1. Opinion

I will refile 'Jordan's Law' to fix our broken child welfare system | Chris Latvala

Fifteen hundred children. That's the number of kids considered vulnerable and at risk for abuse in the Pinellas County child welfare system. Yes, 1,500 precious lives on the line right now.

One of those children was 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau. The joyful toddler was thriving in foster care with loving parents, when Jordan was returned to live with his biological mother. Less than four months later, Jordan was dead. In a moment of rage, Baby Jordan's mother is accused of striking him in the head and leaving the child for dead in the woods in Largo. She faces a first-degree murder charge.

Today, Jordan would have celebrated his third birthday. If it weren't for inexcusable flaws in our child welfare system, he might still be here to celebrate. His death will not be in vain. In his memory, I will refile "Jordan's Law" next month to fix Florida's broken child welfare system. I've also launched a website where people across the state can sign a petition to show their support for protecting vulnerable children.

Jordan's story highlights all that is wrong with our system. Unfortunately, too many warning signs were missed. To name a few, child welfare case managers failed to make required weekly visits. Jordan's mother allegedly lied in court about completing mandatory counseling classes to get her son back. There was also a history of domestic violence between Jordan's parents, with case workers not always aware of those police reports.

Even the final red flags were ignored. The week before Jordan's death, case managers were unable to reach Jordan's mother. The day before the toddler died, they warned his parents the 2-year-old could go back to foster care.

Jordan's life was taken too soon. His story has spotlighted the fact that Florida's child welfare system is broken.

Here's why our system is failing. Child welfare case managers make about $17 an hour to manage about 30 cases. The pay is low and the workflow is so overwhelming that serious warning signs are missed.

The turnover rate for case managers has skyrocketed, increasing miscommunications as cases are passed on to new workers. In the Pinellas-Pasco Judicial District, three agencies that manage cases average a staggering 80-percent turnover rate. In Hillsborough County, that rate is more than 50 percent.

In addition to staffing challenges, the number of children in child welfare placements has increased over the past three years: 39 percent in Hillsborough and 32 percent in Pasco and Pinellas. Yet our funding has not kept pace. While our agencies manage the most children in the state, our budgets are significantly less than other communities.

Because of these systemic failures, children are dying. Jordan's story is not the only tragic case. Just a year earlier, 8-month-old William Hendrickson IV died after being left in a sweltering bedroom in a Largo mobile home. A state report found child welfare case managers failed to take action and report safety concerns before the child's death.

We must make immediate changes to protect our children. In 2018, I created a bill named "Jordan's Law" to fix our broken system with three common-sense steps: (1) Reduce the case load for case managers from 30 to 15 cases, when possible; (2) Streamline child abuse communication between law enforcement and caseworkers to better ensure children are protected from violent caretakers and (3) Require special training for parents, caseworkers and law enforcement to understand and recognize the signs of brain injuries in young children.

If this law were already in place, Jordan could still be alive today. It will ultimately help save the lives of other children. While the Florida House of Representatives unanimously passed Jordan's Law last session, unfortunately, the Florida Senate failed to hear the measure. We are reintroducing the bill this year, with hopes that our leaders will come together to stand up for the safety of our kids. With thousands of children currently at risk, there is simply no time to waste.

Chris Latvala, a Republican, represents Clearwater in the Florida House.