After a spate of child deaths in Florida, the Department of Children and Families is doubling down on child welfare reforms. Now state lawmakers are poised to pass a suite of bills to bolster that effort.
Reforms are still underway at the Department of Children and Families, and the state’s foster care and adoption systems are getting reworked as well. Now some state lawmakers want to shift the court’s priorities when placing children in those systems.
“Current law permits even a parent who has murdered a spouse, committed egregious acts against their children, or who wishes to punish a foster parent that has provided a caring home for their child for a lengthy period of time, to choose who their child will be placed with, because their parental rights have not been taken away yet,” she said.
That’s bill sponsor Senator Nancy Detert of Venice. Under Detert’s bill, judges would prioritize the interests of the child, even if it means overriding the parents’ wishes.
“This clears this up and at least it will call for a judge to make a ruling not for what’s in the best interest of a parent, but for what’s in the best interest of the child,” she said.
The bill has passed both chambers and now heads to the governor’s desk.
Detert is also building on a new law that expands foster care services for young adults.
“Over the past few years we’ve enacted some major changes to the child welfare system. One of the changes, the extension of foster care to the age of 21 has led to concerns about disparities in service delivery and placement options depending on where young adults live in the state,” she said.
Representatives Neil Combee of Auburndale and Gayle Harrell of Stuart are sponsoring a similar measure that passed the House Wednesday. Harrell says the bill is aimed at raising the standards for foster homes.
“It also requires a quality rating system, and I think this is the key component so we can upgrade the entire process and upgrade the facilities we have out there taking care of our children. It requires this quality rating system for both group homes and foster homes,” she said.
Representative Charles McBurney of Jacksonville wants stricter background checks for people working in child care. Under Florida law, sex offenders and people with certain felony convictions cannot work as child care providers. But McBurney says some can still slip through the cracks.
“Currently under Florida law, these crimes disqualify individuals from working as child care personnel. However, DCF is authorized to grant exemptions from disqualification under certain conditions, which would allow convicted murderers and arsonists to work in child care,” he said.
The measure would put a stop to those case by case exemptions. McBurney says a reporter first brought the issue to his attention.
“A child care worker was working in a child care facility and had battered a young toddler. And it turns out that that person had committed a similar offense before. And the reporter said, which none of us want to hear, did you know that? And my answer was no, but we’re going to do something about it,” he said.
And Wednesday, McBurney followed through when the House passed the bill unanimously. The Senate is expected to take up the measure Thursday.