TALLAHASSEE — A bill to reform the state's child welfare laws to protect children from abuse and neglect will come up for debate in the House Wednesday, but an amendment drafted by Department and Children and Families and endorsed by the local children's services agencies may be dead for the session.
The proposal would have stripped the child safety language aimed at forcing DCF to more carefully monitor the children they leave in at-risk homes and would have removed a layer of oversight over the department relating to child deaths.
The proposal, filed and withdrawn by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla last week before the Senate passed SB 1666, is not expected to return in the House, said Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, sponsor of the House bill.
"It was very late in the process,'' Harrell said Tuesday. "We have had hearings on this since September and my door is always open. You don't submit an amendment 20 minutes before you have a vote on the floor.''
But the proposal left sore feelings among lawmakers who have attempted to strengthen the state's child safety laws after an investigative series by the Miami Herald found that 477 children who had been known to the agency died of abuse and neglect in the last six years.
Senate President Don Gaetz told reporters Tuesday that the child welfare overhaul is a product of the Legislature's initiative, not the governor or DCF.
"The agency didn't come to us and say reform us, acknowledge that the system is broken,'' he said. "They didn't ask us to do that. The governor didn't ask us to do that. The people of Florida asked us to do that.''
The amendment, however, exposed the bitter rivalries among providers in the cottage industry that has emerged over the privatization of child welfare in Florida. Groups who work with lawyers representing children in state care lined up against local community-based-care (CBC) organizations over how much liability insurance they should carry if they are sued for neglect. Meanwhile, the CBCs sided with DCF to weaken portions of the Senate bill.
Kurt Kelly of the Florida Coalition for Children said the local agencies had hoped to use the bill to lower their liability insurance requirement which, because of inflation, has become increasingly costly for local agencies.
"The dollars that come in, instead of spending it on child welfare, we are spending it on trying to get insurance," he said.
The community-based-care organizations also wanted to delete a requirement in the bill that requires them to post budgets and salaries of top officials.
"How in the world is that going to save a child's life? What's the intent of that?'' Kelly asked. "I don't think it's a big issue to us, but why is it an issue in the bill?"
Although he was supportive of the child safety plans, Kelly said weakening them was not their intent.
"We're very much in favor of those areas, but it's one of those things when you're making the sausage you may have some good things go in and some bad things go in,'' he said. "I didn't see the whole amendment. The department came to us and asked us was there any particular area you were interested in."
DCF also wanted to remove a requirement that the agency post on its website whether the child was under 5 years of age when he or she died of abuse and another requirement that the agency report all child on child sexual abuse if the child is not in state care.
Diaz de la Portilla said he was asked to file the amendment by a lobbyist for the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the local agencies that contract with DCF to provide children's services. The coalition had worked with DCF to include changes to the bill that they thought would create unneeded bureaucracy and added expense, he said.
For example, the department wanted to repeal the creation of the Institute on Child Welfare at Florida State University and the requirement that a team of investigators who review each child death visit the site of the death.
"The question is are we spending money that is going to go to child services or spend money on a lot of costs that don't necessarily improve care,'' Diaz de la Portilla explained.
DCF defended its attempts to change the bill.
"DCF is working with Community Based Care agencies and other child advocates to enhance the bill and eliminate red tape that would impact agency and stakeholder effectiveness in keeping children safe,'' said Michelle Glady, DCF spokeswoman after the amendment was rejected in the Senate.
The alliance between the CBCs and the state agency came after the two had feuded over spending. The governor and Legislature have cut the funding to the agencies over the past several years, and they have testified that, while the Legislature is increasing their budget by $10 million, it will not be enough to overcome the previous cuts and to cover the cost of reforms if more children are added to the child welfare system.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas