Advocates raise doubts about Florida child welfare reforms

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauApril 22, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- Children’s advocates showed the first sign Monday that they might not support the Florida House’s sweeping rewrite of the state’s child-welfare laws, saying the proposal may produce only superficial reforms and not result in substantial changes that protect children.

“It’s going to do a job of better documenting societal issues, and I don’t think it’s going to change a thing,” said Mike Watkins, chief executive of the Big Bend Community Based Care organization after the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved HB 7169.

The bill would increase the professional requirements of investigators in charge of responding to complaints from the state’s child-abuse hotline by requiring most staff to have social work or other professional degrees, and it would require more transparency from the state Department of Children & Families about child deaths.

The House and Senate have allocated up to about $45 million in additional money to address the issue, much of it devoted to increasing the number of DCF child-protective investigators. Families are then referred to local community-service organizations where they are assigned to a case worker for follow-up attention.

Watkins said that while child-protective investigators are fact-finders, and case managers are “scorekeepers on how parents and their kids are doing,” it is the treatment programs — from mental health to substance abuse — that result in meaningful behavioral change for the troubled families. The legislative reforms are silent about those services, and no additional money is being allocated for them, he said.

“It’s not better score-keeping” that will fix the problem, he said. “It’s a matter of changing behavior for children of Florida.”

Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, the sponsor of the bill, acknowledged that the bill was not perfect.

“This is a step in the right direction,” she said. “Is it the be-all, end-all? No. But we are making huge progress with this bill.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee will take up its version of the social services reform bill (SB 1666) on Tuesday.

Both bills attempt to tighten the so-called safety plans used by investigators who decide to leave at-risk children in the care of their parents. The bills also would create rapid-response teams to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths, and both would establish a Florida Institute for Child Welfare to conduct policy research.

Both bills would create the position of assistant secretary for child welfare with the authority to oversee all child-protection efforts. The Senate bill also would create a secretary and a director of substance abuse and mental health.

The Senate’s proposed rewrite says “the health and safety of the children served shall be of paramount concern,” and removes the language to “take the most parsimonious path to remedy a family’s problems.”

Watkins noted that of the 477 child deaths reviewed by the Miami Herald over the past six years in its recent Innocents Lost series, more than 80 percent involved substance abuse and mental health issues.

But, he said, the House’s proposed reform is “largely administrative” and “does not change the policies to try to get at the root problems of child abuse and neglect.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate began negotiations to finalize the state’s $75 billion budget, and legislative leaders defended the amount they are allocating for child welfare.

The budget includes money to “fix the child-welfare system . . . and fully fund the maximum expansion of the guardian ad litem program and advocacy centers,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who bristled at a story in the Miami Herald that noted lawmakers have put millions of dollars into discretionary hometown projects instead of at-risk children.

“I think that the good work that the House and the Senate have both done ought to be recognized based on the results that we finally achieve,” he said. “We’ve both made substantial commitments not only in funding but also in policy, and I hope that our results can be judged based on what they are at the end of [the] session.”

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