An overhaul of Florida’s troubled child welfare agency is heading to the House floor after gaining approval from the chamber’s budget holders Monday. The proposal is a continuation of efforts by lawmakers to revamp the agency after a Miami Herald Investigation revealed more than three-dozen children who had previous contact with the department, died.
The House wants to crack down on illegal adoptions, up the education and professional standards for child abuse investigators and case managers, and increase transparency at the Florida Department of Children and Families. Hollywood Democratic Senator Eleanor Sobel is carrying the measure in her chamber. The House is pushing a plan by Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) who gave a reason why the bill has taken so long to come together:
“We work shopped this bill three different meetings, we had testimony from a variety of different people...so this is a very complex, comprehensive bill, and I’m going to take a few minutes to walk you through it, if you don’t mind.”
Lawmakers have been working on the bill for months, and Harrell presented her plan before the House Appropriations Committee Monday. The bill is similar to the proposal making its way through the Senate. For example, both chambers want to give investigators tuition reimbursements and loan forgiveness programs in the hopes of getting better qualified workers. Both plans want more investigators to have social work degrees. And, as Harrell points out—both chambers agree that when a child that has had previous contact with DCF dies, that information should be available right away.
“When you have a transparent system, and the community knows what’s going on, the system is held accountable. It does that by requiring basic information about child deaths reported through the Child Abuse hotline, be posted on a public website," she says.
During Monday’s hearing on the proposal several lawmakers peppered Harrell with questions about the committee, and there’s a concern from those in the field that the proposal doesn’t go far enough.
“I think we’re running out of time," says Mike Watkins with the Big Bend Community-Based Care organization. He worries the proposals may not have enough time to get through the legislature. CBC’s are non-profit groups which administer the state’s foster care system. Watkins is concerned there’s not enough emphasis on children under five, who are more likely to die from abuse and neglect than those who are older, and he wants a closer look into how the Department operates:
“I don’t think we go far enough in this bill to protect the lives of kids in the state of Florida. I specifically would ask you look at another solution, a broader solution going forward that would evaluate the scheme of DCF—what they’re good at, what they’re bad at, how they can best serve our people in the state of Florida.”
Groups like the Florida Coalition for Children, are backing the proposal, but are concerned there’s not enough money being put into the system to make the plans work. Representative Harrell admits the plan is incomplete and says she plans to work on it more during the next legislative session. The House approved its proposal, sending it to the chamber floor. The Senate version of the proposal is in its last committee stop and will be heard Tuesday.