BOTH HOUSES TAKE ON CHILD WELFARE OVERHAUL THIS WEEK
Following media coverage that potentially hundreds of children had suffered senseless and seemingly preventable deaths while under the watch of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), reforming the child welfare system has become one of the top priorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Since interim committee meetings began last fall, members (in both policy and budget committees) have heard from state agencies, Community-Based Care (CBC) agencies, national experts, the Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability (OPPAGA), and other stakeholders to get a better understanding of the shortcomings of the system, and what potential solutions may exist. All of the debates and workshops culminated this week when committees tasked with leading child welfare reform efforts introduced comprehensive proposed legislation in both houses.
Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee
At the beginning of the meeting on Tuesday, March 11, Chair Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) assured stakeholders there would be an open dialogue as they continue to build on the framework developed by the Committee. Stakeholder and member input will eventually culminate in a “strike all amendment” that will incorporate everyone’s suggested changes. The committee introduced three bills that addressed a wide range of topics, each of which is detailed and discussed individually below.
The bill exempts those with social work degrees from certification, but requires certification for those without. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R-Miami) asked that all workers should get certified for “an additional level of training and protection,” continuing education and following a code of ethics.
Sen. Thad Altman (R-Melbourne) and Sen. Nancy Detert (R-Venice) stated that they would rather hold off on passing the bill to allow the committee to amend it further, but Chair Sobel explained that the bill could get amended at future committee stops.
Sen. Detert also expressed reservations over the social work requirement, mentioning that the Assistant Secretary would not qualify for his own job, despite having a Ph.D. and law degree. She offered an amendment that would allow the Assistant Secretary to have a degree in social work or seven years of relevant experience. She added that she believed that it should be applied to all child welfare employees as well.
Sen. Alan Hays (R-Umatilla) expressed a concern that expanding the powers of the Community Alliances would create too many layers of bureaucracy (CBC boards, DCF, etc.). Mike Jordan, Executive Director of Marion County Children’s Alliance and local CBC (Kids Central) board member, agreed and also discussed the complications that arise from the fact that this CBC has five counties in its jurisdiction. Mr. Jordan stated that the Marion Children’s Alliance has mostly moved onto other things since its creation. He expressed frustration on board appointments by administrators in Tallahassee, who are sometimes unfamiliar with child welfare. He said his impression was that most Alliances are not very strong. Miranda Phillips from Florida Youth Shine testified on her struggles in the foster care system, including being separated from her sibling and the financial challenges of staying with a non-relative caregiver.
House Healthy Families Subcommittee
Following the release of the Senate’s package of child welfare bills, on Wednesday, March 12, the House of Representatives unveiled a single, comprehensive companion bill that contained many similar provisions.
PCB HFS 14-03 “Child Protection and Child Welfare Services” by Healthy Families
Discussion and Testimony
Rep. Kathleen Peters (R-St. Petersburg) stated that judges had told her that sheriffs made for the best child investigators. She did not believe that there was enough evidence for requiring social work degrees, and that those provisions went too far. Chair Harrell stated that the House bill was less rigorous than the Senate version by allowing additional training and certification within three years and with possible tuition reimbursement.
Chair Harrell emphasized that Community Alliances were not there to govern CBCs, but to inform the public and make recommendations.
Rep. Lori Berman (D-Boynton Beach) expressed concern that the bill did not do enough to address CPI burnout.
Regarding the section on Consultation for Medically Complex Children, Dr. Randell Alexander from the University of Florida Department of Pediatrics testified that pediatricians and child protection teams are already trained to treat these children and medical neglect issues.
Debra Dowd of the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council asked members to ensure that Medically Complex Children would receive a plan that would get them a permanent home. A similar strategy in Texas reduced the number of these children in nursing homes from 200 to 60.
DCF Deputy Secretary Pete Digre commended the committee on including safety plan language, which states that a CPI can no longer close a case where a child has a safety plan without handing it off to case management. He also backed professionalization of the workforce, and accompanying provisions for tuition assistance and loan forgiveness. He mentioned a process started by DCF called Rapid Safety Feedback that looks at families with children under 4 and intercepts problems before they occur. Finally, Mr. Digre supported the bill’s focus on cause analysis and making sure law enforcement and children’s advocates are part of child protection teams.
PCB HFS 14-02 “Human Trafficking” by Healthy Families
In addition to introducing a bill to reform the child welfare system, the Healthy Families Subcommittee, also debuted a bill that will provide comprehensive services for children trapped in the illicit sex trade. Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has been extremely active on this issue, was in attendance to introduce the bill. Some of the provisions of the proposed committee bill include:
During the discussion of the bill, Rep. Sharon Pritchett (D-Miramar) wanted to ensure that children who needed court services on weekends, when courts often have skeleton crews working, would have access to needed services.
Regarding the secure detention facility pilot program, Rep. Lori Berman (D-Boynton Beach) expressed concerns that locking up children, who were already victims of sex trafficking, in a secure facility might further victimize them. Chair Harrell assured the committee that the facility would be quite welcoming and “a place of healing.”
HB 989 by Rep. Carlos Trujillo (R-Doral) was passed unanimously by the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Monday, March 10. The bill will makes many changes with regards to human trafficking:
Its companion, SB 768 by Sen. Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens), is still awaiting its first hearing in the Criminal Justice Committee.
Sexually Exploited Children
HB 1071 by Rep. Erik Fresen (R-Miami) specifies and makes provisions for when a child believed to be commercially exploited may be taken into custody, requires reassessment of children who run away, and specifies that safe harbor provisions apply to children who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation, among other things. It is still waiting to be heard by the House Healthy Families Subcommittee.
Motor Vehicle Insurance and Driver Education for Children in Care
SB 744 by Sen. Nancy Detert (R-Venice) passed its second committee, Senate Transportation, on Thursday, March 13. It will now go to the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee. The bill would establish a statewide pilot program to pay for the costs of driver education, licensure, and the costs incidental to licensure, as well as motor vehicle insurance for a child in licensed out-of-home care. Its companion, HB 977 by Rep. Ben Albritton (R-Bartow) is still in its first committee, the House Healthy Families Subcommittee.
Early Learning Bill Assigned to House Education Appropriations, Senate to Hold Early Learning Workshop
Drafted over the course of many interim committee meetings, HB 7069 by Chair Marlene O’Toole (R-The Villages) and the House Education Committee will address early learning health and safety standards, licensing, and more. The bill has now been assigned to Rep. Erik Fresen’s (R-Miami) Education Appropriations Subcommittee, its only committee of reference. Some notable components of the bill include the following:
Though the House bill does not currently have a corresponding bill in the Senate, Sen. John Legg’s (R-Lutz) Education Committee will hold an early learning workshop on Tuesday, March 18, at 8 a.m.
Licensing of Facilities that Offer Health and Human Services
SB 394 by Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) will be heard on Monday, March 17, in the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee. The bill makes the following changes to the regulations of family day care homes, child care facilities, and large family child care homes:
The bill’s companion, HB 303 by Rep. Lori Berman (D-Boynton Beach), was passed by the Healthy Families Subcommittee on Wednesday, March 5, and is currently in Health Care Appropriations.
Newborn Health Screening
SB 722 by Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah) was passed unanimously by its first committee, Senate Health Policy, on Tuesday, March 11. It will now go to the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee. The bill will allow the State Public Health Laboratory to release the results of a newborn’s hearing and metabolic tests or screenings to the newborn’s health care practitioner, a term which is expanded to include a physician or physician assistant, osteopathic physician or physician assistant, advanced registered nurse practitioner, registered nurse, licensed practical nurse, midwife, speech-language pathologist or audiologist, or a dietician or nutritionist. Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach) added an amendment that would require physicians who diagnose a child as deaf or hard at hearing to ask parents if they would like more information regarding American Sign Language and other resources.
Its companion, HB 591 by Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Port St. Lucie), passed unanimously out of the House Health Quality Subcommittee on February 18, but is still waiting to be heard by the House Health and Human Services Committee, the bill’s final committee assignment.
Florida KidCare Program
HB 7 by Rep. Jose Felix Diaz (R-Miami) would allow children of legal immigrants, who have lived in the United States less than five years, to be eligible for KidCare. The bill still awaits a hearing in the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee after being passed unanimously on February 11 by the House Health Innovation Subcommittee. Its companion, SB 282 by Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah), has been referred to the Senate Health Policy Subcommittee, but has not been heard yet. Agency staff estimated that these bills would extend health coverage to a total of 25,555 children, if enacted.
For proponents of the bills, it is timely to thank the sponsors for supporting children, contact your members to ask them to co-sponsor the bills, and also contact leadership of the committees noted to help get the bills heard.
Juvenile Justice Education Programs
HB 173 by Rep. Janet Adkins (R-Fernandina Beach) was passed unanimously by the full House on Wednesday, March 12. The bill would enhance transition services by requiring that local school districts, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice reentry personnel and local workforce personnel be part of a youth’s transition planning. It would also require that school districts consider the needs of individual youth when they return to school, and enhance career and technical training. This bill seeks to improve accountability, enhance access to virtual education, and require state and federal education dollars to follow the youth who generate them. Its companion, SB 598 by Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach), was passed unanimously by the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, March 11. It is now in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
SB 384 by Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) was passed on a 14:3 vote by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, March 13. The bill will now go to the floor. According to the staff analysis, the bill would conform “Florida law to recent United States Supreme Court decisions involving the sentencing of juvenile offenders. The bill provides that any offender who is convicted of murder that was committed before he or she was 18 years old may be sentenced to life imprisonment only after a mandatory hearing at which the judge considers certain factors relative to the offender’s age and attendant circumstances. For capital offenses, the judge must impose a minimum sentence of at least 35 years if life imprisonment is not appropriate. The bill also provides for a judicial hearing to review any sentence of more than 25 years, including a life sentence that is imposed for a non-homicide offense committed when the offender was less than 18 years old.”
Its House companion, HB 7035 by Rep. J.W. Grant (R-Tampa) and Criminal Justice, passed its first stop in the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday, March 11, on an 11:2 vote. The bill is now in its last committee, House Judiciary.
OTHER BILLS AFFECTING CHILDREN
Resident Status for Tuition Purposes
HB 851 by Rep. Jeanette Nunez (R-Miami) passed out of House Appropriations, its final committee on Thursday, March 13. The bill, which has garnered the strong support of House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel), would allow undocumented students to receive in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. Its companion, SB 1400 by Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater), will be heard by its first committee, Senate Education, on Tuesday. March 18. Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) recently expressed some reservations about the proposal.
Child Safety Devices in Motor Vehicles
A bill that would revise booster seat requirements for children has passed its second committee. SB 518 by Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) was approved on an 8:1 vote on Wednesday, March 12, by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development. The bill proposes to require an approved child restraint device for all children less than 7 years of age, if the child is less than 4 feet 9 inches in height. According to the staff analysis, only Florida and South Dakota still allow the use of adult seat belts without a booster seat for children less than 5 years of age. During the hearing, Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) wondered why non-relative children were exempt from the provisions of the bill. Sen. Flores responded that while she wished all otherwise eligible children would be required to use appropriate safety precautions, there were too many practical concerns to account for. The House companion, HB 225 by Rep. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville), has yet to be voted on by the House Transportation and Highway Safety Subcommittee. Sen. Thad Altman (R-Melbourne), the previous sponsor of this bill for the past several years, is also is sponsoring a similar bill, SB 454, that is currently awaiting a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee.
Lobbying of Special Districts
SB 846 by Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater), “Government Ethics” regulates those who lobby certain independent special districts by creating a statute that closely resembles the legislative lobbying provisions and the executive branch lobbying provisions, as well as those used by The Children’s Trust. The bill:
The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Committee on Appropriations on Thursday, March 13, and now goes to floor of the Senate. It does not currently have a House sponsor.