Committee OKs Summer Camp Background Checks, Infant-Death-Investigation Overhaul

Mar 12, 2013

A number of bills aimed at limiting harm to children passed a Senate committee on Tuesday. The proposals include one to keep sex offenders out of summer camps and a controversial change to the way the state investigates infant deaths.

Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) said, a couple of years ago, he read some disturbing stories in the Palm Beach Post about who’s working in Florida summer camps. He says there are hundreds of cases like this one:

“Mark Kuzara liked to cut himself. He once got angry and crashed a U-Haul through a Sumpter county jail. And after a prison stint, he signed on in Lakeland as a YMCA counselor for 8-year-olds. A month later, he stabbed to death a 15-year-old girl.”

Unlike the background checks required for public school employees, Florida law doesn’t require similar screening for employees of camps.

“Basically we’ve been dealing with the issue of sexual predators and pedophiles in summer camps,” Clemens said.

He’s proposing to make people register with the state before applying to work at camps and that camp owners must be licensed and vetted. The measure comes at a projected cost of $2 million to the state, but Clemens said, he’s confident it will be a priority for the Department of Children and Families.

The bill passed the Senate committee, despite concerns from a Boys & Girls Clubs spokesman. He said it could have “grave unintended consequences” but did not elaborate. The bill is sponsored in the House by Rep. Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach).

Another bill getting the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee’s support would overhaul the way infant deaths are investigated. Sponsor Sen. Alan Hays (R-Umatilla) said, it’s meant to give parents better answers.

“As a father, I cannot imagine such a heartache. As a grandfather, I cannot imagine such a heartache,” Hays said. “And my sole purpose for bringing this bill is to try to do everything we can to get a definitive diagnosis and to support our medical examiners and our first responders as they seek to give us that definitive diagnosis.”

Hays proposes involving child protective teams in the investigation right from the start. First responders would be trained to look for causes of preventable death, including child abuse or neglect. That change has some parents of deceased infants up in arms, saying it would treat families more like criminals than victims.

Judy Lanham, with the Florida SIDS Alliance, said, “I did not abuse, I did not neglect and I did not kill my child. I am only guilty of loving my child.”

The group, made up of parents who lost children to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, is opposing the bill. Bunny Hamer, with the alliance, said, for one thing, the group opposes extending the time medical examiners have to complete the first autopsy, up from the current 24 hour period to 72 hours.

“I can’t imagine what would happen if I was told that I lost my grandson, who is now just a little over 3 weeks old, that I would have to wait more than 72 hours, or 72 hours, even to get that first examination of the body done,” Hamer said.

But Medical Examiner for Florida’s Fifth Circuit Barbara Wolf said, whether the autopsy is done within 24 or 72 hours, it’s only a very cursory glance that, most times, does not determine cause of death. She said, that only comes after much more investigation and toxicology reports.

“There is no way at an autopsy that I can determine a child who died of SIDS from a child who was suffocated,” she said.

Also winning the committee’s support was a bill that would terminate the parental rights of rapists. Senate sponsor Joseph Abruzzo (D-Wellignton) said, he’s been working on the measure with the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence because it’s estimated 5 percent of rapes result in conception.

“I don’t believe there’s anything more important that I’m doing this session than running this piece of legislation,” Abruzzo said.

And finally, a packed room full of people ready to testify on a bill that would legalize domestic partnerships will have to come back another day. Sponsor Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) temporarily postponed the hearing of her controversial measure.