Innocents series sparks Tallahassee response

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMarch 26, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- A Florida House committee passed the first draft Tuesday of a massive rewrite of the state's child welfare laws, but the organizations on the front lines serving troubled families and vulnerable children warned that they want to see more money follow.

"The real proof in the pudding is how does this policy drive the Legislature to put the resources into services?" asked Kurt Kelly, president of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents community-based-care providers. "We are woefully underfunded."

Although the Department of Children & Families oversees investigations of child abuse, as well as the lawyers who represent dependent children, all services flowing to children in state care are managed by the so-called CBCs, which admin

ister parenting classes, case management and treatment to parents regarded as unfit. The CBCs also provide care to abused and neglected children themselves such as trauma counseling.

Kelly said DCF is spending less today than in 2007 on CBC services aimed at child protection, and the claims by the agency it increased the CBC budgets are accurate only if you take into account the "pass-through" money the agency receives to give to parents of adoptive children.

"It was not usable dollars for services," he said.

Since the end of 2007, at least 477 children whose families had previously come into contact with DCF died from abuse or neglect. Florida legislators, who write the laws that govern the department, proposed reforms only after the Miami Herald first drew attention to a spate of child deaths last summer.

The House Healthy Families Subcommittee voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a 119-page bill aimed at increasing staff training and expertise and improving the agency response and follow-up when at-risk children are left in their homes. The CBCs support those changes as a first step, but they also are asking the state to put at least $25.4 million in new money into front-line services to keep children safe.

"We are making progress," said Mike Watkins, CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care, serving North Florida, at Tuesday's subcommittee meeting. But the need for more money is "recognized by all stakeholders," he said.

Neither Gov. Rick Scott nor the House of Representatives agree the budget should increase that much. Both have proposed budgets to increase spending by $10 million for what the CBCs call "core" support services, but they also remove another $5 million in one-time funds from last year's budget, leaving a net increase of less than $5 million, Kelly said.

Funds for community-based-care providers for child welfare services were cut $240 million in the governor's second year in office and restored during the current year, but the governor's 2014-15 proposed budget recommends a $4.8 million cut.

"If they don't invest in the services for the families, they're just leaving children at risk," said Andrea Moore, a children's advocate from Coral Springs.

She said the governor and legislators have made no attempt to restore funding to pre-recession levels for two programs that lost millions -- and that have the ability to help parents keep their children safe: mental health and substance abuse.

Legislators are writing the 2014-15 budget, and the call for new funding for the state's troubled child welfare system comes as an improving economy has resulted in more than $1.2 billion in new revenue for them to spend.

House or Senate leaders have backed dozens of million-dollar pet projects in their first set of proposals, including a plan for a $10 million observation tower in downtown Miami, a $4 million aquarium in Clearwater, and $1 million for a hotel project in New Port Richey. But House leaders aren't making any promises on additional child welfare funding.

"The priority of this committee is to get as much money as possible but everybody has different priorities," said state Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, chairwoman of the Healthy Families subcommittee. "$10 million in new money is very good. But it's a balancing act."

In a news release last week, DCF said that since the governor took office, "child safety has been the key priority and funding has gone up each year of his administration."

The agency did not note the DCF budget has declined by $100 million over the past three years as the overall state budget increased and the core budget for front-line child safety workers dropped.

"There is no real new money into the system of care," said John Cooper, CEO of Kids Central, the Orlando community-based-care organization. "It's straight pass-through."

Since 2007, total CBC funding has increased less than 10 percent, he said, but most of the growth -- about $60 million -- is the result of increased adoptions. During the governor's term, the CBC budget rose by about $25 million and nearly all went to increased adoption subsidies, not core services for at-risk children, he said.

"Current funding levels primarily pay for case management, adoption subsidies, and out-of-home care costs -- not treatment services, Cooper added.

The governor has proposed a $32 million increase in DCF funding to hire more child protection investigators and give sheriffs $8 million to expand child protection teams. But the agency has not put forth any recommendations to expand services once investigators have deemed children need protection.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he supports adding "tens of millions of dollars" to the child welfare budget in the wake of the Herald findings. It is still not clear how much the Senate will propose.

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