TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) —  After a series of child deaths, the Florida Department of Children and Families faces a potentially groundbreaking legislative session, according to Senate President Don Gaetz.

Meeting with reporters Thursday, Gaetz said he was “encouraged by what I’m hearing at DCF” after a tumultuous period when at least 20 Florida children already known to the department died of abuse or neglect — including a Jacksonville girl who authorities say was raped and murdered by a just-released sex offender in June.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, said a bipartisan group of senators would file a legislative package before Christmas to overhaul laws governing the treatment of sexually violent predators, a program housed at DCF.

“We need to make a broad range of changes,” he said, including other forms of child protection.

Senators are expected to file four bills cracking down on sexually violent predators next week, including proposals for longer sentences, broader charges, tighter community control and expanded monitoring by law enforcement. They’ll also push for changes in DCF’s oversight of the Sexually Violent Predator Program.

“This issue is very personal and very raw for the people I represent in Jacksonville,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and chairman of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

Bradley cited the deaths of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in June and 7-year-old Somer Thompson, who disappeared in Jacksonville in 2009 while walking home from school. After an extensive search, Thompson’s body was found in a South Georgia landfill, and last year a 26-year man was sentenced to life in prison for her death.

A registered sex offender, Donald Smith, will be tried in May in the kidnapping, rape and murder of Perrywinkle. Smith, 57, had made repeated failed attempts to kidnap young girls — even posing as a DCF worker at one point, authorities say. Under the Senate proposal, he would not have been released last May given his previous crimes.

In legislative hearings earlier this fall, Duval County Sheriff John Rutherford said his deputies interviewed Smith on his doorstep the morning of the day he abducted Perrywinkle, but had no right to search the house. Under the Senate proposal, they would have.

“We’re going to be tackling a lot,” Bradley said. “I can’t think of anything that’s more important that the government does than protect its most vulnerable citizens.”

The Senate will also move to protect abused and neglected children in the state’s child welfare system, Gaetz said. He said he wants to make it harder for Florida to repeat yet another cycle of child deaths and administrative fixes.

“DCF left to its own devices has lurched between crisis, trouble, solutions, crisis, trouble, solutions, whether Democrats have been in charge or Republicans have been in charge,” Gaetz said. “And so I don’t think we can rely upon who’s in charge, because I think we need to make some changes in statute.”

He said protecting vulnerable children should not depend on the “administrator du jour” at DCF, which has had seven secretaries, counting current Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, since 1999.

And it will have another in a matter of months. On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott announced that Jacobo would stay until the end of the spring legislative session and that he is soliciting input on the next permanent secretary.

Under Jacobo, who was tapped in July when former secretary David Wilkins stepped down, DCF has been working with lawmakers to plug holes in the state’s child-welfare system and develop proposals for the session.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, agreed that DCF “has been in crisis for a very long time. We have to have something in law to protect the kids no matter who the secretary is.”

For instance, Sobel said, her committee is looking to require DCF to add protections for the most vulnerable children.

“Kids under (age) 4 need to be protected because they don’t have verbal skills,” said Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat.

But she stopped short of specifics, saying she expected her committee to file legislation in January or February.

The House, meanwhile, is well under way with a legislative package addressing sexually violent predators and a series of hearings on the child deaths.

Both Gaetz and Bradley say they expect to work closely with House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, on DCF-related bills.

“The speaker is concerned about the recent deaths and stands ready to act,” Weatherford spokesman Ryan Duffy said in an email. “In response, he has asked Chair (Gayle) Harrell and the Healthy Families Subcommittee to begin looking at ways to improve Florida’s child advocacy services and better protect our children…. [W]e expect to have legislation and funding issues proposed in the upcoming session.”

“The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.”



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