The Florida Legislature didn’t waste a moment during its first week when it came to addressing the opioid addiction crisis that is exploding across the state.
But Duval County in the state’s northeast corner has been particularly hard hit. Christine Meyer, the supervising attorney for the Guardian Ad Litem program there, is seeing the impact of the crisis on kids firsthand .
“Just today in Jacksonville there were 5 shelter hearings resulting in the removal of 8 children, all due to the parents’ substance abuse and that’s 5 cases today and it’s what we’re seeing every day in the courtroom over the last two decades that I’ve been doing this the numbers have become staggering.”
Meyer added the tragedy is expanding by both numbers and degree.
“We’re seeing increased neglect and domestic violence and physical abuse and abandonment and worse yet child deaths. At least 90 percent of the cases that are coming into the system have some component of child abuse.” That’s just in the Jacksonville area. Statewide Guardian Ad Litem Executive Director Alan Abramowitz said the number of kids being forced into foster care all over Florida is exploding.
“In 2017, we had 39,417 children enter the foster care system. That means they were abused, neglected or abandoned enough where the Department of Children and Families or in some communities the sheriff, had to remove the child so the child could be safe.”
The good news, remarked Abramowitz, is that state officials at the highest level seem now to have a profound appreciation for the situation and are responding.
“You’ve heard the governor talk about the opioid crisis and the $50+ million that is going to be dedicated to it and you also heard the Senate President (Negron) talk about a multi-system approach to this and the Guardian Ad Litem program is part of the solution with some of the bills we are championing to lawmakers.”
It helps that one of those lawmakers has a deep personal connection to the issue. Fort Lauderdale Democrat Patricia Williams is herself a foster mom and a Guardian Ad Litem volunteer. A situation that especially concerns her is how, because of a lack of foster homes, siblings from a single family often find themselves headed in different directions.
“When the kids are actually taken away and there’s not enough foster parents in that county where they are, they’re shipped across county lines. When they’re shipped across county lines, then you have families who are separated from each other.”
Williams is advancing three bills to try and make the stay in foster care shorter for kids affected by the crisis. One would make sure that incarcerated parents spend their jail time planning for what happens after they’re released.
“So if they don’t have a plan while they’re incarcerated, it makes it longer for the child to be in the system itself. That’s House Bill 281.”
Williams is also pushing a bill to encourage more lawyers to donate their services to such cases.
“And that helps the court system when they assign an attorney who’s willing to work on the case. They give them what they call pro bono and they’re willing to work the case without a fee, but then they don’t have to pull additional money out of their pocket to work a case to help a child.”
And a third measure would prioritize the permanent adoption of children whose parents are just too far gone.
“It speeds it up and gives them the opportunity to receive a prominent home to be adopted from out of the system itself,” Williams noted.
All of these, exclaimed Jacksonville’s Christine Meyer, would greatly mitigate the impact on actual kids.
“It is significant and amazing legislation and it’s a win for children across the state and for me as a child advocate, I am so excited and love knowing there will be more child-focused laws that we have that will help us in advocating for the best interest of these vulnerable children.”
Other measures under discussion in the legislature include further limiting the amount of opioid painkillers doctors can write a prescription for, along with more substance abuse programs in the community and county jails.