TALLAHASSEE — After a year of damaging news reports about child deaths from abuse and neglect, a Florida Senate committee on Tuesday passed a package of proposals intended to improve the quality and quantity of regulation over the state's child welfare system.
The wide-ranging bills proposed by the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee are intended to improve what Senate President Don Gaetz called "a porous system" that has led to hundreds of child deaths under the state's watch.
"We need to professionalize and make more effective our approach to child welfare in the state and then plug the side doors and the holes and windows, which I think make for a system that's way too porous,'' Gaetz told reporters Tuesday.
Under the proposals, the state Department of Children and Families would be required to increase the educational expertise of the child abuse investigators, create a website to report basic facts about child deaths reported to the child abuse hotline and mobilize a trained team to analyze the cause of deaths.
The bills would also increase the coordination of children deemed "medically complex" and require the state to place many of these children — who are now housed in a small number of nursing homes — in medical foster homes when possible.
"Back in the summer, we were all shocked and concerned about child abuse deaths brought to our attention by the Miami Herald newspaper,'' said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, chairwoman of the committee. "We've identified several problems, and our bills contain recommended solutions."
Gaetz said that the bills will also require "tens of millions more in recurring funding" but did not say how much the Legislature's proposed budget will include. Gov. Rick Scott has proposed adding $42 million for additional child protective investigators and $8 million for sheriff's investigations.
"Oftentimes you get what you pay for, and I think in child welfare we have gone on the cheap, and I think that's been a mistake,'' Gaetz said.
A key element of the plan increases the professional expertise of the child abuse investigators working for the agency by requiring that 80 percent of them have a college degree in social work.
The program would grandfather in existing employees and offer some tuition exemptions or up to $3,000 a year in loan payments if they choose to pursue a social work degree.
"We send firefighters to fight fires. We need to send social workers to address social problems,'' Sobel said.
Another portion of the bill directs DCF to keep siblings together when placed into foster case.
Howard Talenfeld, a children's rights advocate and president of Florida's Children First, called the bill "a good first step" but he said investigations should extend beyond the current 60-day limit. He urged the committee to refine the bill to extend the time in which the investigation can occur and allow caseworkers to implement a safety plan when there is a chance for future crisis.
"After 60 days, it's over," he said. "There's no one watching the children."