TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Friday rejected a last-minute attempt by the governor's child welfare agency to rewrite a bill to overhaul the way the state handles child safety and unanimously approved the measure that increases oversight over the troubled agency.
The broad, bipartisan support for the bill was a signal that the Senate expects the House to adopt it and the governor to sign it, said Senate President Don Gaetz following the vote.
"The burden of proof is heavy on he would try to disassemble this bill or undermine it,'' said Gaetz, R-Niceville. "The fact is, we do not have a system that's flawed. We have a system that's broken and we have to take strong and decisive steps to fix it."
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, the bill's sponsor, said the problems with the state's child safety system, highlighted by the Miami Herald's Innocents Lost series, underscored the need for immediate reform. She cited the headlines this week about a Miami judge lashing out at Department of Children and Families administrators after they asked her to leave three small children in a South Miami-Dade home the same week their cousin was found dead. Police are investigating the death of the boy, whose body was marked by bruises, welts and a human bite mark.
"Hopefully with this legislation we will be reading in the future about innocents saved,'' Sobel said. "This good bill needs to be passed ASAP.''
The bill, SB 1666, includes dozens of new provisions aimed at improving the expertise of the investigators who respond to calls from the state's abuse hotline and requires that the safety of children be the paramount concern of the state. Senators added changes to their bill that incorporate proposals that originated in the House, including providing additional resources for families that care for medically complex children.
The bill requires DCF to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths, emphasizes the importance of keeping siblings together, and provides educational incentives — such as loan forgiveness and tuition incentives — to help encourage child welfare workers to get social work and other professional degrees.
But as Sobel was explaining her bill to the Senate, a last-minute amendment was filed to tamp down several requirements DCF opposed.
The 140-page amendment, filed by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla at the request of the governor's office, would have stripped from the bill several provisions that the agency considered too costly and unnecessary.
For example, the creation of an Institute on Child Welfare at Florida State University would have been eliminated — a favorite among some lawmakers and legislative staff. Also eliminated was language that would have tightened child safety protections and a requirement that members of DCF's Rapid Response Teams travel to the site of a child's death in order to conduct a case review.
"This will substantially reduce the cost of the review and be less onerous for team participants,'' the agency wrote in its summary of the amendment.
The agency also wanted to eliminate an oversight committee that will review DCF's death reports and remove requirements that the local Community Base Care organizations, which contract with DCF to manage child welfare cases, post their executive salaries and case manager work loads on their websites.
But when the lengthy amendment arrived late in the debate, Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner called for a halt to the debate to give members time to review it.
When senators returned, Diaz de la Portilla withdrew the amendment and the Senate passed the bill with a unanimous vote — a signal that the Senate has the votes to override a veto by the governor if DCF continues to resist the bill.
"Every Democrat and every Republican cast votes today on Sen. Sobel's bill, which she developed with bi-partsian support,'' Gaetz said as he wrapped his arm around Sobel's shoulder. "I'm confident that the governor will sign the bill."
Sobel said she was "very disappointed in the governor's office" and was surprised at DCF's attempt to change the bill after she had worked with them for months.
"We fixed it as best as we could,'' she said. "Nobody is going to think it's perfect but there's dramatic change and the fact that DCF doesn't like it, I'm sorry. I told them what the plan was — that is to work in the best interest of the children and to pull this at the last minute is just not right."
DCF spokeswoman Michelle Glady said the agency worked 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."