Florida legislators on Friday approved a major overhaul of the state's child protection laws and sent to the governor a measure 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 goal of the legislation is to make sure the agency that serves as the watchdog for vulnerable children keep the safety of children “as the paramount concern,'' and 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 bill.
"This is unconscionable,'' Harrell said before lawmakers passed the bill on the final day of the session. "We have got to change our system in Florida."
The House passed SB 1666 on 117-0 vote and sent it to the governor, with a promise by Harrell that it is 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 chld in this state is as safe as they can possibly be.’’
Gov. Rick Scott told reporters Thursday that he will review the bill but remained noncommital about whether he would sign it
Under the provisions of the bill, the Department of Children & Families, which reports to the governor, must now report on its web site when it fails children, by listing the deaths of children who die from abuse and neglect.
The bill 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 encouraging 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 undergo a level of oversight to help the child protection system better find the root causes to prevent disaster faster.
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.
Legislators rejected a last-minute attempt last week by DCF to rewrite key provisions of the bill and the broad, bipartisan support was a signal that legislative leaders have lost confidence in the agency.
"We have a system that’s broken and we have to take strongand decisive steps to fix it,'' said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, after the Senate passed the bill last week.
The package comes with money -- more than $47 million -- but it also falls fall short of what service providers say is the need to provide at-risk families with the services they need.
Advocates and service providers widely praised the legislation as an important and progressive step.
"I am hoping the focus on hiring people with the needed critical thinking, communication and problem solving skills will be a big step forward,'' said Andrea Moore, a long-time child advocate and Fort Lauderdale lawyer.
"The bill sends a subtle message to DCF that the Legislature does not trust them, and rightly so,'' she said. "But subtlety seems not enough given the latest Herald story on DCFs further retreat from transparency and candor. Somehow the Legislature needs to get DCFs attention that it is time to stop covering up and blaming others and just do the work to fix the problems."
Bart Armstrong, chief operating office of Our Kids of Miami-Dade and Monroe, which contracts with DCF to provide services to at-risk children, applauded the Legislature for passing the bill.
"We hope this is a step in the right direction to ensure that all children have the protection they need and families can access needed services,'' he said in a statement. "We look forward to working with our partners at DCF and our service providers to assure this important piece of legislation realizes it's potential."