Florida's child protection laws come under scrutiny

Tallahassee, FL – Two high profile child murders are spurring lawmakers to draft legislation that aims to protect Florida's children. As Sascha Cordner reports, those include the horrific cases of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona and two-year-old Caylee Anthony.

For this upcoming 2012 legislative Session, several lawmakers have already filed legislation that would put safeguards in place to protect Florida's children. Many of the bills came after the Casey Anthony trial, when a jury cleared Anthony of the charges of killing her daughter Caylee.

The case led to the creation of a Senate Committee on Protecting Florida's Children, under the leadership of Republican Senator Joe Negron of Stuart.

He says the committee's job is to make recommendations to the Florida Senate based on the panel's findings, NOT question the outcome of Casey Anthony's trial:

"I think regardless of that case. At all times, we should be doing everything we can to protect children. This committee is not about second guessing a verdict in a particular case. It's about continuing our goal. It should be ongoing to do the best we can to protect children. It may that that the law that we have are adequate. Or it may that we may need additional laws."

He says it's best if lawmakers don't get too emotional about the legislation, because it could lead to unintended consequences. But, he says there are clear cut examples of neglect of a child:

"If you have a five-year-old child and you go to Publix and the child's not with you? That's neglectful! It's a crime. And, I think when you're child is missing for days and weeks, it's unforgivable for a parent not to report it. So, we're going to look at it and see if we need to do anything."

If the Committee does draft legislation, its next committee stop would be the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Republican Senator Greg Evers of Baker is on both panels. Evers says the timeframe of when to report a child missing is an issue they want looked at:

"That's one of the reasons everyone's coming up with 4 hours, 6 hours, 8 hours, 24 hours because there is no span."

In Casey Anthony's case, she waited a month before telling her parents that her daughter Caylee was missing.

But, Caylee Anthony's case isn't the only tragic case lawmakers have talked about, there's also the abuse case of Nubia and Victor Barahona, where a 10-year-old girl was murdered, and her brother barely made it alive.

Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins was put in the hot seat, as he gave a report on what his agency has been doing since the Barahona tragedy. He went before the Senate Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs, which grilled him for close to an hour. And, Committee Chair, Republican Ronda Storms of Brandon, led the charge.

"How can you assure this committee, the state of Florida, and children that we're advocating. We say you're safe with us. We're taking you from an unsafe situation and you're safe with us?"

She later targeted the caseworker of Victor and Nubia Barahona, who didn't pick up on the abuse:

"I think you should be more direct to say this is a human failure! For humanity for this person! That's a human failure. I don't know how else to say it!"

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston says this case is reminiscent of case from 11 years ago, where a four-year-old girl who disappeared in 2000, but the Department of Children and Families only became aware of her absence two years later. Her caregiver was suspected of murdering her, and the case led to the resignation of the DCF chief at the time:

"I would just like to say after the Rilya Wilson case, one of the things that came out of it was that case managers had to see the child every 30 days. I mean, if you read this, the case manager was unable to see the children in the home. How long did the case manager go without seeing the child?"

Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Wilkins later agreed it was a human failure on the part of the case worker. But, he says the agency is moving forward at looking into what caseworkers go through on a normal basis. That will help determine what procedures need to be put in place:

"Part of the human responsibility is to understand everything that's happening in that child's life to make that decision. Those case managers have a very complicated job, and they have to have all the information to make that decision. And, when they are making that decision without all the information, then errors happen. So, that's the thing we're trying to deal with, with a lot of the improvement initiatives that we're putting in place."

Other committee suggestions came from Republican Senator Nancy Detert of Venice. She says Secretary Wilkins should look into giving psych evaluations to new hires. She adds the agency should take notice of the volunteer-youth mentoring organization, "Big Brothers, Big Sisters."

Detert: "I would hope that you would do psychological evaluations as you train people and hire them. I was in Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and I had to pass a psych test. You'd be surprised to hear I passed. I was surprised!"

Storms: "I wouldn't be surprised, but maybe your enemies would."

Detert: "And, even then, you'd be surprised they didn't assign me a kid within six-to-eight months."

Committee members also suggested: to protect Florida's children, the department might also look into giving the Child Protective Investigators a higher salary and having the caseworkers and investigators rotate in the agency to reduce getting burned out.

Overall, both Senate Committees' members say they will continue to look into Florida law and consider their options. That includes drafting legislation that will aim to reduce the amount of abuse and neglect cases happening in the custody of the child welfare system or under the supervision of a caregiver, like what happened in the case of Caylee Anthony and Nubia Barahona.