TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – The Florida Legislature is poised to pass a landmark measure that would overhaul the state’s troubled child-welfare system, as the House and Senate versions of the proposal moved closer together Monday.

The House version (HB 7169) was unanimously approved by the House Appropriations Committee and is ready for a floor vote, while a revised Senate version (SB 1666) is expected to go Tuesday to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the bill’s last stop before the floor.

Both bills would require more transparency from the state Department of Children and Families about child deaths and require more accountability from the lead community-based care agencies, which oversee adoption, foster care and other services.

Both would require child-protective investigators to execute safety plans that focus on risks to children rather than relying on parents’ promises to stop drinking or allowing abusive boyfriends in the family homes.

Both 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.

But House sponsor Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, told members of the House Appropriations Committee that differences between the chambers remain.

“Their bill is different on various aspects,” Harrell said. “We are working at the staff level to come together. There may be some issues that will come to the floor, that will have to be changed on the floor.”

The legislation got its start last fall, following media reports about a wave of child deaths from abuse and neglect. The issue gained momentum as it became clear that many of the victims were already known to the state Department of Children and Families, which had failed to protect them.

Both Harrell and Senate sponsor Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said they’re closer to agreement on how many current child-protective investigators would have to get social-work training over the next 5 years — a concern of Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring.

The Senate bill, an earlier version of which would have required 80 percent of new child-protective investigators to have degrees in social work, now simply directs that “[t]he department’s efforts shall be guided by the goal” that by July 1, 2019, at least half of all child-protective investigators and supervisors will have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work from an accredited college or university program.

“It’s a goal,” Sobel said Monday. “We’re leaving some discretion to the department. …Half is a compromise, and it’s a fair number.”

Sobel also said she expects the Senate to at least match the House allocation of $44.5 million in new money for child welfare services.

“I believe we will have funding for mental-health, substance-abuse, parenting and domestic-violence (services),” she said. “As much as I’d like to exceed the House …we’re going to try, but I think they have a good number.”

In January, Gov. Rick Scott recommended spending nearly $40 million on new child-protective investigators, which would lower the average caseload to 10. The House budget would cover that expense, with an additional $4.6 million for such back-end services as substance-abuse and mental health treatment.

It’s far short of what the community-based care agencies told lawmakers they need: $25.4 million.

Former lawmaker Kurt Kelly, president of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the community-based care agencies, has maintained that an influx of new cases would swamp the agencies’ case managers, who are already struggling with high turnover and low pay.

Kelly said the Florida Coalition for Children supports the governor’s request, but that it could backfire without more funding.

“We’re going to be in a real serious crisis,” he said.

Mike Watkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care, said both chambers’ bills focus too much on administration and not enough on services. He recommended a more thoughtful approach, such as a joint legislative panel.

“I specifically would ask that we look at another solution, a broader solution that would evaluate the scheme of DCF going forward — what they’re good at, what they’re bad at, how they can best serve our people on the state of Florida,” Watkins said.

But he acknowledged that because it was so late in the legislative session, and the House and Senate bills were so much alike, that it was probably too late.

Both Harrell and Sobel said their efforts would continue beyond this year.

“It’s not the silver bullet — yet,” Harrell said of her bill. “But this is a long-term project. It’s going to take more than one year to really revamp the department.”

“We need to bring this baby home,” Sobel said. “We need to wrap it up and finally say, ‘This is as much as we can do this year. To be continued.’ ”

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.


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