. … This is your moment. Make the most of it."
Mark Fontaine, director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, noted that 68 percent of the child deaths examined by the Herald had a link to substance abuse.
"It's important as we talk about fixing this problem that we realize the root cause in many of these cases is substance abuse, and we have to figure out a way to address that,'' he said. "When a parent promises 'I won't do that,' that's called addiction. You make those promises when you're addicted."
But, according to the preliminary budgets released by the House and Senate, and the budget proposed by Gov. Rick Scott, no one is allocating additional money for treatment programs for addicted parents of at-risk kids.
Scott has recommended infusing $40 million into the child welfare budget, but nearly all of it is intended to be used to expand the number and training of investigators who respond when a call comes in to the state's abuse hotline.
They will be trained to assess the safety of the child, determine whether the child can remain in the home and decide what services, if any, the family may need to prevent further abuse. Both the House and Senate budgets have set aside money for those purposes, and Esther Jacobo, secretary of DCF, urged the committee not to waiver on the added investigators.
"No measures put into place will make a difference until we have enough protective investigators to take time investigating the families and analyzing the situations in order to make the appropriate decisions,'' she said.
She noted, however, that the major changes in the bill "will also require additional and substantial resources," and the department "is prepared to assist in the fiscal analysis in that regard."
No one has tallied how much more money will be needed to address all the needs identified in the bill. The Senate has recommended $31 million in additional funding be set aside for child welfare purposes, while the House has $44.5 million, which includes $40 million for child protective investigators and $4.5 million in treatment and prevention programs.
Kurt Kelly, president of the Florida Coalition for Children, an organization of community-based organizations that DCF contracts with to provide the services and case workers to help families, urged the committee to find at least $25.4 million more.
Over the past eight years, he said, legislators and the governor have cut the "core" services needed to provide prevention, intervention and treatment services by $8 million. The new money is needed to restore those cuts and address unmet needs, he added.
On the same day legislators discussed the child welfare reforms, the governor and legislative leaders were meeting to sign into law a bill to peel back a $309 million increase in auto tag fees that legislators imposed in 2009 in the wake of the recession.
Each of them remarked at how the state's economic boom had provided Florida with additional revenues this year — $1.3 billion — allowing for the fee reduction.
"Florida's economic development is the envy of the nation,'' said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, who was among the business and legislative leaders at the event.
Asked if the same could be said of Florida's child welfare system, Wilson, along with House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, each said no.
"That's why we have to pass the legislation that a bipartisan group of senators and House members are working on to, I think, remedy some serious flaws in the child welfare system,'' Gaetz said. "It's about money, and we need to spend more money. We're getting what we pay for and we're not getting as much as we need in protecting children."
Gaetz said he hopes the Senate can at least match the House's allocation of $44.5 million, while Weatherford said he's satisfied with the House's proposal.
"It's tragic where Florida finds itself,'' Weatherford said. "I'm not proud of where Florida is with regard to child welfare. I think the bill this year goes a long way to addressing that concerns that are brought forth."
He said he found the Herald series "frankly very shocking."
"My hope is, in future years, we're not having to come back and have this discussion."
The Senate bill would:
• Provide teeth to the much-maligned "safety plans" commonly used by investigators to shield children who are left with drug-addicted or violent parents. Such plans often were a substitute for services and consisted of little more than promises by parents to do better. In at least 83 deaths documented in the Herald series, parents had signed one or more safety plans prior to the death of a child.
• Require that the vast majority of child abuse investigators hired by DCF after July 1 have a degree in social work, and create a tuition exemption program and loan forgiveness in state universities for students who accept such investigator jobs.
• Require DCF to post on its website some details for all reported child deaths.
• Establish a "Critical Incident Rapid Response Team" within DCF to investigate certain child deaths quickly, including those involving the death of a child within a year of the agency confirming the abuse or neglect of that child or a sibling.
• Allow DCF to pay family friends who accept custody of abused or neglected children. Currently, such "non-relative caregivers" are not allowed to be paid for the care of dependent children, making it difficult to recruit them.
If passed, the legislation also could change dramatically the way Florida cares for medically complex and severely disabled children. Currently, the state allows scores of disabled children to live — critics say they are warehoused — in nursing homes designed for frail elders. Last year, the Herald reported on the deaths of at least two such children, and disclosed that state medical regulators had found frail children in nursing homes spent much of their time in bed with little stimulation or education.
The state Agency for Health Care Administration was sued by the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and a Miami civil rights lawyer, who claimed that confining disabled children in institutions violates the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990 by then-President George H.W. Bush.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas