House Panel Advances Bill Revamping DCF, Says There's More Work To Do

Mar 25, 2014

Credit MGN Online

A bill aimed at making sure more kids don’t die from abuse or neglect under the care of the state’s foster care system is now advancing in the House. The latest plan to revamp the Florida Department of Children and Families builds on a recent investigative series by the Miami Herald.

A series of Miami Herald articles last year looking at a spate of child deaths prompted the Florida Legislature to look into overhauling the state’s child welfare system. More recently, the newspaper published an investigative series called “Innocents Lost” that took a closer look at more than 400 deaths that happened under DCF’s watch.

And, Stuart Republican Representative Gayle Harrell says something has to be done. As the House Healthy Families Subcommittee Chair, she’s leading her chamber’s search for solutions.

“And, we’re also looking further at child safety issues. And, given what has been highlighted in the Miami Herald articles, we’re reviewing to make sure that our bill is really going to be effective in addressing these issues,” said Harrell.

Her bill—very similar to the Senate’s—rolls three proposals into one large House bill.

Like its Senate companions, it allows for the Assistant DCF Secretary to take charge of other areas, so it doesn’t all fall on the DCF Chief’s shoulders. It also places emphasis on the qualifications newly hired Child Protective Investigators must have to do their job. That includes a degree in social work or a human-services related-field. It also creates a new Institute that will report back to the Legislature on the effectiveness of the new training and education requirements. Harrell says other provisions are devoted to transparency efforts.

“In the long run, transparency is what’s going to improve the system. We want to make sure that all child deaths that come through our hotline as a result of abuse are reported appropriately so that we know who they are, you know who they are, and the public is watching. So, that website will be important. We’re also making sure the public knows how we’re evaluating CBCs and that’s on a website,” added Harrell.

The CBCs, or the Community Based Care organizations, that work with DCF will also have to put their budgets online. And, per a Reuters probe, it hopes to take care of the issue of “private re-homing.” Those are the cases in which adoptive parents who no longer wish to care for a child use online groups to find a new home for the kid.

It also makes sure that siblings stay together, and if they can’t, have every opportunity to communicate with one another—a huge priority to Thomas Fair, who represents foster care advocacy group, Florida Youth Shine. As a former foster kid, he says he knows firsthand what it feels like to be separated from a sibling: his own twin brother.

“You know, there wasn’t a lot of people I could depend on, but I knew for a fact that I could always depend on him. And, when we separated, we only spoke for about five times on the phone. A lot of the times I didn’t know where he was because he was going on all around the U.S. And, when he was here and we got reunited, it was honestly one of the happiest days of my life. The off part of that was that we were never really the same,” said Fair.

Fair says he’d also like the panel to consider allowing foster youth to keep in contact when foster siblings go to live in separate foster homes.

“I can’t tell you how many times when a young man moves away, I want to try and stay in contact with them, and they can’t tell me because of confidentiality violations. And, how can that happen whenever for some people they don’t have any brothers or sisters, whatsoever, and I’m the only person in their life, can that kind of thing happen,” asked Fair.

Others, like Steven Murphy who serves on the Child Protection Transformation Advisory Board, say while he likes the direction the bill is heading, he’d wants the panel to consider a reform that’s done very well in Illinois, which once had a troubled child welfare system like Florida.

“A major turning point for Illinois was the fact that they were the first public child welfare agency in the U.S. to become credentialed and certified by an outside body. So, I think you may want to take a look at the fact that we need to have or explore the idea of utilizing an outside body, like COA or another body like that to look to credential our own DCF.”

The 119-page bill also has the support of many members on the panel, including West Park Democratic Representative Shevrin Jones.

“I know Brian Pitts says if the bill is long, you know something’s wrong. But, I beg to differ on this one here," said Jones to some laughter. "I think we’ve actually put together a good product!”

Still, Estero Republican Representative Ray Rodrigues says he wishes lawmakers on the panel had more time to work on the proposal a bit more.

“I think this is an excellent start. I wish we had another week to continue working on it, but I recognize this is our last meeting. And, for that, I will be supporting the bill because this is a good bill and I know we will continue to work on it as it goes through the process, and if it doesn’t do what  we intend for it do, we will be back next year, Lord willing. And, we will continue this work,” said Rodrigues.

The House Healthy Families Subcommittee unanimously agreed to advance the proposal and make it into a committee bill. Meanwhile, a series of reforms similar to the House’s proposal recently passed a first Senate panel. But, after the Miami Herald’s investigative series, Hollywood Democratic Senator Eleanor Sobel, who chairs the Senate Children Families and Elder Affairs Committee, says she’s going to rewrite the proposals.

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