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A step toward improving foster care in Florida | Editorial

Legislature adopts a good plan; now it’s time to fund it.

It takes special legislation in these partisan times for a bill to unanimously pass both chambers of the Florida Legislature. But this legislation, SB 1326, is a strong step toward improving the state’s child welfare system. It strengthens the child protection safety net, holds service providers more accountable and sets the stage for better pairing resources with the children who need them. Gov. Ron DeSantis should follow through with his support by signing the bill into law, and lawmakers should provide enough money to make these goals achievable.

The legislation is aimed at filling critical gaps in the foster care system that all too often result in tragedy. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Christopher O’Donnell reported, the measure directs the Florida Department of Children and Families to develop benchmarks for foster care agencies that provide services to children at the local level. Agencies that perform poorly could face financial penalties or lose their state contracts. The goal is to create a more level playing field for determining who should - and should not - be acting as the first line of defense for Florida’s most vulnerable children.

The bill, though, hardly is punitive in its approach. It establishes a quality office within DCF to ensure the agency and its contractors achieve high levels of performance. The bill targets stress and burnout among child protective investigators - the turnover rate has averaged about 37 percent during the last two years - by calling for new support services and continuing training for supervisors. The department must also create a new system for measuring “the overall health of the child welfare system” in Florida within each of the state’s 20 judicial circuits, which will provide a better picture of what’s working, what’s not and the specific needs among Florida’s individual counties.

The bill also creates a two-year experiment - assuming the funding will be in the state budget that will be approved next week - to examine ways to improve child services in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. That addresses a critical need in these three counties, which have more children in foster care than any other region in the state. And the incentive funding for meeting new state performance standards would pave the way for a fairer system of funding foster care services in Florida. State spending on child services in South Florida, for example, now far outstrips other areas, including the Tampa Bay region. Last year, the state spent $17,418 per child served in South Florida, yet only $8,193 per child in Pinellas and Pasco counties and $8,924 in Hillsborough. It’s time to commit more public money to the areas with the highest demand.

DeSantis and Chad Poppell, secretary of the Department of Children and Families, deserve credit for supporting the legislation, which the sponsor, state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, ably moved over the line. It brings all of those involved in the foster care system - from law enforcement, state government, nonprofits and individual caseworkers - closer together with a shared interest in better outcomes. But the plan hinges on money, and as legislative leaders finalize a state budget this weekend, in advance of final votes next week, this appropriation should be a priority the state should look to build on.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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