After Gov. Signs Child Welfare Bill, Advocates Hopeful For More Reforms Affecting Children

May 22, 2015

Rep. Gayle Harrell (left) speaks as Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll listens during a recent Florida Children and Youth Cabinet meeting.
Credit Florida Channel

Among the more than 40 bills Governor Rick Scott signed into law Thursday is a measure building on past child welfare reforms.

After learning about a spate of child deaths that occurred under the Florida Department of Children and Families’ supervision, lawmakers last year passed a massive child welfare reform overhaul.  Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) was charged with leading that effort in the Senate, while Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) was tasked with leading the charge in the House.

“It was a heavy lift, a big change, and fortunately, we now have a Secretary who understands, but it would not have happened if Gayle Harrell and myself, I believe, came together and said, ‘this is what’s right for Florida,” said Sobel, during a recent Florida Children and Youth Cabinet meeting. “This is what’s right for the Legislature.”

It included more money to hire more child protective investigators with social worker backgrounds, the creation of a child deaths website, as well as the creation of special investigative teams deployed out into the field to find out if more changes to DCF’s policy need to be made.

Now, Sobel says this newly signed law builds on those past efforts.                                               

“So, then we had 7078, which was supposedly was the glitch cleanup bill,” added Sobel.

Harrell says those special investigative teams, called the Critical Incident Rapid Response Teams or CIRRT teams, will also have a slight change in their job description—meeting and reporting quarterly, instead of annually.

“I think the CIRRT teams, and really defining our CIRRT teams and having the Secretary have more options to use those CIRRT teams. I think it’s a significant part,” said Harrell.

There’s also some changes among local and state death review teams to make sure there’s a thorough assessment done when there’s a child death and take a broader look into child deaths.

“So, I think this is significant legislation, that really is going to again, help us move forward to helping prevent child deaths,” added Harrell. “So, I was very pleased to be a part of that.”

Several bills died this year that would have affected children because the House adjourned early over a budget impasse with the Senate. Still, Harrell says although a strange ending to the session, I think all in all it was a very successful session for children.”

Among those measures that died was a bill focused on mental health and substance abuse reform. Harrell says after work done by some of the investigative teams via last year’s child welfare overhaul, it was found that those issues and child welfare are related.

“It became very evident that principal drivers in child fatalities are mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence. And, domestic violence, to a larger degree, is a result of substance abuse and mental health issues. So, when you look at what’s the core of why you have child deaths, why you have child abuse, and why you wind up with children in the child welfare system, ground zero is substance abuse and mental health issues,” Harrell continued.

And, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll says that was one of his priorities moving forward, and he intends to revive the issue again next year.

“We made a big push—and I think on both sides of the House—you saw a big push around reforming how we go about substance abuse and mental health treatment,” said Carroll. “And, we were very surprised, quite frankly, because it came so quickly. We thought it would be a two year process. And, so we hope to get something really meaningful out of the next legislative session.”

In addition to mental health and substance abuse reform, Harrell and Sobel have vowed to bring back a controversial measure requiring after school program employees and volunteers to undergo Level Two background screenings.

Meanwhile, another measure related to helping kids is enhancing Florida’s Child Protection teams has not yet been presented to the Governor. That along with the child welfare ‘cleanup’ bill take effect July 1st.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.