The Legislature passed a sweeping bill aimed at overhauling the child welfare system Friday and is planning to devote tens of millions of dollars to hiring new investigators under a separate budget request after hundreds of child-abuse related deaths in the past five years.
The most significant change to the bi-partisan bill, which unanimously passed the House 117-0, clearly states that protecting a child from abuse is paramount and more important than keeping a family together. That's a significant shift for the Department of Children and Families, which has placed a premium on putting fewer children in foster care and, instead, offering family services while the child remains at home.
Experts say there are gaps in those services and lax enforcement, usually nothing more than a verbal agreement from a parent to stay away from an abusive spouse, attend parenting classes or to quit drugs. The bill also defines that safety plans can no longer rely on verbal promises from parents.
Lawmakers are expected to approve a budget later Friday, dedicating $47 million to child safety, including hiring nearly 200 new investigators to try to lessen caseloads per worker. Gov. Rick Scott wanted to hire about 400 investigators.
There's also $5 million for at-risk families with young children who need substance abuse treatment after advocates complained that lawmakers had overlooked funding to treat mental health and substance abuse problems that are at the root of most child deaths.
Another $8 million will go to sheriff's offices handling abuse cases. Roughly $10 million is slated for DCF's foster care contractors for services including hiring more caseworkers to deal with the influx of new foster children.
A scathing series from The Miami Herald recently highlighted the deaths of 477 children involved with the department in the past five years. And a report released last fall reviewing 40 child deaths revealed that welfare authorities overlooked danger signs such as parental drug abuse or domestic violence. Most children who died were younger than 5 and many of the deaths involved substance abuse.
"We cannot allow this to happen. This is unconscionable. We have got to change our system in Florida and this is what we are doing in this bill," said Republican Rep. Gayle Harrell who worked with Democratic Sen. Eleanor Sobel on the measure.
The bill also addresses everything from keeping siblings together in foster homes whenever possible to requiring DCF to post child death information on its website in an effort to improve transparency and placing a preference on putting children in foster homes instead of group homes and institutions. It also seeks to professionalize the workforce and hire investigators with social work backgrounds.