How Did Florida Kids Fare During Recent Session? Agency Leaders Give Mixed Reviews

May 6, 2016

Credit flgov.com

How did children-related issues fare during this past legislative session? While some Florida agency heads say it was a good one, others call it a mixed bag.

Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly says she’s proud of several bills, including one expunging certain juvenile records to DMVs providing no cost ID cards for juveniles transitioning back into the community.

But, Daly says she’s especially glad a long running juvenile detention costs dispute between the state and the counties got resolved.

“We had a great year,” she said. “I would say probably one of our biggest accomplishments was getting the detention cost share bill finally passed. This has been a decade of lawsuits. This is in relation to how secure detention is paid for in Florida. So, we worked very closely the [Florida] Association of Counties and with Senator and Representative Latvalas to get this done. And, basically, beginning in 2017-2018, we will be at a 50-50 even split for detention costs in Florida.”

Daly also noted that all the counties that sued her agency have committed to dropping those lawsuits.

“So, this was a huge feat. And, I think that it’s something the department is very proud of and certainly, I know the Florida Association of Counties and the counties across the state,” she added. “This is really going to allow us to start looking at how can we do things differently and looking a true alternatives to secure detention and working very collaboratively with the counties.”

And, that earned high praise from her predecessor Wansley Walters. She also chairs the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet, where a number of agency heads recently gave their review of this past legislative session.

“And, congratulations on the detention cost share—something that I had personally given up on any hope of it ever being resolved and I’m just so proud of the work that you did,” Walters said.

Tanya Cooper with the Florida Department of Education says Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature prioritized funding for Florida students.

“A historic total of $20.2 billion in funding for K-12 public schools, which includes $11.3 billion in state funding, which is the highest amount ever, and also reinvested $80 million in our digital learning, which is really good, knowing that we’re relying on technology and giving us the data that we need,” she said.

Cooper says she was also happy about the legislation that passed, including a bill aimed at assisting the department in investigating educator misconduct and another requiring schools to update their anti-bullying policies. There’s also the omnibus education bill, and Cooper says one thing it focused on is poor performing charter schools.

“Basically, immediately closing charter schools that receive two grades of ‘F’ to make sure that we’re getting those students in the schools that can provide better education for them,” she added. “Right now, there’s a 90-day waiting period that once a school gets the second F, they have 90 days to close and that was happening in the middle of the school year, which was basically interrupting a student’s education and having to get them into a different school. So, now when school grades come out, they get the immediate F, then they’re having to close and that happens in the Summer.”

But, some agencies didn’t get all that they wanted.

“It was a bit of a mixed bag,” said Rodney MacKinnon, Director of the Office of Early Learning. “Oh, we had some victories and some wild cards, too.”

MacKinnon says he’s happy legislation passed extending the eligibility for school readiness programs and Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Programs. But, he says while school readiness got funded, there was not an increase in VPK funding*—despite the Governor’s recommendation.

“And, I hope we can get something done this coming session,” he added. “It really needs to be addressed.”

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll says he received more funding to help with child investigators’ caseloads as well as more incentives for state employees to adopt a child.

But, he says he’s particularly proud of a measure that did pass: an adoption intervention bill aimed at making sure adoptions were taking place in the interest of the child.

“And, sometimes that wasn’t happening,” said Carroll. “So, you had, in these horrifying examples, where you would have a dad who would kill Mom, and then it would be Dad who would determine who got to adopt a child, as he was walking off to prison for the rest of his life. But, there were other less horrifying, but equally traumatic examples for kids because we gave no thought to the child’s interest and all the thought to the parents’ rights. And, so, this statute kind of balances that and allows a judge to take into consideration what really is in the best interest of a child.”

That same bill was also championed by Guardian ad Litem Executive Director Alan Abramowitz.

“Other aspects of that bill that wasn’t discussed is the way the law is written, the transition is immediate if you did do an intervention,” he said. “Now, there’s a transition plan so the child could work their way if they had to go to another home. That was huge!”  

Other children-related issues fell under the Florida Department of Health, the Agency for Health Care Administration, and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. They include more help for kids with developmental disabilities as well as eliminating the five year waiting period for children of legal immigrants eligible for Florida’s KidCare program.

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

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Editor's Note: A previous version of this story said there was no VPK funding. It now reflects that there was not an increase in VPK funding.