Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Monday a sweeping overhaul of Florida’s long-troubled child welfare agency, discarding a decade-old policy that gave priority to the rights of parents — even as hundreds of infants and toddlers died preventable deaths.
The measure, which passed through the Florida Legislature unanimously in May, contains major changes to virtually every facet of Florida child welfare policy, and is designed to stanch what had become an epidemic of child deaths, particularly among very young children. The new law was written in response to a series of stories in the Miami Herald, called Innocents Lost, which detailed the deaths of 477 children whose families had been known to the state.
“The Legislature has made the safety of children paramount,” said Kurt Kelly, who heads the Florida Coalition for Children, an association of private foster care providers. “This is a step in the right direction. But we must ensure that future legislatures are working to provide the right resources to keep us moving forward.”
In a prepared statement, Gov. Rick Scott said the measure will strengthen the state’s safety net for children, and increase spending “to protect children from abuse and neglect.”
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“As a father and a grandfather, the safety of Florida’s children is a top priority,” Scott said. “That’s why this session we succeeded in creating 270 additional child protective investigators, so we can decrease caseloads and provide our servants in the field the support they need to ensure we’re doing everything possible to protect our children.\
“We have to do everything we can to protect our children from abuse and neglect, and these reforms and targeted investments will better enable our child welfare servants to do their job,” the governor added.
Among other things, the new law created a new assistant secretary for child welfare at the Department of Children & Families, develops a “Critical Incident Rapid Response Team” to hasten the investigation of child deaths among families known to DCF, and overhauls the state’s use of so-called “safety plans” that often were no more than unenforceable promises.
The law also “codifies that the foremost goal of the department is to protect the best interest of children,” Scott said.
“We are eager to start implementing this important bill and the resources provided to put needed boots on the ground to protect children,” Interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in the prepared statement. “Governor Scott has been a strong and vocal supporter for the children of this state and these reforms would not have been realized without his leadership and devotion to Florida’s vulnerable children.”