The Florida Senate has now put together several proposals aimed at overhauling Florida’s child welfare agency. The goal is to address the spate of child deaths taking place under the watch of the Florida Department of Children and Families.
The bill makes several changes to DCF. They include creating a criminal offense for abandoning a child, seeking to improve child abuse investigators’ qualifications and making sure most new employees hired after January 1st of next year hold a degree in social work.
Hollywood Democratic Senator Eleanor Sobel, the bill's main author, says they’re common sense changes.
“Child abuse is primarily a social problem. We send a firefighter to fight fires. We need to send a social worker to do social work,” said Sobel.
The bill also directs the DCF Secretary to appoint an Assistant Secretary of Child Welfare, who would manage child protection and welfare services. That person’s qualifications are also outlined. Venice Republican Senator Nancy Detert offered an amendment that states the person must either have a social work background or at least seven years of experience in child welfare services.
“The fact that we’re going to call for the social worker degrees excludes many qualified candidates, including the current Assistant Secretary, who under this bill would not qualify for his own job,” said Detert.
Lawmakers also approved a change from Miami Republican Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla putting in place certification requirements for all child welfare workers. That would include the newly hired social workers under the bill. Sobel appeared resistant to the idea at first, but Diaz de la Portilla later swayed her.
“It’s an additional level of training and protection. You get a social work degree today—it’s a good idea that every year you continue to grow your knowledge base that every year you have to re-certify that you’re adhering to a code of ethics. It allows you something that you can pull in case someone who can be very well-qualified and well-intentioned today, somewhere down the line can’t meet certification requirements because of the conduct she or he chose to engage in,” said Diaz de la Portilla.
There’s also another bill that seeks to make sure non-relatives can be compensated for taking in foster kids. Currently, that’s only done for relatives. The bill also directs DCF to make sure siblings are kept together when they go into the state’s foster care system. Miranda Phillips, a former foster kid and a member of foster care advocacy group Florida Youth Shine, says it would have helped her.
“I came into foster care when I was 12. My brother was nine. I aged out at 18. Me and my brother were separated shortly after being put into care. I went to an all-girls group home. He went to a foster home. In the beginning, we had visits, but they started to get cancelled or rescheduled. We had one birthday together and no holidays. So, me and my brother’s relationship started to fade because of lack of communication,” said Phillips.
It also directs the department to conduct a probe immediately following any child deaths to make sure the units—known as critical incident rapid response teams—identify the root cause and determine if a policy change is needed.
The Senate panel is still looking into concerns about community based care agencies, or CBCs, that work with DCF to help provide child welfare services. The measure creates a group made up of community volunteers that will make recommendations to the CBCs. Retired Ocala physician Mike Jordan called that intrusive. His group, the Marion County Children Alliance, works closely with CBCs.
“We’ve really just introducing another layer of oversight. We have DCF, which is the governmental layer, which is responsible at least indirectly to you all. And, we also have the community board of our CBC, Kids Central. And, I can tell you these are community leaders. These are people that want to be on the board. I see this level that you are suggesting as being intrusive frankly,” said Jordan.
In addition to those bills, the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee unanimously agreed to move another bill forward that directs DCF to work with the state health department and the Agency for Health Care Administration to provide care for children who need persistent medical attention.
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