To protect children, Florida should treat addicted parents

April 6, 2014 

Esther Jacobo, interim secretary of the Department of Children & Families, admits her department has failed hundreds of Florida children.

Florida's Legislature responded to disturbing revelations that the state's child welfare system is woefully lacking with bills in both chambers that provide major reforms. But the measures fall short of dealing with one of the core problems.

The Miami Herald's Innocents Lost investigative series of reports left no doubt that the state has failed to adequately protect children from abuse by their parents or caregivers.

In detailing the deaths of 477 children whose families had previous dealings with the Florida Department of Children & Families, the Herald exposed numerous flaws in state policy and procedures.

Thankfully, lawmakers took notice and became compelled to act. But the focus has been on abuse and neglect investigations and stronger regulations governing the state's ability to remove children from terrible parents.

While the legislative and governor's emphasis on children is perfectly correct public policy, troubled parents need help, too. Substance abuse and mental health treatment for parents should be an integral part of the child welfare system.

The Senate bill, SB 1666, covers 142 pages but lacks resources for services to parents of at-risk children. Gov. Rick Scott advocates an additional $40 million in the child welfare budget, but that only increases the number and training of investigators for child abuse reports. Both the House and Senate measures agree with that priority, in differing amounts but close to Scott's figure.

That is a critical improvement but fails to address family situations after an investigation into child abuse or neglect.

Current policy stresses the importance of keeping families intact, yet the state does little to nothing to help parents overcome their problems.

Neither the Senate, House or governor propose beefing up substance abuse treatment programs for parents. This is after eight years of budget cuts totalling some $8 million for vital intervention, treatment and prevention programs.

The Florida Coalition for Children, an association of community-based organizations that works with DCF on those programs, cited that figure in a new Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau report just days ago.

Legislation should provide those key services, not just investigations. Florida is enjoying a $1.2 billion increase in revenue this year and can afford more to protect vulnerable children with intervention programs.

The Senate bill states children are "the paramount concern" but then leaves older policy language intact: caseworkers, supervisors and investigators are required to "take the most parsimonious path to remedy a family's problems."

That means the cheapest possible way, a shameful non-solution to an insidious scourge that demands greater attention. Parents with substance abuse and mental health challenges need treatment.

Addicts cannot be expected to simply become straight and sober with a promise on a piece of paper, per DCF's current policy in lieu of services. The Senate bill rightfully strengthens those so-called "safety plans" that drug-addicted and violent parents sign. Of the 477 death documented by the Herald, 83 occurred in homes where parents signed safety plans.

Overall, 68 percent of all those child deaths were linked to substance abuse, according to the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.

The state should be pumping more resources into treatment as an abuse and neglect intervention tool. More investigators are sorely needed but parental treatment programs are just as vital.

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