Florida's Children First

Child welfare reform advances-Senate and House are close on a measure

Until the last minute, members of the Florida Senate amended their child-welfare reform measure and then, by a vote of 37-0, sent it to the House — its last legislative hurdle before going to Gov. Rick Scott.

The House version (HB 7169) was unanimously approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

The two chambers are ever closer on policy details, and on Tuesday they quickly agreed on funding — an additional $47 million for child protection in the budget year that begins July 1.

But on Friday, the policy was still being ironed out on the Senate floor. Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Nancy Detert, the Venice Republican known for championing young adults aging out of foster care, proposed a series of amendments.

One stipulated that a safety plan for at-risk children can’t rely on parental promises to stop drinking or allowing abusive boyfriends in the home. Another provision requires the privatized community-based care agencies, which oversee adoption, foster care and other services, to post their top executives’ salaries on their websites.

Detert also offered an amendment tweaking perhaps her top priority: stipends for nonrelative caregivers, the neighbors and teachers and friends who take in abused and neglected children but who aren’t blood relatives and don’t qualify for financial support.

The bill had already added these foster families to those eligible for small stipends. But Detert discovered that the foster children of nonrelative caregivers wouldn’t qualify for the same help with higher education as other foster kids.

The legislative scrutiny had been under way for months, following media reports of a wave of child deaths from abuse and neglect. Wider legislative efforts ramped up as it became clear that many of the victims had already been known to the Department of Children and Families.

Overall, both chambers’ bills require more transparency from DCF about child deaths and more accountability from the lead community-based care agencies. Both would use tuition waivers and loan forgiveness programs to help front-line staff get their social-work degrees.

The bills would create rapid-response teams to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths, establish the Florida Institute for Child Welfare to conduct policy research and create the position of assistant secretary for child welfare at DCF. Both would keep siblings together and medically fragile children in their communities whenever possible.

The issue of keeping siblings together is deeply important to the advocates for youth who lobby lawmakers about improving the child welfare system.

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