Mental Health-Substance Abuse Issues In Fla. Child Welfare System To Be Priority In 2016

Sep 11, 2015

Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) speaking Thursday during the annual Child Protection Summit.
Credit Florida Channel

The head of Florida’s child welfare agency as well as some state lawmakers are renewing a push towards mental health and substance abuse reform in connection with protecting kids in the state’s care.

Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll says his agency’s mission is a sacred one of protecting children, adding it’s much more than just preventing child fatalities or child abuse.

“We just don’t protect children from physical abuse,” said Carroll. “We protect the whole child. And, it’s important we protect the whole child because this is the next generation of Floridians, the next generation of Americans. It means a lot more than meeting basic, given expectations.”

At the 18th annual Child Protection Summit in Orlando, Carroll also said while his agency has made progress, there’s still more work to do. He says that includes reducing the number of child fatalities in Florida. More than 85 percent of the child deaths called into the state abuse hotline involve kids under the age of 3.

“The leading cause of death for children 0 to 1—those are our babies—is unsafe sleep or unsafe sleep-related deaths. The leading cause of death for children ages 1 and 2 is drowning,” added Carroll.

And, Carroll says most are unintentional.

“Those aren’t inflicted child deaths,” he continued. “They weren’t intentional. But, almost every one of them is inherently preventable. And, most of them are related to marginal parent oversight. You might have a parent who doesn’t know how to be a parent. You might have a parent with a mental health issue. You might have a parent with a substance abuse issue that contributed to the circumstances that led to that child’s death. But, there are too many kids in our state that died because of that.”

Carroll says if a child in Florida can stay alive until the age of three, their chances of survival go up considerably.

Child deaths have been a big focus for the state, after a spate of child abuse deaths occurred under the state’s supervision in recent years.

Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) worked with Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) over the years to focus on revamping Florida’s child welfare system. Both chair legislative committees in the House and Senate dealing with children issues.

“As we were dealing with out child legislation in SB 1666, it became more evident that probably the three key factors that affect child abuse have to deal with mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and domestic violence. And, domestic violence is all related—to a large part, probably 80 percent—to mental health and substance abuse. So, when you get down to the core issue, we need to as a child welfare system to look at integration within our system, and bringing in our partners within our substance abuse and mental health issues,” said Harrell.

A proposal delving into mental health and substance abuse issues did not pass amid the budget impasse between the House and Senate, during this past legislative session. But Harrell says in the coming year, mental health and substance abuse will again be a priority.

“And, you see it in the headlines, each and every day,” added Harrell. “You see a child being thrown off the bridge, you see parents struggling with addiction, you see children suffering because of the difficulties, the struggles, the problems that the parents are happening, and who suffers? The children. So, I think this next year, we’re going to continue our hard work, and we’re going to hopefully come back next session with an even better bill.”

Meanwhile, both Harrell and Carroll say they’re also encouraged by the Governor’s recent Executive Order. It builds on a collaborative effort among state agencies who offer mental health services in Florida, which includes DCF.

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