Florida's child welfare laws should seek to protect and enhance children's lives rather than hold families together at all costs. Gov. Rick Scott signed sweeping changes into the state's child protection policies into law last month, adopting measures that address issues ranging from publicizing child deaths to creating a more skilled workforce. Notably, the law contains provisions that abandon a decade-old policy of maintaining dysfunctional families at the expense of children. Too often, the Department of Children and Families left kids in unsafe situations and gave parents too many chances. This welcome reversal of a failed policy empowers caseworkers and puts child safety above family preservation.
The latest problems at DCF came to light this spring after the Miami Herald published "Innocents Lost," a series that detailed the preventable deaths of 477 children with whom the agency had some contact since 2008. Many of the children died while with parents, relatives or other adults with a documented history of abuse or neglect. Often, DCF knew the children were in dangerous situations and set up safety plans for parents that allowed them to retain custody of their children with little more than a signature and a promise to do better. If parents violated or abandoned the plans, DCF had little recourse. And children paid the price.
Under the new law, compliance with safety plans will play a large role in determining if a child is allowed to remain in the familial home. If investigators determine a child is in danger, they must institute a safety plan that is specific, feasible and sustainable. Separate safety plans also now extend to people such as paramours who commit acts of domestic violence and threaten a child's safety. If any party subject to a safety plan fails to comply, DCF now is empowered to take the child. The law also provides for the possibility of financial support to nonrelatives and other caregivers who take in children who have been removed from their parents.
It is too late for the 477 children who died after coming in contact with DCF. But their deaths pushed lawmakers toward much-needed reform. Florida's strengthened child welfare laws change the way DCF will approach the job going forward. But there is still much to be done. A grand jury report released last month commended DCF for making progress on significant child welfare issues but said the agency must improve in several areas, including lowering case loads for child protection investigators and redefining neglect so that preventable child deaths are not undercounted.
The governor and the Legislature have put into place the kinds of commonsense strategies that were long lacking in Florida's child protection policies. With new tools in hand, DCF should fully utilize its expanded powers to hold parents accountable and protect children's right to live in safe homes regardless of familial relationship.