TALLAHASSEE -- Florida legislators approved a major overhaul of the state's child protection laws Friday and sent to the governor a bill that requires the troubled Department of Children and Families to take greater care when handling abuse and neglect cases and abide by more disclosure and oversight.
The legislation requires the agency that serves as the watchdog for vulnerable children in Florida to keep the safety of children "as the paramount concern.''
The goal is to end the tragedies that led to 477 child deaths in the last six years, as chronicled by the Miami Herald in its Innocents Lost series, said Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, sponsor of the House version of the bill.
"This is unconscionable,'' Harrell told lawmakers on the final day of the session. "We have got to change our system in Florida."
The House passed the bill, SB 1666, on a 117-0 vote and
Harrell promised that it represents just the first step. "We have made major strides in this bill, but it is the beginning,'' she said. "We are not done yet and we're going to continue until every child in this state is as safe as they can possibly be.''
Gov. Rick Scott has been non-committal about whether he would sign it.
Under the bill's provisions, DCF must now report on its website when it fails children by listing the deaths of children under age 5 who die from abuse or neglect, immediately review all reported child deaths from abuse or neglect and contract with a university-based think tank to oversee their death reviews.
DCF has insisted that it is open to scrutiny, but its record is one of consistently resisting disclosure of details on child deaths. Though the agency provided hundreds of documents relating to child deaths, the Herald sued three times to gain greater access to information. After the series was published, the agency changed the way it redacted incident reports, removing virtually every detail of a child's death.
The bill also attempts to strengthen the agency's workforce, by improving the expertise of the investigators who respond to calls from the state's abuse hotline. It attempts to encourage people with social work and other advanced degrees to join its ranks as investigators by providing tuition reimbursement.
Other provisions require that the agency's review of child deaths be more thorough and that they undergo a level of oversight to help the child protection system better find the root causes to prevent disaster.
The bill also imposes new requirements and additional resources for families that care for medically complex children, creates a new assistant secretary for child welfare, requires DCF to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths and emphasizes the importance of keeping siblings together.
The legislation requires DCF to improve investigations involving disabled children or other kids who may have suffered medical neglect. It also requires DCF to identify children with developmental disabilities and provide services to mitigate the risk such children face if left with troubled parents.
Among the most significant changes: reversing a decade-long policy that had the effect of giving priority to the rights of parents -- not the health and safety of children.
The Herald series showed that the deaths of children whose families were known to DCF, particularly infants and toddlers, spiked after agency administrators implemented a rigorous policy that left children in sometimes profoundly violent homes to promote "family preservation." Administrators acknowledged the policy's implementation may have been misguided, given that the state lacked the services and oversight to protect such children.
"One of the positive things this bill includes is it ascribes our legislative intent into statute,'' said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. "Children are, first and foremost, protected from abuse and neglect."
Legislators rejected an attempt last week by DCF to rewrite key provisions of the bill, including transparency requirements, and the broad, bipartisan support was a signal that legislative leaders have lost confidence in the agency.
The legislation will dramatically change DCF's policy regarding the use of "safety plans," which are signed agreements from troubled parents to alter their behavior for the sake of their children. In most states, safety plans have teeth: provisions ensuring parents keep their promises. The Herald found that more than 80 children died after such a plan was signed.